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Ruth Reichl Dishes Up Her Mother's Secret Desires

When people ask best-selling food writer and Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl why she works so hard, Reichl replies, "Because I can." Then she thinks of her mother, Miriam, who was not allowed to work.

Reichl's new memoir, Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way, is a brutal, wistful — eventually loving — account of her spirited, deeply frustrated mother.

Based on letters and scraps of Miriam's diaries and notes, the book tells the story of a woman who was born in 1908 and who was defined by her times.

"My mother's father was a doctor, and she desperately wanted to be a doctor," Reichl tells Susan Stamberg. But "her parents said, 'You're not pretty. ... You're going to have a hard enough time finding a husband. Forget the idea of being a doctor. No man will ever marry you.' "

So Miriam lived a life of frustration and boredom, haunted by ambitions she could never realize.

"She sat around the house being completely frustrated and miserable," Reichl says. "As I went through her letters, I watched this bright spirit just dwindle and get sadder and sadder."

Unlike her daughter, Miriam was not interested in cooking: "She would open up the refrigerator, take out a bowl and say, 'A little mold never hurt anyone,' and scrape it off the top," Reichl says.

Reichl eventually learned that her mother was mentally ill. Miriam saw dozens of psychiatrists and took countless medications.

As Reichl got older, she tried to distance herself from her mother: "One of my earliest memories is putting my key in the lock of the apartment and praying that she wouldn't be home."

When Reichl's father died, Miriam began to do as she pleased. She opened up her home to local kids, which prompted Reichl and her brother to think of their mother as "a crazy old bat."

Miriam died in 1991 at age 83, and Reichl says going through her mother's letters and diaries forced her to reevaluate her understanding of the woman.

"What was so extraordinary to me abut going through this box of my mother's letters and diaries was meeting my mother not as my mother, but as a real person," Reichl says. "And what breaks my heart is that I had no idea how self-aware she was, and how protective of me she was."

Reichl says Miriam sacrificed her daughter's respect to set an example: "She kept saying, 'Don't be like me. I am not a model.' ... She did it because she saw a vision of what life for a woman could be, and she wanted that for me."

Now, Reichl says, she understands who her mother was, and she's grateful for that person. She says her memoir is an opportunity to present Miriam to the world as the "difficult, bright — but enormously loving and generous — person that she was."

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