Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen

Marian Bull at n+1:

IN A 2013 AFTERWORD to the combined reprint of her memoirs Comfort Me with Apples and Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl reflects back on writing the latter: “When I was writing Tender at the Bone, the food memoir didn’t exist. . . . As I was trying to think about telling my story through food, it occurred to me that the recipes could function the way photographs did in other people’s books.” While MFK Fisher, Julia Child, Elizabeth David, and other 20th-century food writers had dabbled in autobiography, the 21st-century food memoir owes itself to Reichl, whose 1998 bestseller created a template and boom market for others like it. The book traces her evolution as a person through the food she cooked and ate as a child, then as a teenager, then as a young woman, each chapter’s lesson or metaphor punctuated with a recipe. From the first chapter, food is a cipher for emotion and personality; recipes refract a time, a place, a feeling. While some people may look back at a photo album to remember their own emotional history, Reichl conjures up a lifetime of meals.

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