It was my turn to suggest a book for my (Jewish) book group. What constitutes a Jewish book group? What is Jewish writing? Subject for another diatribe. We read all manner of books that address Jewish themes, and yes discussions can get very lively.
Choices so far have addressed, history, philosophy and other serious matters. However irreverence is always my preferred position so my one and only choice so far is Ruth Reichl’s first memoir, Tender at the Bone. Reichl is best known as the intrepid and universally feared critic for the NY Times. Reichl is truly deserving of the title ‘legend’. Reichl become so well known, she took to elaborate disguise to maintain the integrity of her reviews – sadly our most widely read reviewers these days are well known celebrities.
She’s such an smart and funny writer, particularly loved by this female for her revelations of the poor treatment meted out to women diners, particularly those eating alone. If we solitary women diners (gorgeous young gals excepted) are no longer shoved to a table next to the loo or on the fire-stairs, we have Reichl to thank.
Tender at the Bone, covers young Ruth’s early years and her attempts to prevent her mentally ill mother food poisoning her guests. Sad and traumatic no doubt, her retelling is however hilarious but also reminiscent of my own childhood. I’m not saying that my mother was mentally ill or that she fed her family and friends rancid food. Rather that it was a different age, with very different attitudes to hygiene. The result was, I do believe, hardier guts.
I offer myself as exhibit A. My mother once proudly claimed, well more than once: “all my children have eaten from the dog’s bowl at some point”. No it wasn’t that she encouraged us but my Mum was less than fixated on cleanliness. Hers was a more easy-going and totally unpretentious approach to life. The home was not a hospital; it was for living in, not display.
Like most children of the depression Mum abhorred waste and there were frequent attempts to “move” some food item before it went any further on its bin-ward journey. Mum’s sweets and biscuits were legendary but it was best not to enquire as to their provenance. Mum believed that there was very little that couldn’t be recycled or improved by dipping in chocolate. Her children knew better than to ask. The words “I’d love the recipe” still strike fear in my heart.
Use-by dates were already the vogue back then but the sniff test was considered more reliable. So I will now most unscientifically claim that the three of us have iron guts. Let me be clear: I’m not speaking here of food allergies here because I know I’m blessed not to have any, except for a little weird itchiness brought on by unripe pineapple, excess acidity I suppose. And I’m certainly not about to victim blame or suggest too much is made of allergies. I don’t believe the entire population should avoid gluten but I know coeliac is real, as are a raft of other allergies.
I’m not suggesting you feed your children from the dog’s bowl but our fixation with the use of toxic cleansers has to be a worry. The alternative seems to be hideously expensive ENJO style cleaning implements. Smarter folks are reprising vinegar, bicarb and other effective time-honoured cleaning products.
Back to my belly. You may wonder why, given that I don’t make a habit of eating putrid food, I know I have iron guts? Well that would be on the basis of three trips to India. The first involved the theft of all my money and documents (by westerners it should be noted – yea verily I was naïve). This meant that I took one spectacular and penniless trip hitching rides on trucks across half the continent. I had no money for bottled water. By the end of the trip I was drinking the same well water as the locals.
My Mum met me later during that trip and her diary states: ” Flit eats everything!” And in truth I did eat from street stalls. But I wasn’t crazy – I ate only what was freshly cooked not the pre-cooked piled high samosas crawling with flies.
It could be argued that I was just lucky but I think that bit-by-bit my tummy became acclimatised. So much so that after 3 weeks travelling with my mother and her credit card, I began to gain weight, some 3 kilos eventually. No-one else I have ever met or spoken to has gained weight in India.
So Mum, I don’t think you should have left the dog’s bowl within reach, but this omnivore is grateful nevertheless.