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Stirring Up the Pot

November 19, 2009 By:
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In addition to once being the New York Times restaurant reviewer and then the editor of the fabled -- but recently dismantled -- Gourmet magazine, Ruth Reichl is best known for her memoirs Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples. These books tell of her relationship to food and family; and, especially in the former, she told in detail about the troubled interplay she'd had with her mother.

These works are beloved by many readers. I can understand why; they are often charming and humorous, though they seem to me self-absorbed in the extreme and not quite properly balanced.

And I always thought her mother got a raw deal, since she was never mean to her talented daughter, just eccentric and unwilling to bend to certain domestic tyrannies. Perhaps more to the point, even a negative influence can do good.

Now, thanks to her most recent memoir, Not Becoming My Mother, which is far briefer than its predecessors, the slight to the woman who gave her birth has been rectified. The title alone should win some sort of prize. And if there's any justice in the world, this moving remembrance, published by the Penguin Press, should become a small feminist classic.

In these pages, Reichl makes no bones about how badly she treated her mother, and that the poor woman deserved better. In fact, that's the premise of her book in brief, from the dedication onward: "For you, Mom. Finally."

Gobbled Up the Goop
Reichl's mother's name was Miriam, but most people called her Mim; and she was "such a character" that when the author was a child she developed what she called the "Mim Tale." She begins her book by telling one.

Her mother is rushing Ruth around their small New York City apartment because once again they are going to be late for an appointment. "This is nothing new," writes Reichl. "My mother is incapable of arriving anywhere on time." However, Mim has just become the leader of Ruth's Brownie troop, and she's got to be on time.

Just as they get out the door, Mim remembers that she's forgotten the snack. Ruth is beside herself, warning that this can't be. They don't have time to shop so they re-enter the apartment, and Mim insists that her daughter help her "find something delicious." Ruth states flatly that they don't have anything, but her mother calls that "nonsense."

Writes Reichl: "She surveys the contents [of the refrigerator] with a gimlet eye and gingerly extracts a bowl. It is covered with bright blue fuzz, but she carefully scrapes this off, murmuring, 'This must be that chocolate pudding I made last month.' She pokes in a finger, tastes tentatively and says triumphantly, 'What a good start!' "

Mim and Ruth notice that there isn't much left of the pudding, no matter what shape it's in, but Mim says that she's going "to stretch it. See what you can find in the cupboard." From its shelves, Ruth pulls out "a box of pretzels, a few prunes, a bag of very stale marshmallows and a jar of strawberry jam." Mim is delighted, as Ruth also finds a can of peaches.

"As I watch, Mom mixes the jam into the not very moldy chocolate pudding and adds the prunes. 'Break those pretzels into little pieces,' she commands, 'while I chop up the marshmallows and slice the peaches. This is going to be delicious!'

"Three minutes later she is wiping her hands. 'Let's go,' she says."

Ruth demands that they take plates, but Mim shoves a dozen soupspoons into her coat pocket, saying blithely, "The girls will think it's such fun to eat right out of the bowl!" To the young Ruth's surprise, her mother was absolutely right, for the girls "happily gobble[d] up the goop."

After her triumph, Mim says, "See, I told you. A little mold never hurt anyone!"

According to Reichl, she has Mim stories by the dozen and has used them over the years to entertain her friends. She admits here that, as a writer, she was always aware of how lucky she was to have this kind of material at her fingertips, and for the opening of Tender at the Bone she used a story about how her mother accidentally poisoned a couple of dozen people at a party.

Mim did do this, writes the author, but it doesn't mean she wanted the world to know it. Telling stories to friends is one thing; publishing a book that draws on the material is another. Reichl says that when she finally held a copy of her first book in her hands, she felt as if she'd betrayed her mother. "It was not a good feeling," she writes.

Reichl says that she knew that there was a box somewhere filled with her mother's diaries and letters, and she was determined to find it. Mim had always wanted to write a book about her life, and Reichl decided she should be the one to do it, using her mother's papers. She owed her that much, she states, since Mim helped her "become the person that I am."

Mim didn't do it in any of the ordinary ways. "She was not a great writer, or a great businesswoman, or even, if truth be told, a particularly good mother. I think she tried to be a good wife, but she wasn't much at keeping house, and I don't think I've ever met anyone who was a worse cook.

"But my mother was a great example of everything I didn't want to be, and to this day I wake up every morning grateful that I'm not her. Grateful, in fact, not to be any of of the women of her generation, who were unlucky enough to have been born at what seems to me to have been the worst possible time to have been a middle-class American woman."

Reichl's book is told by way of her mother's life and aspirations, most of which were thwarted. Mim had wanted to be a doctor, like her father. But when she announced her plans, Reichl says that her parents looked their daughter up and down, and said, " 'You're no beauty, and it's too bad you're such an intellectual. But if you become a doctor no man will ever marry you.' So Mom got a Ph.D. in musicology." Then she opened a bookshop. It may not have been medicine, writes her daughter, but it made her happy.

And she did marry, but not until she was 30 -- late enough that the word "spinster" was being whispered behind her back. After the wedding, everybody expected her to give up the bookshop and settle down, have some babies.

But, writes Reichl, "[i]n earlier times keeping house had been a full-time job, even for those with servants, but by the time Mom married so many labor-saving devices had been introduced that cooking and cleaning just didn't take that long. My mother, like most of her friends, literally had nothing to do."

Reichl states that she has never known so many unhappy people. Smart and educated, they were bored. Some did charity work, but it didn't fulfill them. "Their misery was an ugly thing, and it was hard on their families. It was a terrible waste of talent and energy, and watching them I knew that I was never going to be like them."

Watching her father return home each evening, she realized the secret to his comparative "health" was work. Reichl realized at an early age that she had to make it her secret, too.

This is the crux of Not Becoming My Mother. After Reichl finds the box of her mother's papers, she discovers a woman she never really knew who had to surmount countless barriers to be any kind of individual at all. This testament to her strength and bravery is a little gem with wide-ranging implications for us all. 

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