Pen Palates

It’s only appropriate that the title of Ruth Reichl’s latest book comes from that horniest of biblical texts, the Song of Songs, because Comfort Me With Apples is as much about sex and love as it is about food. This is just as well: As Reichl herself observes with characteristic orneriness – she was the famously controversial restaurant critic for the Times and is currently the editor-in-chief of Gourmet – “Food all by itself is really boring to read about.” I’m no foodie, but even if you’re one of those people who fusses over the size of the sesame seeds on your bread sticks, you have to admit that she has a point: Like sex, taste is so intensely subjective, so personal, that only really good writing can make it interesting to mere bystanders. As it happens, Reichl’s interweaving of cuisine and autobiography (her second after the bestseller Tender at the Bone) is being published the same week as cookbook author Susan Herrmann Loomis’s memoir of how she came to live in a small Normandy town. Although they have a great deal in common (and real cooks won’t fail to notice that the eponymous fruit of Reichl’s title is the key ingredient in the tart in Loomis’s), these two prose narratives by prominent gourmands represent opposite extremes of the spectrum in food writing.

Both authors have good stories to tell. (And both use the same narrative tactic, intertwining the stories of their evolution as lovers of food with recipes for meals described in the text.) The New York-bred Reichl started out in the late seventies as a Berkeley resident living, inevitably, in a communal apartment with a bunch of vegetarians who considered fine restaurants to be “decadent” and “bourgeois.” “Let me get this straight,” a bushy-bearded roommate says when she gets her first real job. “You’re going to spend your life telling spoiled, rich people where to eat too much obscene food?”

Luckily for us all, that’s precisely what she did, traveling to Paris and China and Thailand and Spain in order to educate her palate, befriending such restaurant greats as Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck back in the early eighties, when American food was undergoing revolutionary changes, and yet never losing her commune-bred suspiciousness of restaurant-world pretensions that were often more haute than the cuisine. (When she first started at the Times, she memorably ran a double review of Le Cirque, that reflected on the wildly divergent treatment she received before and after the management realized who she was.) Despite her breezy tone, there’s an underlying tartness that gives Reichl’s narrative a satisfying complexity. Subtly but effectively, she contrasts the story of the education of her senses with that of the gradual disintegration of her marriage to her first husband, an artist named Doug. (Not to worry: Eventually she finds true love and manages to get pregnant in her forties.)

Loomis, too, tells the story of a young naïf who conquers a rarefied world. On Rue Tatin also begins around 1980, with the twentysomething Loomis arriving in Paris to serve for a year as a stagiaire, an apprentice at a cooking school for English-speaking students. The rest of the book goes on to describe the author’s good-humored attempts to install herself, her artist husband, and their small son in a remote French village; a process that, as we have all learned by now from Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and its numerous imitations (many of them by Mayle himself), requires subtle insights into the convoluted psychology of her Gallic neighbors, to say nothing of stove construction, painting and plastering, and the finer points of not always endearingly bizarre French property laws. (The mean priest who lives next door has the legal right to traipse through the Loomises’ yard whenever he likes.) By the end, of course – more shades of Mayle here – the author and her family are adored by nearly everyone in Louviers. And here, too, there’s a luscious narrative dessert in the form of a much-hoped-for pregnancy after the author has turned 40.

But parallel though these two cholesterol-saturated lives may be, Reichl’s and Loomis’s books couldn’t be more different. “I have this idea that I could write reviews that were like short stories,” Reichl writes at the beginning of her book, and the 300 swiftly moving pages that follow amply testify to a real writerly gift. (You have no trouble believing that her first ambition was to write novels.) The author knows how to convey mood and setting with efficient, sometimes really poetic strokes: At one point, when she abjectly follows a lover to Paris, she arrives at the Gare du Nord, where “the black train hunched its back like a malevolent cat and hissed angrily at me.” That’s good, but even better are the descriptions of food. A truffle “tasted the way a forest smells in autumn when the leaves are turning colors and someone, far off, is burning them.” Turning her attention to less exalted meals (the true test of a food writer, perhaps), she describes eating a flawless plate of scrambled eggs as being “like biting off a piece of the sun.”

Loomis, on the other hand, merely bites off more than she can chew. There’s a winning earnestness to her book – she clearly loves her husband and child and the town she’s chosen to live in – but her prose is clunky and artless. This best-selling author of numerous cookbooks may live in France and rave about the superiority of French fruits and vegetables and meats to their American counterparts (that old chestnut), but the descriptions of food and foodstuffs, ironically, remind you of nothing so much as the produce she disdains: big, but oddly flavorless. She has this to say about a sorbet: “The red currant was vivid, like a giant red currant.”

And unlike Reichl’s delicately constructed narrative, Loomis’s lurches from incident to incident – looking for a stove, swimming in a lake, and shopping at the local mini-market – without any sense of an overriding structure or point, save that they happened and they justify the (very appetizing-looking) recipes at the back of each chapter. Unfortunately, there’s much more than a dash of slovenly writing here: confusing chronological jumps, information given twice, and a sufficient number of other glitches to make me wonder whether the editors at Broadway Books had been engaging in some memorable culinary adventures of their own – primarily involving olives at the bottom of martini glasses.

That’s too bad for Loomis: All great cooking starts with flawless technique, and I couldn’t help thinking that with a bit more slicing and dicing, her book could have been a lot better. As it stands, it’s Comfort Me With Apples that reminds you of a really great meal, well balanced and well seasoned, leaving you satisfied and yet somehow wanting more. On Rue Tatin, a lumpy, rather flavorless stew in which clichés float like stale croutons, will leave you craving only Maalox.

Comfort Me With Apples
By Ruth Reichl
306 pages; Random House; $24.95.
On Rue Tatin
By Susan Herrmann Loomis
306 pages; Broadway Books; $24.

Pen Palates