- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

Epigraphs, those pithy little quotes that precede the first page of a book and are meant to set its theme, are often too literary (James Joyce, Faulkner or some 16th century Hindu poet) or so obtuse you have to finish the book before you understand their relevance. But in “Wrestling with Gravy,” his first book, Jonathan Reynolds hits just the right note by quoting his parents.

“I don’t mind dying broke. I just don’t want to be broke the day before,” comes from his father, Donald W. Reynolds, and is followed by this, from his mother, Edith Remick Reynolds: “Be careful, Jonnie!”

You really don’t need a whole lot more information about either of them, but as this delightful bouillabaisse of a book keeps cooking, you get the full flavor of the parents responsible for a most interesting and talented son. “Wrestling with Gravy” goes down very easily.

If I’m salting this review a little heavily with food metaphors it’s because the author is probably best known for his biweekly food column, which ran in The New York Times Sunday Magazine for five years. Food provides the infrastructure of the book — he even gives recipes — and it’s clear he knows what he’s talking about. But unlike, say, “Heat,” in which fellow writer Bill Buford chronicles his transformation into a chef, Mr. Reynolds tells us his life story, and does so most engagingly. I found the memoir so enjoyable that I sped-read through the recipes (but then I wouldn’t know a foie from a gras).

He begins with his own beginning. “They were almost central-castingly perfect opposites,” he writes of his parents. “Don Reynolds was short and fat, and at first meeting seemed like a hick from the dustbowls of Oklahoma and Texas. Edith Remick [an aunt to the late and lovely actress Lee Remick] was a tall, dark-haired beauty, a refined and privately-schooled graduate of Smith who had been brought up in Quincy, Massachusetts … He was a whirlwind, she a lovely and fragile icicle.”

As the author and his sister, Nancy, grew up, these parents battled through an acrimonious divorce, and as a result the children were raised in Edith’s family. They rarely saw him or his. But this was not all bad. Jonathan revered his Uncle Bus — Bruce Remick, father of Lee. Mr. Reynolds calls him “the most elegant man ever to grace the boulevards of New York, Boston, and Quincy, Massachusetts” and “the only person I never saw ruffle.”

A boy inclined toward the good life could not have asked for a better role model: “He loved good food, all the arts (on principle), laughing … he looked like the love child of Cary Grant and William Holden and smoked cigarettes beautifully, using a long holder.”

Their father may not have cut a similarly dashing figure, but he sure knew how to make money. The divorce left their mother well-fixed, so Jon and Nancy grew up as New York City private-school kids, mid to upper-mid in class.

While his sister worked hard to become a classical ballet dancer (eventually dancing in the New York City Ballet under Balanchine), the author was having problems in school. He was NIB-ed, or Not Invited Back, at three boarding schools in a row. By 15 he showed ability as an actor, however, and the fact his cousin Lee was already a movie star inclined him further in that direction.

At the same age Mr. Reynolds also discovered food. When Uncle Bus takes him to the dining room of the Westbury Hotel on Madison Avenue, he tests the teen by asking if he can order pheasant under glass. “‘That’s why I had them put it on the menu,’ he said. His eyes were playful. He had aced the test.” When the dish arrives, and the waiter lifts the lid, the boy backs away from the steam, but his uncle “waved the perfume toward his nose. ‘That’s the point, you see. The glass concentrates the aroma, so that you can smell it. Beautiful, isn’t it?’ A bolt of lightening crashed through the Westbury’s ceiling. Smelling was part of eating? Food could be … beautiful? It was the first time I realized food could be more than fuel.”

Young Jon may have discovered food, but he still hadn’t discovered studying, and his less-than-stellar academic record cost him whatever chance he might have had to attend an Ivy League school. He enrolled in Dennison University in Granville, Ohio, the closest school he could find to Cuyahoga Falls, the home of his then-current flame. Acting became his main activity, but when he was a junior and President Kennedy was killed, he and a group of friends drove all night to honor the fallen leader.

The tone of most of this book is light, but when Mr. Reynolds turns serious he can be quite effective. After a moving description of standing on Pennsylvania Avenue and seeing the caisson and the rider-less horse pass by, he writes: “It’s important to go the funerals of people who matter to you. Skipping them because they’re unpleasant or watching them on TV if the person is famous doesn’t let death scratch you, and it should.”

After college, Jonathan is accepted at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. As a graduation present, his father surprises him with a trip on the S.S. France. The author tells us that the food guru Craig Claiborne considered the ship “the finest restaurant in the world … The kitchen reportedly took on 15 tons of meat, 30 tons of vegetables, 70,000 eggs, and 330 pounds of caviar for every round trip. Some 18,000 bottles of nonvintage and 4,500 of vintage wine were consumed along with 25,000 rolls and breads. There was one waiter for every six passengers, and the kitchen never made the same dish twice on a voyage unless specifically requested.”

And if that isn’t tempting enough, the young traveler discovers, “You could order anything from your room at any time of day, from a langoustes a la parisienne to the chef’s version of corned beef hash — included in the price of the ticket.” By the time he finishes the voyage, Mr. Reynolds is a confirmed foodie for life. And the reader still hasn’t reached page 80.

Each chapter ends with a recipe, and the one for this chapter is Tournedos Rossini as Served on the S.S. France. When the sudden death of his mother brings Mr. Reynolds back from London early, he decides he’s had it with formal study and embarks on what turns out to be a varied career, with writing, not acting, predominating.

Today, 40 years later, he is or has been a playwright, an actor, a screenwriter and a television producer. And now he is the author of a first-rate memoir filled with food, fun and frolic, but also well-seasoned with seriousness. “Wrestling with Gravy” is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Enjoy.

John Greenya is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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