Ellie told me I could borrow hers. But with all the compulsion of a shoplifter I picked up the copy of “Comfort Me With Apples” by Ruth Reichl and headed to the register at Half Price Books. For $1 it would be mine. I could bend pages, put it in my purse, let it collect dust on my bedside table and not worry about it. This has got to end one day, this buying of books. For now I will make space on the shelf for Ruth’s book, which I liked very much.
Many nights, when I woke up and the clock said 2:30, and my mind would not rest, I grabbed it, tiptoed into the living room to snuggle on the sofa and trade the words in my head for hers. Her voice was like that of a good friend, and she and I were up late. She sharing intimate details, spilling the beans, as they say, and me being a good listener. I could see her face, sometimes smiling, or sad, or ugly and hung over. She revealed to me not only what she did but exposed the true essence of who she was, not worrying about whether I would still love her in the end.As Ruth told her story, my own thoughts let go and my body would soften, eyelids droop. I would fold the page corner and float softly back to bed so as not to wake myself. “Don’t worry, Ruth, I’ll be back tomorrow. Just pick up where you left off. I want to hear it all, I really do.”
First, I want to say that not once in the whole book was Ruth comforted with apples. She was comforted with pumpkins, apricots, asparagus and lemons, but never with apples. Throughout the book she shared recipes of food she has made or food others made; chosen, I suppose, for their significance in the story she was telling of her life. Because of the title, though, I turned each page with anticipation of a good story about apples and an accompanying recipe for pie, or crisp or crumble. But no.
Interestingly, little tart that she was, Ruth was comforted with sex. On page after page Ruth described her forays, trysts, and relationships in the kind of detail that definitely stimulates your appetite, but not for food.
Some women give off a scent, and it is not of baking apples. Ruth is such a woman. So much so that dinner with a group of friends and a new acquaintance lead to an abrupt excuse to leave the table and have the last course in the elevator with this previously unknown man. Geez, Ruth, I’ve never tried that dish-sounds delicious, though.
Ruth’s sleuth-like palate, as well as her serious and loving appreciation of food, was the current that took her to the many exotic places she visited, to the people she met, and to what she did to earn a living. When reading her memoir, though, you see how unplanned it was. As for many of us, her life meandered from one city to another, one job to the next. Her road led her to a waitressing in Berkeley to a landing a position as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times. Through it all, she reveals that she was, at times, more than a little lost. In the telling of her story, she conveyed the most universal theme; one of putting one foot in front of the other, lost or not, sometimes, when it took draining effort to do so.
After becoming a critic, her descriptions of food ultimately gained her fame and recognition. And it’s not easy to describe how something smells and tastes. It smells like itself and it tastes that way too. But what if your reader has never tasted that? What if you want them to want to? You are challenged to find creative, interesting ways to give them a taste with nothing more than paper and ink. As much as I know Ruth loved food in the deep intimate that many of us do, when I read Ruth’s descriptions of food and cooking, though, they were, for me, a little unreal. Like the lemon souffle “collapsing onto itself with a fragrant sigh.” It was a different voice that the one that told me about her first affair “I felt vulnerable, foolish and frightened, and by the time I got the courage to call back my hands were shaking.”
Through the pages she does not attempt to convey that she is an extraordinary cook. She also paints the picture of herself as an accidental critic. As a memoirist, she is an ace. It takes courage to tell your story without watering it down. Along with the haughty job titles and famous people she met she did some crude, unflattering things in her life. But she does not expose her imperfections to take you down the path to her redemption. What she tells is real and without apology. She serves up the raw meat of the matter like a friendly but slightly cranky waitress who isn’t worried about whether you will like it or leave a tip.