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A Food Writer Whose Essays Go Heavy on the Salt and Fire

IF YOU CAN’T TAKE THE HEAT: Tales of Food, Feminism, and Fury, by Geraldine DeRuiter

Geraldine DeRuiter, the pungent voice behind the Everywhereist blog, knows how to rant.

You may have read her fiery rejoinder to the cinnamon roll recipe that the chef Mario Batali appended to his 2017 apology for sexual misconduct. Not only was attaching a recipe risibly tone-deaf, DeRuiter concluded in her James Beard Award-winning piece, but the recipe itself was sexist, a time waster foisted on the group likeliest to bake the “oddly savory” rolls: women.

Or perhaps you caught DeRuiter’s viral takedown of an abysmal dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Haughty waiters served meat molecules squirted from an eye dropper and “rancido” ricotta. (“You mean … fermented? Aged?” she asked. “No,” her server told her. “Rancid.”) DeRuiter’s assessment: “This was single-handedly one of the worst wastes of money in my entire food and travel writing career bwah ha ha ha ha ha oh my God.”

Brimming with venom and verve, these two pieces — both of which appear in her new book, “If You Can’t Take the Heat: Tales of Food, Feminism, and Fury” — showcase DeRuiter’s mastery of irony, profanity and stream-of-consciousness indignation. The essays that fill out the collection, a grab bag of the autobiographical and polemical, are characteristically lively, though they highlight significant gaps in DeRuiter’s skill set.

DeRuiter’s parents divorced when she was young and she grew up with her Italian mother (“like a tiny, loud leopard-print-clad carnival”) in Seattle and Florida. Her mother features here as an agent of mostly benign chaos. She accidentally burns her house down and, perhaps more shockingly, suggests DeRuiter eat an 18-inch-long hair that turns up in a slice of pie.

DeRuiter devotes one essay to her father, a spy whose cover was to present himself as boring, “the human equivalent of a tasseled loafer.” “Do you know how hard it was for 5-year-old me to convince a man like that that I needed the 1984 Loving You Barbie (with mini stationery set included!) or I would absolutely die?” DeRuiter writes with typical theatricality. She attempts to understand this opaque man by studying the history of beef stroganoff — one of the few dishes he cooked — and mastering the recipe. The experiment draws shaky parallels between the Eastern European origins of both stroganoff and her father and yields no satisfying conclusions.

The bedrock relationship of DeRuiter’s life is her long marriage to her genial husband, Rand, who “does not run away in horror when he sees me tear connective tissue from bone like a raptor while eating.” Nor does Rand run away in horror when she screams, snaps and shouts at him, something she describes herself doing on the regular. She reports “screaming” whenever they pass a Red Lobster “with the urgency of someone who has been stabbed with something very sharp” because she loves the chain just that much. Sometimes Rand tells her she’s “great.” Her retort: “‘WHY?? WHAT IS BROKEN ABOUT YOU THAT MAKES YOU THINK THAT?’ I often scream back.”

The reader begins to wonder the same thing. DeRuiter has an “all eyes on me” narrative persona — ravenous, pugnacious, irrational, loud. Unmodulated, her voice is ideal for delivering a rant, but it can overwhelm less flammable material.

One of her overarching gripes — a rightful gripe — is about the way women blunt their anger and soften their voices in order to placate and please. But women can also soften their voices in order to persuade and illuminate. There are some wonderful observations in DeRuiter’s paean to the reader responses you find on cooking sites, “that tender section of user-generated comments beyond the end of a recipe.” She has discovered poignant personal tales and beguiling humanity there, hiding in plain sight in the maelstrom of the internet.

But rather than exploring this tranquil space with delicacy and gentle wit, she swamps it with salty all-caps asides and sarcastic mini-diatribes. An essay on her decision not to have children is larded with nonsensical observations, including a meditation on the dearth of successful childless women — baffling given how many such women DeRuiter mentions elsewhere in the book. She pads the piece with elaborations, both serious and fanciful, on the benefits of not becoming a parent. Here’s one particularly lazy, unfunny line, geared toward showing how “wacky” she is: “I regularly make cake at 9 p.m. and eat it by 9:30 p.m. knowing that I don’t need to set a good example for anyone.” There are hundreds of great reasons to forgo children. This isn’t a great reason. It’s not even a reason. Mothers also eat cake at 9:30 p.m.

Describing her childhood food preferences, which ran to raw potatoes, toothpaste and entrails, DeRuiter writes, “If it caused someone to raise their eyebrows in a measure of alarm or admiration or exasperation, I would eat it.” The same craving for attention shapes her writing. Reading this book my eyebrows were sometimes raised in admiration; too often, sadly, in exasperation.

IF YOU CAN’T TAKE THE HEAT: Tales of Food, Feminism, and Fury | By Geraldine DeRuiter | Crown | 336 pp. | $27

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