The Epistolary Memoir: A Recipe for Success

Reading Tender at the Bone, it is obvious that author Ruth Reichl used food—and cooking—as a coping mechanism throughout childhood and early adulthood, so it comes as no surprise that she peppers this memoir with recipes that reflect her relationships with the narrative’s key characters.

The first recipe appears on page 7, immediately following the introduction of Reichl’s mother, Miriam. The bizarreness of the entrée, “Miriam Reichl’s Corned Beef Ham,” underscores the mother’s bizarre antics. Though the author hasn’t officially told the reader of her mother’s psychiatric illness, she includes this recipe early in the narrative to communicate loud and clear to the reader: My mother wasn’t normal. Reichl waves this red flag before readers get too attached to the mother character, relate to her or—based on their own maternal experience—project endearing traits that did not truly belong to Miriam.

Later, when Reichl does reveal her mother’s bipolar diagnosis, she includes a recipe for lemon soufflé. This complicated dish is quite a metaphor for Reichl’s relationship with her mother. “Separate eggs carefully; if there is the tiniest bit of yolk in the whites they won’t beat properly.” (53) This line foreshadows some of the complications that arise when Reichl chooses to separate herself from her mother by moving to Michigan and, later, California. Recipe lines such as, “almost reached the boiling point” could no doubt apply to the author’s emotions, and “stirring constantly” parallels the mother’s need for constant attention (53). Moreover, lemon soufflé is decadent and dramatic, like Reichl’s mother. In spite of the delicate precision required of the cook, the soufflé is pure delight to the dinner guest. This is life with Reichl’s mother. The author’s friend Jeanie is often watching with jealousy, envious of Reichl’s adventures with her mother. When the mother shows up at school announcing a spontaneous trip to Montreal: “‘Wow,’ said Jeanie, wistfully, ‘lucky you.’” (54) From her vantage point, life with Reichl’s mother looked like constant fun. To Reichl, it was a complicated recipe.

When the author turns rebellious and begins exploring her sexuality in high school, the recipes morph into more playful, cheeky metaphors. “Devil’s Food Cake” and “Seven-Minute Frosting” appear just before the author wakes up, hungover, in a teenage boy’s arms. Recipe phrases such as “shrinks slightly from the sides” and “springs back when touched gently in the center,” have highly erotic tones in this context (75-76).

In the latter pages of the book, we find “Sauerbraten for Doug and Dad,” a recipe that is characterized by waiting, not unlike her relationship with her father. Instructions like “Let stand in refrigerator 3 to 4 days…reserving liquid…simmer 2 ½ hours…set aside” (172) foreshadow the slow-coming changes in her relationship with her father. A few pages later, the father reveals his personal stories to the author for the first time, by sharing long-muted details about his childhood and career with the author’s soon-to-be husband.  This marks a distinct turning point in the family dynamic; her father responds differently to her mother now. For example, he doesn’t jump when the mother brings home a half-broken library table that she thinks he should restore, and then he shocks everyone by immediately overruling the mother’s dinner plans. Several chapters later, at her father’s behest, Reichl likewise tames her mother’s mania by refusing to enable it as the family prepares for Aunt Birdie’s 100th birthday party.

Reichl’s decision to include recipes in her story was not driven by nostalgia, nor is it a kitsch marketing ploy to snag readers familiar with her work at Gourmet and the New York Times. Rather, these specific recipes, revealed at just the right times in the narrative, add a rich layer to Reichl’s delicious storytelling. They are like dessert—they aren’t necessary, but they sure make the meal more enjoyable!

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