The restaurant critic of the New York Times whips up a savory memoir of her apprentice years. Growing up in New York City and Connecticut during the 1950s, Reichl learned early ""that food could be dangerous."" Her manic-depressive mother favored weird mÆ’langes crafted from culinary bargains of dubious freshness; throwing an engagement party for Reichl's half-brother, Mom served spoiled leftovers from Horn and Hardart that sent 26 people to the hospital. Reichl enjoyed safer food elsewhere: at her Aunt Birdie's, the apple dumplings of an African-American cook; at the home of a wealthy classmate from her Montreal boarding school, classic French cuisine. The descriptions of each sublime taste are mouthwateringly precise, and the recipes scattered throughout nicely reflect the author's personal odyssey. After a disorderly adolescence, she attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The education of her taste buds continued during trips to North Africa and Europe, a waitressing stint at a doomed French restaurant in Michigan, and impoverished early married life on New York's Lower East Side. In Berkeley, Calif., she worked at a collectively owned restaurant whose entire staff cooked, cleaned, and served such vintage '70s dishes as quiche and Indonesian fishball soup. Reichl describes these experiences with infectious humor, then achieves a deeper level of emotion and maturity when her story reaches the year 1977. That summer, she returned to New York and for the first time successfully rescued one of her mother's manic party efforts. In the fall, she became restaurant critic for a San Francisco magazine and found the voices of various people who had taught her about food echoing in her ears as she discovered the work her editor told her ""you were born to do."" The book closes with a moving scene in which Reichl eats a sumptuous lunch with two women as forceful and resilient as she has finally become. A perfectly balanced stew of memories: not too sweet, not too tart.