Since 1994, the name Ruth Reichl has aggravated the angst in the hearts of men and women - especially those who own Big Apple eating establishments.
It should. Reichl, (Rye-shul) the powerful restaurant critic for the New York Times, has so much clout that a simple mention in her "Dining Out" column can make or break a restaurant.She recently penned her memoirs, calling them "Tender at the Bone; Growing Up at the Table." Hungry bibliophiles and gastronomes are savoring every word, as are the mainstream masses hungering for a good read.
We were curious to learn about this already legendary lady who, among other childhood chores, took up cooking to survive her mother's confused kitchen antics. She lived in a commune, eating the leftovers people threw away, was hired as the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Focus and upgraded to the Los Angeles Times.
Since she moved to the prestigious New York Times in 1994, her words have become golden. Two years ago, the James Beard Society awarded her as winner for the Best Newspaper Review or Critique.
"Tender at the Bone" includes some wonderful recipes, and appeals especially to foodies, wilted flower children from the '60s and those who survived the idealistic '70s.
"Everything here is true, but it might not be entirely factual," is the author's introduction to "Tender at the Bone."
Sometimes Reichl's "truth" seems too bizarre to digest. But it's a fact that New York's top food critic spent the majority of each childhood day protecting friends and family from her mother's culinary quirks.
Her mother's poisonous cooking once sent 26 guests to the emergency room to have their stomachs pumped after they ate bacteria-laden food during a UNICEF benefit held at the Reichl home.
Reviews of the book suggest that Ruth's lifelong quest for "the perfect meal" was a knee-jerk reaction to her mother's poisoned food episodes.
Reichl's mother wasn't the nurturing maternal figure one might expect to produce an eminent food critic. She didn't own an apron and didn't cook. But that didn't stop her from experimenting with odd ingredients - usually bargain-priced goods (bads?) she found while marketing (mussels, sea urchins, cactus fruit, lychee nuts).
Miriam Reichl, "taste-blind and unafraid of rot," would "brag about `Everything Stew,' a dish she invented while concocting a casserole out of a 2-week-old turkey carcass," writes Ruth.
Reichl and her graphic-designer father had to cope with the charming, charismatic, yet very difficult woman in their lives. Miriam was more than just a madcap cook who feared no mold. She was manic depressive. Ruth never knew when her mother might go on a cooking spree or a decorating demolition.
Reichl admits that "having to raise myself" wasn't something she would do for her child - but says "it ultimately made me strong."
But there's more! When she was 13, her parents took her to France, where at dinner one evening she "innocently mused aloud that she wished she spoke better French."
Several weeks later Ruth's mother "kidnapped" her from school and flew to Montreal - supposedly for the weekend. It turned out that Miriam had literally taken her daughter at her word - Ruth was put into a school for daughters of French expatriates so she could learn French.
The experience was empty and nauseating for Ruth, but by the end of the semester, she had become fluent in French. She made friends with the daughter of a wealthy French financier who is charmed by her "seemingly inborn taste for fine food." He introduces her to French cuisine.
This particular excerpt is just one of many chapters of negative situations that Reichl eventually turns around - discovering some new cuisine or wonderful food.
What the book doesn't talk about is Reichl's present day-to-day routine. Perhaps in another book. But it's fun to picture this influential restaurant critic in action.
Reichl owns nine wigs - for disguise purposes. She maintains that "they help me have the same kind of experience my readers would have. To go out and be treated as `Ms. Restaurant Critic' is to completely undermine the job."
Luckily, the critic who eats out six dinners and five lunches a week has a high metabolism - she's "short, slender, and with unruly brown hair. She looks younger than her 48 years."
Restaurateurs make it a point to be on the lookout for Reichl. Ever since her column on Le Cirque, the well-known French restaurant, they've increased their "Reichl Watch."
The review, a sort of before and after, told readers about how she was treated when they didn't know who she was vs. after they recognized her.
"The reason I did it for Le Cirque," she says, "is that I'd been coming to New York for years and I'd been treated like dirt there," she revealed.
Reichl continues the "disguised diner" drama. Her wigs are different colors, she has a special wardrobe to hide her identity, and she changes credit cards every six weeks or so - using different names.
"But you know," she says, "they fax the names of the credit cards around to each other."
CLARITHA'S FRIED CHICKEN
2 1/2-to-3-pound chicken, cut up
3 cups buttermilk
2 onions, sliced thin
1 cup flour
3 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
1 cup vegetable shortening
1/4 cup butter
Put chicken pieces in bowl and cover with salt. Let sit for 2 hours. Remove chicken from salt, wash well, and put into a bowl with buttermilk and sliced onions. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Place flour, salt, cayenne, and black pepper in paper bag and shake to combine. Drain chicken one piece at a time and put in bag. Shake to coat thoroughly. Place on waxed paper. Repeat until all chicken pieces are coated. Leave for 1/2 hour to dry out and come to room temperature.
Melt shortening and butter in large skillet over high heat, add chicken pieces, and cover pan. Lower heat and cook 10 minutes. Turn and cook, uncovered, 8 minutes for breasts, 12 minutes for dark meat. Test for doneness by piercing thigh; juices should run clear. Serves 4.
- Each serving contains 1607 calories, 117g fat, 38g carb, 2659mg sodium, 356mg cholesterol.
- From Ruth Reichl
CON QUESO RICE
1 cup black beans
1 1/2 cups white rice, uncooked
1 teaspoon salt
3 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
2 small onions, chopped
1 4-ounce can green chiles, chopped
1 fresh jalapeno, chopped
1 pound jack cheese, shredded
1 pound cottage cheese
Soak beans overnight in water to cover. In morning, drain and cook beans in 4 cups fresh water for about an hour or until tender. Cool. Meanwhile, cook rice: Bring 3 cups of water to boil, add rice and salt, cover and lower heat to simmer. Cook about 20 minutes or until water has evaporated. Cool slightly. Mix rice, drained beans, garlic, onion and chiles in big bowl. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a large casserole. Cover bottom with a layer of the rice-and-bean mixture. Cover with a layer of jack cheese and cottage cheese. Put in another layer of rice and beans, and keep layering until all the ingredients except for the final 1/2 cup of cheese are used up. End with a layer of rice. Bake for 30 minutes. Add final sprinkling of cheese and cook 5 minutes more. Serves 6.
- Each serving contains 457 calories, 25g fat, 25g carb, 1569mg sodium, 73mg cholesterol.
- From Ruth Reichl
MARION'S DEVILED EGGS
4 hard-boiled eggs
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon ballpark mustard
Salt and pepper
Shell eggs, cut carefully in half lengthwise and put yolks into a bowl. Mash the yolks with a fork until they are smooth. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. The mixture should be thick and creamy. Fill each egg white half with the yolk mixture. Grate a bit of pepper on top. Refrigerate until needed. Makes 8 deviled eggs.
- Each serving contains 87 calories, 9g fat, 0g carb, 141mg sodium, 107mg cholesterol.
- From Ruth Reichl
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon rind
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Separate the eggs carefully; if there is the tiniest bit of yolk in the whites they will not beat properly, so be sure to separate them thoroughly and to put the whites into an extremely clean, dry bowl. You will need all of the whites but only 4 yolks. Eggs are easiest to separate when cold, but they are easier to beat at room temperature so do this step first to allow the yolks to warm up.
Butter a 1 1/2-quart souffle mold very well. Throw in a handful of sugar and shake the souffle dish until it has a thin coating of sugar. Shake out excess. Set aside.
Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Add the flour and whisk until well blended. Slowly stir in milk. Cook, stirring, until the mixture has almost reached the boiling point and has become thick and smooth.
Add lemon juice and sugar and cook for 2 minutes more. Remove from heat, add vanilla, and cool slightly.
Add 4 yolks, one at a time, beating to incorporate each one before adding the next. Add lemon rind, then return the pan to the stove and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute more over medium heat. Remove and let cool.
Add a pinch of salt to the 6 egg whites and beat with a clean beater until they form soft peaks. Stir a quarter of the egg whites into the sauce, then carefully fold in the rest.
Pour into the souffle mold and set on the middle rack of the oven. Turn heat down to 400 degrees F. and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the top is nicely browned and the souffle has risen about 2 inches over the top of the dish. Serve immediately. Serves 4-6.
- Each serving contains 222 calories, 11g fat, 22g carb, 183mg sodium, 228mg cholesterol.
- From Ruth Reichl
ALICE'S APPLE DUMPLINGS WITH HARD SAUCE
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cups shortening
1/4 cup ice water
5 apples, peeled and cored
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter
For Hard Sauce:
3/4 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
Dash of salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
To Prepare the Dumplings:
Mix flour with salt. Cut in shortening with two knives until the shortening is the size of peas. Add water slowly until you can gather the dough into a ball with a fork.
Roll out dough and cut into 5 squares. Put an apple in the center of each square.
Mix sugar and cinnamon. Fill the center of each apple with the sugar mixture. Put a dab of butter on top of each. Bring pastry up around the apple to make a package, dabbing edges with a bit of water if necessary to seal. Chill 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake for about 40 minutes or until apples are tender. Serve warm with hard sauce. Serves 5.
To Prepare Hard Sauce:
Cream the butter until soft. Gradually add sugar and salt until creamy and light. Add vanilla and chill. Makes about 1 cup.
- Each apple with sauce contains 1070 calories, 61g fat, 128g carb, 787mg sodium, 81mg cholesterol.
- From Ruth Reichl