Not Becoming My Mother and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way
By Ruth Reichl
Penguin Press, 112 pages, $19.95
When Ruth Reichl was restaurant critic for The New York Times in the mid-to-late 1990s, people hated her unprecedented democratization of the post: how she awarded two stars to noodle shops with crummy décor; how she described herself and fellow diners “moaning” over food as if they were at three-ways instead of four-tops; even her famously theatrical and, let’s face it, rather eccentric disguises. (Was it really necessary for her to dress up like her late mother, Miriam, to go undercover at “21”—or some kind of weird Psycho-esque exercise?)
But now that she is editor of Condé Nast’s Gourmet, arguably the best non-geeky food magazine in the biz, the royal Reichl can do no wrong. And should S. I. Newhouse’s cleaver ever fall her way, she has developed a thriving sideline as a memoirist. There was Tender at the Bone, which movingly explained how little Ruth developed her palate and later overcame a crippling gephyrophobia. There was Comfort Me With Apples, in which she moaned over a lot more than foie gras (one male wag of my acquaintance dubbed it Tender to Bone). And then Garlic and Sapphires, a somewhat slighter account of the Incognito Years at The Times.
This month Ms. Reichl stretches her contribution to the genre even further, into 100-odd double-spaced pages, really more of an Oprah-friendly “inspirational” personal essay (an ’emoir?) than a book. And yet it is no less satisfying than her earlier efforts; in many ways richer and more essential, like—is it possible to write about food writers without food metaphors?—the broth from a long-simmered sauerbraten.
The erratic, judgmental Miriam was kind of a punching bag in the previous memoirs, and here her daughter attempts to give her fuller voice, thanks to a box of letters and papers discovered, with suspiciously dramatic convenience, in a be-twined B. Altman box in the basement. “Mim,” the plainer of two sisters, wanted to be a doctor, but her saloniste parents feared it would make her un-marriageable; so she got a degree in musicology, opened a bookshop and began a correspondence with the philosopher Bertrand Russell. There was an unhappy first marriage, to a guy named Ernest, and then a second one, to Ruth’s father, named (no joke) Ernst. Though more enduring, this arrangement also chafed. Lacking any natural domestic inclinations whatsoever, Mim fritters away her days on passive-aggressively slapdash entertaining attempts. (“Who cares about menus and the way they are cooked when there are so many more interesting things to think about?” she complains to a friend.) Eventually, like so many women of that era, she turns to “the dolls” and dissolution. Ruth’s own eventual early marriage and (quite understandable) forays into the field of cookery are regarded with scorn and put-downs.
At first the daughter’s descent into this emotionally laden subterranean storage space seems like a treacly attempt to “resolve” the most difficult relationship of her life in time for Mother’s Day 2009 and the front racks of Barnes & Noble. But with the accumulation of small, careful details, Not Becoming morphs into a gemlike feminist manifesto: urging women not to let their looks define them, to insist upon a career outside the home and to let their children be who they are. There may be no better or simpler recipe for female happiness in American life today.
Alexandra Jacobs is editor at large of The Observer. She can be reached at email@example.com.