“If enough voices come together at the table, they form a great symphony of experience that expresses what it means to be human”
Apaperback history of cake proved to be the wafer-thin mint for my food writing bookcase. I thought it might just fit, but as I crammed it on to the shelf I heard an awful, menacing creak. The sides of the bookcase had bowed, pulling out screws and leaving its shelves to collapse. My book addiction: 1, Ikea’s finest: 0.
I love reading about food as much as I love cooking it. I am forever browsing bookshops for battered essay collections and obscure histories. It helps that in my day job I write about modern British food history – all the more excuse to find new material.
The best food writing emphasises a fundamental truth – food is never just about what we put in our mouths. It can be about big ideas – history, economics, sociology, psychology, medicine – or the personal and idiosyncratic. Everyone has to eat, but no one eats exactly the same thing. And every dish has a story behind it.
I blame Ruth Reichl for the state of my bookshelves. She started all this. Her first memoir, Tender at the Bone, relates her realisation “that food could be a way of making sense of the world” – an idea that has resonated with me ever since I first read the book. My copy has moved with me from flat to flat, across the Atlantic and back again.
Reichl was born in 1948 and grew up on the East Coast, coming of age with the American food revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. She was the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and then the New York Times through the 1990s, before becoming editor of Gourmet magazine for a decade until its closure in 2009.
Tender at the Bone covers Reichl’s first 30 years. It reads as a foodie fairy-tale, with various godmothers and godfathers opening her eyes to the pleasures of the table. A housekeeper shows her how to make wienerschnitzel, just the way her dad likes it. A French classmate’s wealthy father introduces her to the joys of foie gras, chartreuse of partridge, and sweetbreads. Later, a senior waitress at her first restaurant job teaches Reichl to make vinaigrette by tasting over and over until she can mix the correct proportions blind. These stories are romantic, but Reichl’s voice is never sickly – there’s always an underlying enthusiasm that keeps you on her side, excited to see what she discovers next.
As in all fairytales, a shadow hangs over the story. Reichl’s mother suffered from bipolar disorder, which made home life uncertain – and at times chaotic. She also had a cast-iron stomach and a superhuman tolerance for mould. Reichl’s descriptions of the dodgy dishes her mother concocted teeter between funny and grim. Reichl learns to tolerate eating badly cooked and spoiled food, but she acts as “The Guardian of the Guests”, discreetly saving her favourite people from particularly poisonous dishes. This role continues into early adulthood, as she learns to use her growing cooking skills to offer comfort as well as sustenance. But the insecurity of her childhood continues to haunt her. Finding the confidence to write – about food – is how she finally starts to understand who she is and what she wants.
When I read Tender at the Bone, I think about the people who made me the eater and the writer that I am. I think of my father’s father, a bon vivant who gave 12-year-old me my first oyster on the half shell. I think of my German grandmother’s stash of chocolate-dipped marzipan and Guylian hazelnut seashells – European sweetness that tasted exotic on my American tongue. I think of my father taking me out for my first whitetablecloth meal aged eight, and being as mesmerised by the elegant dance of formal service and as I was by the chocolate peanut butter ice-cream pie.
After university, I spent seven years in the UK, and I can almost taste peppery haggis, the spice and fire of single malt whisky, and lush, honeyed greengages as I write from my desk in California now. In a new country, food offered me a way in – I could start long conversations about what my new friends grew up eating and learn more about where they came from.
Brillat-Savarin is often considered the original food writer; his aphorism “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are” is a bit general, but if enough voices like Reichl’s come together at the table, they form a great symphony of experience and memory that expresses what it means to be human. And here my story begins.