Saturday, July 27, 2019

Comfort Me with Apples: a very short review

Ruth Reichl's marvelous Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table somewhat defies categorization.

It's primarily a memoir, part of a longer series that includes her earlier Tender at the Bone and her later Garlic and Sapphires and Save Me the Plums (none of which I've read).

It's also sort-of a cookbook. At least, there are actual recipes in it (none of which I've tried, although I'm itching to try both her approach to asparagus as well as a peculiar little tidbit she calls "Swiss Pumpkin" which sounds absolutely marvelous but must be made in January).

And it's definitely full of wonderful tales about celebrities of the (1980's) food world: private meals in Alice Waters's house, tagging along with Wolfgang Puck behind the scenes as he prepares to open Chinois on Main, etc.

And does she ever have stories to tell! Exciting stories from her trips around the world, hilarious tales and scandalous gossip from the heady world of California grand cuisine, warm and emotional insights into her family and her personal life, all of it written in a comfortable and appealing style that makes every page fun to read.

What struck me most about Comfort Me with Apples, however, was how vividly it arose from a very specific time and place: California in the late 1970's and early 1980's was very distinctive and awash with change. The Vietnam War was over, the oil crisis had passed, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and people were moving to California by the millions, drawn by the state's natural beauty and booming economy, attracted by visions of surfers and skateboarders and popular TV shows like CHiPs, Hart to Hart, Baywatch, and the like.

Meanwhile Berkeley was (and still is) a very unusual place, full of fervor and protest and change, and Reichl's descriptions of her life there capture the time wonderfully:

Doug wanted to make art, I wanted to write, and we moved to Berkeley so we could live cheaply and not become part of what we called the success machine. We steered clear of the stuff of ordinary existence, the clothes and cars and furniture that other people spent their money on. We chose a communal household on Channing Way because the rent was forty-five dollars a month and we could support ourselves with part-time jobs. I cooked in a restaurant; Doug did carpentry. We bought our clothes in thrift stores, borrowed our books from the library, and thought of a night at the movies as a major treat.

I'm not sure if I'll ever find the time to read Reichl's other books, but I certainly enjoyed every page of Comfort Me with Apples.

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