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The Un-Career Woman

Ruth Reichl's mother takes center stage again--this time on her own terms.

Emily Flake

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 4/29/2009

The three memoirs by Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl--1998's Tender at the Bone, 2001's Comfort Me with Apples, and 2005's Garlic and Sapphires--have a generational cast to them. The particulars, of course, are Reichl's alone, but her general trajectory appears natural for a baby boomer: born in 1948 and raised in Greenwich Village with boarding school in Montreal; school in Ann Arbor just in time for severe racial unrest; several years in a Berkeley commune right as Alice Waters' "slow food movement" was kicking off; a move to Los Angeles coincident with the rise of Wolfgang Puck; two marriages and a handful of passionate affairs; and rewriting the stuffy New York Times rule book of which cuisines were genuinely great. Once, it had been French alone; after Reichl, the field was wide open.

There's no greatest-generation smugness in Reichl's books: She's a storyteller first, good with particulars and a precision condenser of events, and when big-book history happens it's usually in the background, shading things. The new Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way (Penguin) is different from its predecessors in many ways. The most obviously noticeable is its size: Tender, Comfort, and Garlic are all standard-sized books of 300 pages or more, while Not Becoming My Mother is essentially an essay packaged as a gift book, the kind that fits in a Christmas stocking--or, the Penguin Press's marketing cheerfully suggests, with a Mother's Day card. At a mere 128 pages--even if you're a slow reader, it doesn't take more than a few hours to finish--it's a kind of extended afterword to the many stories Reichl told in the first two books about her mother, Miriam, whose lack of taste or smell, and subsequent indifference to food, Reichl would define herself against growing up.

Whatever its size, the book's timing is canny. It coincides with the rush of attention toward the upcoming third season of Mad Men, about the dismantling of America's buffed-and-shined self-image during the 1960s, particularly regarding feminism. Miriam Reichl's story, as her daughter tells it, is that of a creatively frustrated woman who was essentially forced out of the workplace where her talents and proclivities belonged, and into a housewife role she had absolutely no talent for. Not Becoming My Mother is one woman's story, but history is clearly in its foreground.

That's partly because many of the book's incidents, and most of the quotes, came from a box of letters--from her mother's belongings--that Reichl opened up on her mother's 100th birthday. If that premise sounds corny, it doesn't read that way. Reichl begins with a classic mom tale--a mad, slapped-together dessert for the young Ruth's Brownies meeting--followed by an admission that when the author's first memoir was published, "I could not keep from thinking that I had betrayed my mother." In the present, she delivers a speech to a women's group about her luck in slipping away from the kind of cloistered life her mother's generation of women were expected to lead: "I have never known so many unhappy people. They were smart, they were educated and they were bored." Reichl vowed not to let it happen to her.

What Reichl discovered in her mother's letters was that, growing up in Cleveland, her mother had vowed the same thing, and got away with it for a time. Miriam's sister, also Ruth, was a beauty who died tragically young; her father, in a stunningly heartless letter, told Miriam, "[Y]ou will have to resign yourself to the fact that you are homely. Finding a husband will not be easy." Once Miriam finished a doctorate in music during an extended stay in Paris, mastering a violin she'd abandon once school was finished, she opened a bookstore and endured her parents' obsession with marrying her off. Eventually, she got hitched to a man in Pittsburgh, had a son, Bob, and was divorced within two years: He wanted someone docile; she, an intellectual sparring partner.

Miriam found a suitable partner in Ruth's father, Ernst, after going to New York alone with baby Bob. The couple collaborated on publishing books, including--incredibly, given her anti-knack for the domestic--a 12-volume set primarily authored by Miriam titled The Homemaker's Encyclopedia. Still, after Ernst went to work as a full-time book designer, she was stymied in her attempts at finding a career, despite her husband's encouragement. Miriam began to switch between manic displays of activity, such as painting the bathroom--including the tub--gold, and periods where she refused to get out of bed for days at a time.

Reichl surveys all this with a deeply empathetic eye--particularly since the woman she's writing about turned out to be so different from the one she thought she knew. Miriam, it turns out, was all too aware of her own eccentricities, brooding over them in letters to friends and herself. She also consciously seeded Ruth with the idea that "it is more important to do interesting work than to shop, cook, and clean." "But she, of course, was not doing interesting work," Reichl notes. "She was shopping, cooking, cleaning." And however ineptly Miriam did those things, her legacy was far more important: "Her struggle with her own mother had shown her that it is important to encourage your children to be themselves, even if they do not turn out to be the people that you wish they were."

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