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Ruth Reichl’s Scalloped Potatoes

My scalloped potatoes, thanks to Ruth Reichl’s recipe.

When I was 15, I had a lucky break.  I mean that in two ways.  Literally, because I broke my foot in a ballet rehearsal for “Paquita.”  As I prepared to execute a pas de chat, the lisfranc ligament in my right foot snapped.  (In retrospect, it was probably because I was also in rehearsals for “Concerto Barocco,” a fabulous Balanchine ballet with a million hops on pointe.)  My leg was stuck in a cast for months.

But I ended up very fortunate.  Instead of spending the summer at Boston Ballet as I had planned, I trekked up to UC Berkeley for studies and a taste of college life.   By then, my foot had healed enough to walk.  I was eager to explore a new city, and Berkeley enchanted me.  The diverse people, bustling streets, sense of history – all with Cal as a hub.  At the same time, I was becoming acquainted with Ruth Reichl. 

My mom had insisted I take along Reichl’s second memoir, Comfort Me With Apples.  The book features the author’s experiences living in Berkeley during the late ’70s and early ’80s as she begins a career as a restaurant critic.  There was one scene that seemed so vivid to my mom – when Reichl suffers a panic attack crossing the Bay Bridge.

I, too, found myself drawn to this character with all her fears and insecurities. Comfort Me With Apples is not only about food.  Nor is it exactly about Reichl.  It’s more of a character study, enriched with gripping storytelling techniques.  As Reichl wrote in the introduction to her first memoir, Tender at the Bone, “I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story.”  She explained:

“Everything here is true, but it may not be entirely factual.  In some cases I have compressed events; in others I have made two people into one.  I have occasionally embroidered.”

And so what?  Reichl saw no reason to be apologetic.  I liked that.  As I began to care about the character, I started to care about food, too.  I remember some good meals in Berkeley that summer.  Ethiopian and Indian on Telegraph.    French sandwiches on Shattuck.  (By the Elephant Pharmacy.)  A gourmet salad bar at the campus cafeteria. Plus a pizza place where I picked up a t-shirt saying “Make pizza not war.”   And let’s not forget the incomparable Chez Panisse, a restaurant with a prominent role in Comfort Me With Apples.  My dinner there seemed magical.

As soon as I got home at the end of the summer, I devoured Tender at the Bone, strengthening my feeling of intimacy with one of the nation’s most accomplished and beloved food writers.  Now, I’m getting to know Reichl not only through her writing but also through her recipes, which have been included in each memoir.   The Scalloped Potatoes recipe from Garlic and Sapphires was irresistible.  Reichl introduced it by writing, “Nobody doesn’t like these.”  And I’d have to agree.

Recently, I’ve become familiar with scores of food writers as compelling and accomplished as Reichl.   And I largely owe this interest to Paquita rehearsals, my broken foot, summer at Berkeley, and Comfort Me With Apples. 

The recipe. / Ruth Reichl, “Garlic and Sapphires”

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