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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

BPL Book Discussion: Tender at the Bone

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (Random House Reader's Circle)Back on August 16th, less than 24 hours after I returned from a 3 weeks vacation, I led the BPL book discussion on Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl.  I took wonderful notes, but have been too caught up in unpacking, negotiating a home font invaded by house painters, getting the kids off to another year of school, and working both in the library and on the new book to get this post up.  So my apologies, but here it is.

Tender at the Bone was the first of Ruth Reichl's numerous memoirs and it chronicles her earliest experiences with food. If you don't know who Ruth Reichl is, click here for access to her official site. She does a much better job explaining herself than I would do.

This memoir begins with Reichl as a child in the 1950s and goes into great detail on her relationship with her mentally unstable mother finishing just as she is getting into her first food writing job. One of the ladies summed up the book perfectly by saying that this book is the story of how Reichl "got to be who she is." This memoir is a true slice of life story, and it is only the beginning of the story.

Our discussion mostly revolved around the group sharing their personal food experiences. In fact, whether or not the participants enjoyed the book greatly depended upon their own personal relationship with food. For those who food is only sustenance, the book lacked depth. These readers wanted more details about Reichl and her family and friends. These readers were screaming for more details.  On the other hand, participants who find pleasure in food, enjoy experiencing new food, and see food as more of a social experience, loved the book. We classified the 2 camps as those who eat to live vs. those who live to eat.

Here are some of our more interesting discussion points:
  • We discussed cooking as an art. This led to a discussion of Reichl's earliest food experiences, from attempting to save her mother's dinner guests from food poisoning to her visits to the French family in Montreal for exquisite meals. Reichl was an artist in many senses. It made complete sense to us that her formal education was in art, that she married and artist, and that she became a writer. She both appreciated the art of food, and was quite an artistic genius in the kitchen herself.
  • I asked, "What makes a good cook?" and "What makes a bad cook?" Responses- Good family cooks work together and share what they know. Many bad cooks are lacking in food imagination, but still others are bad only because of their limited knowledge and/or resources.
  • Can you be a terrible cook with a refine palate? Reichl is both a wonderful cook and has an amazingly sensitive and refine palate. We all decided the answer to this question is yes, in our experiences, but we were not convinced that Reichl would agree with us.
  • We talked about some of Reichl's influences as both characters in the story and by how they influenced her. People who came up in detail were her mother (of course), Mrs. Peavy, college friends, workers at the Swallow, Nick from the commune, and Doug (her first husband).
  • How Reichl chose to share the recipes were discussed. As a literary device they worked extremely well. Recipes were always in the middle of a chapter, placed after the central characters or issues were introduced and just before that recipe made a starring role in her life story. It was literally mouthwatering, one participant said, to see how the recipe played out in her story.
  • The act of reading this book makes you remember special recipes of your life. The group shared some of these. This line of discussion then moved into talking about how recipes reflect the social times in which they are made.
  • We were on quite a roll talking about food and memorable recipes and meals we have all had when it dawned on me that I needed to ask the group why people like to talk about food so much. The answer was given succinctly by one member, "Food is Love!"  Food bonds family and friends. It is a universal glue holding the human experience together. Look at the popularity of food tv, food books, and food movies, not to even mention the extreme popularity of culinary mysteries. Food is an experience that moves beyond family and unites us all as humans. It is a common language that brings so much pleasure.
  • We talked about Reichl's luck at being on the cusp of so many food movements: organic food, ethnic food, locavorism, gourmet restaurants for the middle class.  These are all issues and situations with which the vast majority of Americans are familiar. Reichl was able to experience them early on.
  • We discussed this book's humor. It really is an amusing book. Although there are some larger, more serious issues in the book (Civil Rights Movement, mental illness, finding yourself), the overall mood is light, fun, and humorous.
  • We discussed the book's very open ending where Reichl is driving over the Bay Bridge and trying not to let her phobia of bridges consume her. She is working through her anxiety about bridges, literally, and metaphorically. She was beginning a new stage in her life as a food writer and she was moving forward toward both the known and the unknown. People who wanted more liked knowing Reichl had written more memoirs.
  • The title "Tender at the Bone," was also discussed. Literally is a a cooking term, but another participant mentioned that children need tenderness. Reichl was forced to find the tenderness she needed from people and places other than her parents. She got her tenderness and her solidity (her "Bone") from food and those who taught her about food. Food brought structure into her life, even during  the most chaotic times.
  • A member ending the discussion by saying, "how do you show someone you love them? By making them their favorite food."
Readalikes: There are so many food related books, and not just narratives. Many people love to read cookbooks for fun, even those who do not like too cook. In fact, we discussed this, and the ladies for whom this is the case shared their feelings.

So where to begin.  Well, start with your library's cook book section, her is a link to ours.  Thankfully, the Library of Congress has just switched the official subject heading for cookbooks from "cookery" to "cooking," making it much easier to find cook books in the catalog.

You can also go to the Food Network's webpage or this list of culinary mysteries for more ideas.

Some of my favorite nonfiction food centered books have been written by Anthony Bourdain, Mark Kurlansky, and Michale Pollan. All three authors have a completely different style and focus, but together, they provide a wide representation of what is available to readers.

Some recent and well received novels that focus on food and cooking are, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender and The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. For more ideas, here is a list (last updated in 2006) of "Edible Fiction" posted on Fiction-L.

Since we had just recently read and discussed The Glass Castle, many people found the books very similar. We are also going to read another possible readalike, My Life in France by Julia Child, this December.

Happy reading, eating, and cooking. Next month we are reading something completely different.

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