Wrestling With Gravy — A life, with food
By Jonathan Reynolds. Random House, New York. hard cover, $25.95.
It isn’t clear from his book whether Jonathan Reynolds is an Arkansas native or merely spent some of his very early youth here, but one of the book’s funniest scenes occurs here.
His mother and father were already estranged — this was back in the mists of World War II — and Mom had to trick Dad, who was already fabulously rich and gallivanting happily about the world, into returning to Arkansas so she could serve divorce papers on him, thereby obliging him to fling a few family support shekels in the direction of Blytheville, where she and her particular batch of Reynolds young ’uns were huddled temporarily in genteel Delta want.
She pulled it off, got him here somehow and got him served, and certainly Dad never missed or even resented any of the money it cost him. He might even have admired her ingenuity in the matter.
But the turn of fortune allowed Jonathan Reynolds to escape from Arkansas and grow up a child of privilege in New York City and thereafter to make for himself a very interesting life in and around show bidness in all the sinful entertainment capitals. Just one aspect of that life was a recent five-year stint as a food columnist for the New York Times magazine, and it was around many of those columns that his off-beat memoir, “Wrestling With Gravy,” was written.
Dad, incidentally, was Donald W. Reynolds, corporately known as Donrey, the media mogul who eventually came to own practically the entire southwest quadrant of the United States, and whose gazillions built the current Fayetteville football home of the Hogs and the geriatric center at UAMS, among hundreds of memorials, he casts a large shadow over these pages.
He was a squat fat pink man but genuinely Rabelaisian, larger than life, the world his oyster, a live-it-up hedonist with the rough edges of having grown up poor, personally squandering multimillions across the globe just for the sheer joy of being able to write it all off as a business expense. A whirlwind. One senses that down deep in him there was no down deep, that he was a merrily loathsome character who made only extremely rare appearances in his son’s life, and that his son felt hatred and sneaking admiration for him in about equal measure; and one gathers from these pages that, for all the lack of contact and influence, the two of them turned out to be much the same kind of asshole. One rich, one smart; one coarse, the other sophisticated; both of them brought to a kind of smarmy ruination by their respective assholeries, but each in his own outsized and unlikable way proud and a little bit overproud of who and what he was or is. At least, reading between the lines, that’s how they come off — AH Sr. and AH Jr. — in AH Jr.’s book.
And for all the glitterati in it, the old man is the book’s most interesting character.
“Wrestling With Gravy” has the subtitle “A life, with food,” and food is the book’s hook or device — yeast might be a better metaphor. Jonrey is apparently a swell self-taught cook, and revels in his pots-and-pans expertise. In most of the chapters the autobiographical reminiscences are keyed (as in Proust) to the memory of a particular dish or foodstuff, ranging from Tournedos Rossini as served on the S.S. France to Monterrey County Jail Oatmeal, and the food memory often leads into a digressive meditation or discussion of how the thing is properly prepared, or how it tastes, or how it works or doesn’t as an aphrodisiac, and Jonrey as often as not gets so involved in the digression that he never gets back to the prime topic, merely concluding the chapter with a relevant recipe or several of them.
The recipe device works except when it doesn’t, as when he concludes a chapter on his adolescence with a “recipe” for “The Perfect Shave.”
The book works best, I think, when food prep is the main topic and the memoir element recedes. An example is the chapter titled “Alice Waters Cooks Her Turkey Too Long.” It’s a reworking of Jonrey’s very first New York Times food column, and it’s about cooking turkeys and not much of anything else, and yet as a literary essay it’s in a league with E.B. White and Calvin Trillin.