by JJ Goode
Ruth Reichl's egalitarian view of food, along with her unorthodox, novelistic reviewing style, outraged critics and delighted fans. Garlic and Sapphires, her latest memoir, recounts her occasionally tumultuous tenure at the New York Times and the lengths she took to avoid being recognized by the city's chefs and restaurateurs. In it, she offers readers a great deal of herself, depicting her fear of failure, her writing and reviewing processes, and her struggle to retain her identity.
Since 1999, Reichl has steered the great ship Gourmet, guiding it toward today's most pressing food issues -- sustainability, food and health, and the ethics of eating. She is the real thing -- articulate, knowledgeable, hungry. Recently, JJ Goode engaged the engaging Reichl in conversation, the recounting of which follows.
jogoode: When you wrote your first memoir, did you know you were going to take on your time at the Times?
Ruth Reichl: I didn't even think Tender at the Bone would be a memoir when I started. When I got to the Times, after I'd been writing for years, I kept getting these calls from editors saying, "You must be writing a book." Well, I wasn't writing a book, and in fact I didn't even have an agent. After the fifteenth call like that, I thought, "Maybe I should be writing a book." So I found an agent, and then I started thinking about what the book I wanted to write was. I'd been telling stories about Mrs. Peavey and my Aunt Birdie, and I thought I would just put these stories down. When I was done writing and turned my manuscript in, Ann Godoff, my editor, said, "These stories are all great, but now you have to make the book work as well as these stories." I became the throughline.
After the first one I thought I was done with that. I mean that was it, that was what I intended to do. And then I went to record the audiobook, which by the way is a truly extraordinary experience. We did it at Carnegie Hall, and you're sitting in a booth and you have a completely captive audience -- a producer, a tech person . . . I came to the end and these faces look up to me as I read, "The End" and they go, "That's it? You're not going to tell us what happened?" And they made me take them out to lunch and tell them what happened next. At that point the first book hadn't come out yet, but I called my agent and said, "I hadn't thought about this, but if they want to know what happened next, maybe other people would want to know what happened next too."
I felt badly in Tender at the Bone about exposing my mother in that way. She had always wanted to write a book about what it was like to be a manic depressive, so I thought, "I sort of owe it to her. I'm going to write that book." So I had been planning as my next book to write my mother's book -- I had been reading her diaries. Instead I decided to write the book that became Comfort Me with Apples.
And again I didn't truly intend to take on the Times but when I was through with Comfort . . . I like to write, you know, and it was sort of the obvious one. And I have to say that the first editor I went to see when we were selling Tender at the Bone said, "You want to write about your childhood? All anyone really wants to know is what it's like to be the restaurant critic of the New York Times."
jogoode: Did you face any new challenges in writing Garlic and Sapphires? It's one thing to take on your own life, but writing about colleagues must be difficult.
Ruth Reichl: Well, I did that in Comfort -- I mean, Colman Andrews is still very much alive and editing a rival magazine. But writing about the Times was different than writing about friends. The other thing was that I had gotten so close to my life. With the other books I was still pretty far back in time. The first book was easy because most of the people were either dead or relatives. With this book I was really taking on a lot of people who were in a position to say, "It didn't happen that way."
jogoode: So how did you balance accuracy with effective storytelling?
Ruth Reichl: Well, the difference between memoir and autobiography is that you get to pick and choose what you're going to write about. You don't choose the things that you're not going to be able to be accurate about.
jogoode: Have you received any responses from colleagues? Any challenges to your version of the story?
Ruth Reichl: I got a really lovely letter from [Carol Shaw's] husband, saying how happy she would have been with the book. I got a strange postcard from Bryan [Miller]. I can't remember what it said exactly. But nobody challenged me and said, "It didn't happen this way." The thing about this book was that I still had all my notes. They were in my computer. So it was incredibly easy to be accurate about this stuff.
jogoode: Frank Bruni, the present New York Times restaurant critic, has been criticized, often rather harshly, for his style and his restaurant choices. Does this bring back any bad memories? I know you're aware of The Bruni Digest . . .
Ruth Reichl: I feel incredibly lucky that I predate all of that, because I'm sure exactly the same thing would've happened to me. But on the other hand, that comes with the territory. If you're not making people talk and annoying people, you're not doing a very good job as a critic. Part of a critic's job is to get people talking and to create controversy. And if you're so bland that that isn't happening, you should probably start looking for a new job.
jogoode: You said in your farewell column in the Times that you wished the crowning of the first four-star restaurant in New York that owes no debt to France could've happened on your watch? Frank Bruni gave four to Masa. Do you wish you were reviewing at a time when there was this appreciation of non-French food?
Ruth Reichl: I was a huge fan of Masa's when I lived in LA -- I think I wrote the first review of his restaurant when he was in this tiny place next to a Subway sandwich shop. His New York restaurant is just amazing. I would have been thrilled to have been able to give him four stars. I would still love to see those kinds of changes accelerate more. I think it's telling that the new Michelin has so little use for Italian restaurants in a city that is in love with Italian food.
jogoode: Do you think you influenced the increase in appreciation for ethnic food? Or did you just live through and document it?
Ruth Reichl: I think I was just here at that point. I mean I might have moved it up a little bit, just because having lived on the West Coast for 20 years I had and have this passion for Asian food. I came [to New York], and desperately wanted my first review to be of a Chinese restaurant. In fact, I spent that whole summer looking for a place that I felt I could review, but couldn't find one that I thought was going to knock people's socks off -- especially having come from LA where the Chinese food was so incredible. And I'm still disappointed that I couldn't move New Yorkers off the dime about Korean food. It's a totally seductive cuisine, everything about it -- it's beef based, it's interesting vegetables, it's garlic and sugar and heat, it's everything Americans should love, and it's frustrating to me that this wonderful cuisine has never caught on here.
jogoode: What does it mean for food to be authentic?
Ruth Reichl: I think the authenticity thing is really overdone. Food changes. It always has, it always will. I think we're now at the point where we're able to say Italian-American food is an authentic cuisine. It's not Italian food, but it's its own thing and wonderful in its own right. Purity is a silly thing to strive for at a time when what's wonderful about our food is that we have an incredible clash of cultures, a collision where we're all tasting each other's food and it's changing our tastes and changing what we eat. And then you get into the whole local thing: Is it better to have an authentic olive oil that comes from Crete or Italy, or locally made olive oil that's fresher? Well, if you're in California and can get olive oil that was made three weeks ago, you're going to be a lot better off with that than with two-year-old olive oil from Italy.
jogoode: What do think of restaurants like El Bulli? If you're a fan, how do you reconcile your feelings for those restaurants with your affection for homey food?
Ruth Reichl: I think Adria is a genius. And I've had some of the most fun in my life at Heston Blumenthal's restaurant [the Fat Duck]. I think that the problem is that there aren't many people who can do what Adria does, and what you end up with is an incredible lot of stupid food. You end up with copycat chefs who don't have his talent or his discipline. Then you get someone who's just combining herring and honey or giving you wasabi ice cream for the titillation of it, and it's just a different thing. One of the great things about food is that it's wonderful to go out and get a great hot dog, and it's wonderful to go get a great dish by Adria.
jogoode: Then you have people who have never had pimientos de Padrón and suddenly they're eating some sort of deconstructed pimientos in a light bulb . . .
Ruth Reichl: You know, I took my niece and her husband to the Fat Duck. They're not sophisticated eaters. His response, for instance, was, "This is guy is doing his work with so much passion that I feel as if I'm now inspired to do my work with more passion." They loved that food, and it wasn't because they had references -- they were just excited by it. If it's wonderful and exciting and makes you think about your life in a new way, so what that you've never had real pimientos de Padrón?
jogoode: What do you think is the present state of the restaurant review?
Ruth Reichl: I don't think they're that different than they used to be, and I think with the blogging world, they may have become less important, which is a good thing. We've actually stopped doing straight restaurant reviews in Gourmet, because I think they don't make sense for us as a national publication. We're trying to do trends and to have a bigger reach. We're in an interesting state right now where you've got all of those voices out there on the net. So if you want to find out about a restaurant, if all you want is consumer information, which is what a lot of people want, you've got a lot of places to go. If what you want is a great read, then you'll go to the newspaper and the magazines. This means that they must have good writers to keep their audience interested, because for just straight information they're unnecessary.
It's also an interesting thing for restaurants themselves. At the Times, I was wearing disguises so I could be every man. Well, now every man is important. They used to be afraid of me because I might be the New York Times, but now everyone is in essence the New York Times. If you mistreat someone, they're going to go out there on the net and say, "This is what happened to me."
jogoode: In what direction do you see food writing going?
Ruth Reichl: I think it's going to be an amazing time. I mean, when I started writing about food, I was writing to an audience that was basically uninformed. So it was easy. You didn't have to know that much, and I got to learn on the job. Today, you've got a huge audience, a growing audience, of smart, young people who are incredibly knowledgeable about food, who have traveled everywhere and eaten everything and are interested in food in a really good way.
And the dirty secret of food writing is that a lot of people who have real reputations as food writers aren't good writers. But they're getting better all the time, and the quality is going up. I was at Yale a couple of weeks ago, and there are kids there who want to be food writers and who bring real depth to it. We're past the time of the home economist who writes nice little stories about food. It's a time when you have people like Mark Kurlansky writing books about food and Eric Schlosser -- talk about a great journalist -- turning his attention to food. Or this book Hungry Planet that just came out -- have you seen this? There are a couple of great journalists! It's by Peter Menzel, who is a photographer, and his wife, and Faith D'Aluisio. They went around the world photographing families in 24 countries with a week's worth of food. It tells you everything about not only these families but also what's happening to our food supply. It's a very depressing picture. You see what industrialized food's reach is. But the idea that these books are increasingly being published and that people are writing books about the ethics of eating -- it's a very exciting time.
jogoode: How have you incorporated these issues in Gourmet?
Ruth Reichl: Right from the get-go, my deal with them when I came was that I'm not going to make this make this magazine about lovely little dinner parties. I believe that these issues are important, and don't hire me unless you're prepared to deal with where food comes from, what's happening with the food supply, and the politics of food. That's always been a goal. When we first started doing these types of articles we weren't sure whether the audience would accept them, but it's been totally positive. We went from doing an occasional article about gene patents or fish farming to its just being part of our regular mix. I think people today need help navigating the food world and our readers clearly want it. If only we had paid more attention twenty years ago we wouldn't be in the state we're in now.
Ruth Reichl is featured in an eG Spotlight Conversation, 28 November to 2 December 2005.
JJ Goode is a host of the eGullet Society New York Restaurants, Cuisine, and Travel forum, a freelance editor for Epicurious.com, resources editor for Leite's Culinaria, and a freelance food writer.
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