What I’m Reading: Coming to My Senses

One of the first memoirs I read was the first of Ruth Reichl’s three, Tender at the Bone. I was immediately entranced and quickly inhaled her other two, Comfort Me With Apples and Garlic and Sapphires, followed by her 2014 novel Delicious! Reichl went on to be an incredibly important figure in food media, and her memoirs were written through that lens; we already knew where the story ended so she was showing us how she got there. The recent memoir of another important figure in the food world, Alice Waters’s Coming to My Senses, was also very interesting, but in a very different way.

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Anyone who chooses to pick up Waters’s memoir knows who she is: the owner of the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, the mother of the farm-to-table movement in the US. Waters knows that all her readers know this, so she takes quite a while to get there in the book. Instead, she weaves in passages (in italics) throughout the book talking about how the events she just narrated influenced something she did or a decision she made at the restaurant later. I found myself enjoying this technique by the end of the book, but at the beginning it threw me a little. I felt like I needed some basic knowledge about her life before I even opened the book that I didn’t have, and I never truly felt like I had my feet under me as I was reading. The other reason for that was that if you took those italicized passages out, I couldn’t really find a through-line in the chronological narrative of the book. So if a significant number of pages passed between them, I forgot whose story I was reading.

Now, that’s not to say that the story I was reading was not entertaining. Waters did what she wanted when she wanted, following her heart and her instincts and not worrying much about anything else. Something that fascinates me about memoirs is the idea that one person can lead multiple unique lives. It’s an idea that scares me when I think about it in relation to my own life, but I find it very interesting to read about, and Waters led one of these lives. During and after college she worked for a political campaign. Then she decided to become a Montessori teacher and moved to Europe for a year to train in the method, only to quit teaching just a year or two after returning. When she finally opened the restaurant, she did so with a group of people who were just as inexperienced in that particular business as she was. The beauty and possibility of reinvention is incredibly inspirational, and it definitely came through here.

If you’re expecting a food memoir that isn’t what you are going to get with this book. It isn’t until the last chapter or two that she actually decides to open the restaurant and not until the last 20 pages or so that it actually opens. And even then, we only get a glimpse of that first hectic and harried dinner service. What you do get with this book is an honest story of personal discovery, of a women driven by her desires in a way that is worthy of emulating by anyone in any profession with any passion, in a book that is worthy of reading.

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