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Ruth Reichl: A Biographical Tour

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Facts first. Ruth Reichl is a native New Yorker and was educated there, in Montreal and at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she earned a masters degree in art history. She wrote restaurant criticism for New West magazine, the Los Angeles Times (where she was the editor of the food section), and the New York Times. She is now editor in chief of Gourmet magazine. Reichl lives in New York with her husband, Michael Singer, a television news producer, and their son, Nick. She has won two James Beard Awards for criticism, and one for journalism. She sports a fabulous head of hair and looks good wearing red lipstick.

But writing a biography of Ruth Reichl feels as redundant as chronicling the day-to-day events of the great seventeenth-century diarist, Samuel Pepys; if the subject has been so generous, why not direct the reader to the source? Pepys wrote about not only his career moves, marriages and love affairs but also the Plague, the Great Fire of London, and the life of an ambitious civil servant. Like Ruth, he includes recipes.

Reichl’s three volumes of memoirs Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples and this year, Garlic and Sapphires are intimate and inclusive. It’s good food writing, of course, but like Pepys, she provides a view of the world. Her world is American cuisine, culture, and food politics since 1950. There’s a glimpse at that critical mass of idealistic kids who thought that they could change the world. Ruth is the paradigm of the generation now derided as Baby Boomers - it wasn’t about the Brady Bunch and bad hair, it was about peace, love, political change, and Power to the People.

Reichl moved from left-leaning Ann Arbor to the People’s Republic of Berkeley, fed the fellow-travelers in a commune and between 1974 and 1977 cooked at and co-owned The Swallow restaurant. She knew Alice Waters back in the day, wrote restaurant reviews for New West magazine and then moved to Los Angeles in 1984 to become restaurant critic, and later editor of the Los Angeles Times food section. Never a food snob, despite every professional qualification to become one, she wrote a flattering review of a taco restaurant called Senor Fish. It’s laminated to the menu to this day.

In 1993 she moved to the New York Times, channeled that Ann Arbor state of mind and gave a noodle restaurant three stars. Sixties egalitarianism shaped her reviews. If, dining as one of her disguised alter-egos, she received noticeably different treatment from that she received as La Reichl, she called out the perpetrators in print. Power to the People.

Her job as editor in chief of Gourmet and the publication of The Gourmet Cookbook makes her the most influential mass-market media dispenser of recipes in the country. This is fitting. In each of her memoirs she gives us recipes, often as simple as Nick’s fave Matzo Brei , or the huge chocolate birthday cake that was an open love letter to Michael Singer. It’s comforting, and tender: Ruth Reichl is first, last, and always a cook.

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