Ruth Reichl is one of America's most acclaimed and influential food writers and editors. She was the editor in chief of Gourmet Magazine for ten years until its closing in 2009. Before that she was the restaurant critic of the The New York Times (1993-1999), and both the restaurant critic and food editor of the Los Angeles Times (1984-1993). As co-owner and cook of the collective restaurant The Swallow from 1974 to 1977, she played a part in the culinary revolution that took place in Berkeley, California. She is the author of the best-selling memoirs Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires, and For You Mom, Finally. Ms. Reichl has been honored with 6 James Beard Awards (one for magazine feature writing and one for multimedia food journalism in 2009; two for restaurant criticism, in 1996 and 1998; one for journalism, in 1994; and Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, 1984) and with numerous awards from the Association of American Food Journalists. The remarks below are excerpted from a conversation that took place at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in 2012.
Don George: First of all, Ruth, I just want to say what an honor and thrill it is to share the stage with you.
Ruth Reichl: Well, likewise.
Like many of us here, I’m tremendously grateful to you for the intelligence and the sensual exuberance that you have brought to writing about food and culture. You truly have broadened and deepened my appreciation of eating, and of the intersection of food and culture here and around the world. You have enriched my life through that. And so, on behalf of all of us here tonight, I want to start off by saying thank you very, very much for doing that.
Like the sponsors of our conversation tonight, Geographic Expeditions, you deeply believe in the value of doing something well and of taking some risks, and you believe in the riches that result when you do that. So I thought I would begin tonight with a double-tined question inspired by the notion of life-changing adventures.
The first tine is: I believe that everybody has had a trip that changed their life. I’m wondering if you had a trip that changed your life.
I have many, actually. And I guess the first one was when my parents sent me off to French boarding school. You know, it was horrible. My mother picked me up one day in the middle of the year. I was going to Hunter High School, it was February, and she said, “We’re going to Montréal for the weekend.” And I never came home.
That’s a long weekend!
It was a very long weekend. I didn’t speak French, and I was a little Jewish girl in a French Catholic school. And as a New Yorker who’d always gone to public school, I was very aware of all of these immigrant kids who came into our classes and didn’t speak English. And now I was the immigrant kid who didn’t speak the language and it was miserable—beyond miserable. But in the course of the next four months not only did I learn French but I literally learned an entire other culture. It was a huge shock because at Hunter High School we were treated like adults and wore our own clothes, but in France, in those days, you were pretty much a child until you were 18. We wore these little girl uniforms in these little blue-pleated jumpers. We were sent out to play in the yard, in Montréal where it felt like 115 degrees below zero, where it was so cold. We had to go out every day and they expected us to play jump rope and I thought I was an adult. And the whole way of teaching was completely different, and of course the food was completely different, and then of course I met all of these French kids who I went home with. My best friend Beatrice had this formal relationship with her parents – she actually vousvoyered them - which was incomprehensible to someone who grew up in a small Greenwich Village apartment. And it was truly life-changing in every way, and part of it was language. I feel like learning another language is like getting a fourth dimension. You suddenly understand the world in another way, so much so that I opted to go back the next year.
That was the first really life-changing one; and the next one I would say, that really was the food one, was when my husband and I got married. We got married basically so that we could collect all of the presents, take them all back and have enough money to go to Europe. Which we did. In those days you could travel on nothing and one of the things that is so sad to me is that my son will never have that experience. We stayed in Europe, the two of us, on $2000. But we slept on trains, we ate in the streets, we stayed in hostels, and part of the time we stayed with a professor of ours who was living first in Crete and then in Italy. I really learned food in a whole new way. Staying with Milton in Crete, we went out and beat the olives off of the trees to get olive oil and I went to the market every day and discovered all of these new flavors and discovered that, because Doug was an artist, Milton made me feel that I should explore food the way that Doug was exploring everything that he saw. He made me feel as if I should feel the same way about food since I liked it so much. I came home and looked at New York in a whole new way. Suddenly I was wandering down the Lower East Side, little Italy and Chinatown with new eyes and a new desire to taste all of these new flavors.
So that’s where the food seed was planted and blossomed later on.
You know, I always loved food and we traveled a lot when I was as a kid. Oh! The other life-changing experience was when I was eight years old and my parents took me to Mexico and Guatemala. We went to Merida and our guide in Merida had a daughter who was just my age. And my mother, who was a little nuts, had this idea that it would be really good thing for me to stay with Mosita and her family while they went on to Guatemala. And these were very poor people, so we bought a hammock and I remember this plate. We went to the market and we bought this magenta metal plate and a cup, and there I was with Mosita and her family: another truly life-changing event.
You were eight years old!
I have to say, I was only there for a couple of days because then I got sick and they had to take me with them to Guatemala, to my mother's deep regret.
So, those were definitely huge life-changing experiences.
The complement to that that I wanted to ask was, Is there a meal that changed your life?
Oh, there are so many meals that changed my life. I could answer this in a hundred different ways, but the one that immediately comes to mind is when we were in Hania on Crete. We walked up this mountain with Milton and we got to this little hut. There was this huge mountain of onions as tall as this little stone hut. We sat down on this little porch and this old woman came out and she gave us wine that she had made and olive oil that she had pressed and bread that she had baked in the stone oven and onions. She went out and gathered some wild herbs on the hillside and sprinkled them in the olive oil. Then she said, “I'll be back,” and went down the mountain and went fishing. We sat there, eating this olive oil, drinking the wine and eating the bread; then she came back up with the fish, built a fire, and cooked this fish. Then we had for dessert yogurt from her own sheep. It was the locavore moment of all locavore moments. It was the perfect food for that place. And I consciously thought, “I'll never have another meal like this. This is the food of this place and I have to savor every minute of it because I will never have this again. I can have grilled fish but it will never be like this again.”
A couple of years later I moved to Berkeley and that whole Berkeley food movement was part of this notion of, “What can we have here? What do we have here that is like that? Can't we get those flavors here?” It was life-changing for me in that notion of, “We're not thinking about food in the right way.”
I came out of the Julia Child atmosphere where Julia's idea was that if you could just learn the techniques you could make the food. For me this was the moment of thinking, “It's not about technique. It's the products and there is another way. There's that French haute cuisine thing but then there's also this thinking of, “Let's just get really good products and leave them alone.” That was a real life-changing meal.
That moment where everything you ate was basically taken from the immediate world right around you. Probably very simply prepared.
Totally simply prepared! Nothing fancy at all; it was all just alive. In China they have this notion of wok chi: you get it out of the wok quickly and eat it really fast before it goes away. This is kind of an expanded notion of that. You want the food that is of this season, this place, just left alone.
That was a pretty revolutionary idea at that time.
Totally. First of all, we were in the throes of industrial food. But when Alice Waters started getting farmers to raise food for her and sent Paul Johnson out to talk to local fishermen instead of going through the middle man, that all really resonated with me. Then there was a mad moment, which everybody has forgotten, but, these people up in Booneville, California, opened this restaurant called The New Booneville Hotel. Their notion was that they would raise everything that they served. It was mad. It's kind of what Dan Barber is doing at Stone Barns at Blue Hill, only he's got Rockefeller money behind him and all of the new technology. This was in the late-70s, these people with the inspired crazy brilliant idea which just made so much sense to me.
That was the setting for the famous medieval Thanksgiving. Do you remember that still?
Oh my god, it's like at every Thanksgiving Michael talks about how it was the first Thanksgiving we were together and I just thought, “Well, we'll go,” and Vernon had this notion that he had read this medieval recipe that you could kill a turkey and pluck it so quickly and get it into the oven before it went into rigor mortis. He decided to do that. They literally took this turkey out of the oven and the knife just bounced off of it because it was so stiff. It was completely uncuttable. We sat there for hours waiting for something to eat; it was a nightmare.
You needed a medieval hatchet or something.
I have since learned that fish, chicken, whatever—you want it to be at its best right as it's coming out of rigor mortis, but you want it to go into rigor mortis.
Yes. I remember hearing this when I was out at Long Island. There is a wonderful chicken farm in East Hampton and Mr. Iacono said he kills them one day and you don't eat it that day. He won't even sell it to you for at least a day; he wants it to go in and out of rigor.
That’s good to know! In your food journey, was there a moment when you realized this is what you wanted to do with your life?
Not really. I mean, if I had thought that it was possible I would have known that's what I wanted to do with my life, but it never crossed my mind. I would sit down and think, “What are the things that I like to do?” I liked to read, I liked to cook and I liked to write. In those days the idea of being a restaurant critic certainly wasn't on anyone's radar -- that that's what I could do with my life. I wasn't a trained cook; I just liked to cook. So it never occurred to me until I was living in New York and working for my father—which I hated—and couldn't find a job. You know, you are so puffed up with your own sense of self-importance in graduate school that I came to New York with a masters in art history and thought I would go to the Museum of Modern Art and they would say, “Oh yes, we have a curator's job open for you.”
As in, “We've been waiting for you!”
Yes. Of course I couldn't find a job in art history. All anyone would ask me was, “How fast can you type?” All of our friends were coming to stay with us. We were living in a loft on the Lower East Side. One day a friend of mine said, “You're such a good cook, you ought to write a cookbook.” And it had never crossed my mind, but we were back from this trip to Europe and I was walking the Lower East Side all of the time, going in and out of all of these old Jewish stores, the little Italian markets and going into Chinatown. I would pick up something and ask people, “What do you do with this?” And all of these people—mostly old people—were so happy to give me recipes. I was collecting these recipes, going home and cooking for the pure pleasure of it. So when Pat said, “Why don't you write a cookbook?” I was a book designer, working in publishing, and so I spent the weekend writing an outline and I just thought, “I'll just put anything I want down in this book.” So I wrote this outline, mocked up a chapter, and took it to my favorite editor and said, “Well, what would you think if I wrote a cookbook? Who should I take it to?” And she said, “Well give it to me and let me look at it.” A week later she called me back and said, “We'll publish it.” And they gave me a $10,000 advance, which was plenty of money for me to quit my job and spend the year writing this cookbook.
Then people thought I was a food writer—it just kind of happened. It's that piece of luck; it couldn't happen again today. Today people would say, “Where'd you learn to cook?” and “Who's tested your recipes?” This was before the cookbook revolution. Suddenly by sheer accident I was a food writer.
Whew, that's amazing – but not exactly a clear career path others could follow.
True, it was absolutely amazing. But a clear path you can follow is to do work you love. You only have one life and it's too short to waste it doing things you hate.
I don't know any travel writers who started out to become a travel writer. They all had something else they wanted to do but they loved writing and they loved travel and somehow it ended up being there. That's exactly what you're talking about.
It's magical, right? You get to travel and write about it. What could be better? I would've been happy with that path too. Very.
When you look back now are you shocked by the path that your life has taken?
I feel so lucky. I never thought that I would get to be me. But I am. I'm stunned.
What was the moment when you realized you were you?
I guess when I came to The New York Times. Up until then I had lived in Berkeley and then when I started being a restaurant critic all of my friends were so critical. “You're doing what!?”
Like you'd sold out?
Yes, like I'd sold out. Then I ended up at The L.A. Times and it was so much fun I didn't even think about how fun it was. I kept thinking, “There's going to be a point where I'll grow up and do the really important thing I'm supposed to do in my life.” My parents kept saying, “When are you going to stop writing about food and do something worthwhile?”
Then when I got the food section of The L.A. Times I got to go beyond restaurants and start looking at where food is in the culture. I got to really start thinking about that. What should a food section be? Why is food important? I was talking to people about traveling and bringing their stories back and I had a very expansive idea of what a food section ought to be. It ought to be about social policy and politics and travel and agriculture. Suddenly it hit me that my parents could talk about how stupid it was and I suddenly thought, “This matters.” It was the first time I really thought seriously beyond, “Oh food is delicious, interesting, and fun.” Then it became serious to me—something that I'd never articulated before—and that this is a real way of looking at the world. This is a really important part of life.
And you were at a moment in the evolution of publishing and the food industry when it was really possible to do what you really wanted to do?
Yes I was. It was the golden age of newspapers and magazines when they were still making a lot of money. The L.A. Times was trying especially hard to beat The New York Times at its own game and they were willing to take chances and spend money. So when I said, “We are going to walk every block of Chinatown and write about every store,” they didn't say, “That's crazy and you're going to spend three months of your staff's time to do this,” they just said, “Really great idea,” and The New York Times has never really done that.
And the food industry was just coming into its own. Food as a social phenomenon was just being talked about…
That is so recent, really. I gave a talk to the newspaper editorial writers—to their convention—six years ago. I was exhorting them to please pay attention to food and they were kind of shocked. I gave this long very passionate speech about how we’re at this crisis point in America with the industrialization of our food and what was happening to agriculture. This was before Michael Pollan's book had come out. It was shocking news at that time. There was no way you could give that kind of speech today because food is so much on everybody's agenda.
Do you feel like you played a pivotal role in that?
I wish I did, but no, I don't feel that.
I think you're being humble.
I mean, if I played a pivotal role, it was as an editor at The L.A. Times where we did pay attention to these things. Certainly at Gourmet where I went and said, “We have to do more; the travel has to be more interesting than how to just go spend a lot of money and stay in luxurious places. We really have to talk about what is great about travel; we have to change the way we write about travel and we have to change the way we write about food and talk about what's happening in the farms—there is a crisis happening in the farms—and we have to talk about all of these problems.” My publisher said, “You can't do that. Nobody who reads Gourmet wants to read those things.” Twelve years ago that was a shocking idea that we would take all of this seriously, that it wouldn't be frivolous. And now everybody expects that. I think I had a role in redefining what an epicurean magazine could be.
Right. Absolutely. Stepping back for a moment, when you were a restaurant critic for The Times, were you daunted by the responsibility of that job?
Well, I'll tell you the moment when I realized what that job meant. I've written in Garlic and Sapphire about being on the plane. But I had another real moment which I didn't write about, which is my first day when I was at The Times. I'm at my little cubicle and my phone rings, I pick it up and this voice says, “Ruth?” And I instantly recognize it as my friend Mohammed from Morocco, who I had befriended because he spoke no English. On his first day at the University of Michigan he became a very good friend of mine. And he said, “I was just on the plane to Mecca to do the Hajj and I read that you had become the restaurant critic of The New York Times.” And I thought, “Oh my god. They are reading this on the plane to Mecca. This is beyond anything.” And I suddenly realized I had not only a voice in New York (as I had a voice in LA because of The L.A. Times) but suddenly people all over the world were going to be reading these reviews.
A few days later I get a call from Warren Christopher, who was then the Secretary of State, wanting to talk to me about restaurants and where he should eat when he came to New York. Important people started calling me saying, “I'd like to meet you,” and I suddenly got very scared of making a mistake. The flip side of having this voice is that if you make a mistake, you fall very far. And I would be so frightened every time. I mean, this was before the Internet. Reviews on The Times when I first came out were in the Culture section every Friday, not in the Living section. And so, it would go to press about 2 o’clock Thursday night, so it was too late to change anything at 2 a.m. And every Thursday night I would wake up on the dot of two with the mistake that I had just made, knowing that I had just made some terrible mistake and that my life was over. I said this to Frank Rich once, who was then the theater critic, and Frank said, “Oh yeah, I know that feeling. I wake up at two too, and what I say to myself is, ‘You idiot! What made you write that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet!?’ ” I mean, you make yourself so crazy that you could convince yourself that you never even went to the restaurant you just reviewed.
Did you ever make a mistake?
I made one. I only had to have one correction during the whole time I was at The Times. It wasn't a food mistake; I reviewed a restaurant and they had these horrible paintings on the wall and I [wrote], “They have these ersatz Hudson River paintings.” And I was so enamored with the word ersatz. And I would have never said “fake” but ersatz…. The restaurant called the next day and said, “We have letters of authentication. Every one of those is an authentic nineteenth-century Hudson River painting.” And we had to run a correction.
That art history degree—what happened?
I know. I couldn't have just said “awful”?
One of the things that I just absolutely love in your writing—and I was just reading yesterday—the description you wrote of a Japanese noodle place called Honmura An.
Ah, I lament the loss of this restaurant almost daily. I miss it.
You had a way of writing about that meal that was not just about the food; it was about the simplicity of its décor, the attentiveness of the service, the quality of the ingredients. You really talked about that meal as if it were a trip to Japan, basically. My question is, How do you do that? How do you bring that intelligence and passion?
Well, again, this is travel. I spent a month in Japan; going to Honmura An took me right back to Kyoto. For me it really was what was wonderful about that restaurant, and this is one of the things that really good restaurants can do is: It was like going to Japan. The only restaurant I know that is like that now is Masa, which is enormously expensive, but when you go in there you are having a very Japanese experience in every way. So what I was trying to do with that was to say, “Look around. Pay attention to these details.” They had the most extraordinary flower arrangements, and it wasn't like a thing of tulips. It would be some kind of out-of-season branch that they had brought in from somewhere that was bursting into bloom that would be in bloom outside three weeks from now. Such a Japanese aesthetic thing to do.
Soba noodles are extremely difficult to make well because buckwheat has no gluten; to make a really good soba noodle the idea is to put in as little flour as you possibly can—just enough to hold the noodle together. If you do it right they're kind of alive. And the dashi that they made was wonderful and everything that you held in your hand, every surface that you touched, was truly Japanese. I wanted people to be aware of that, because that's what great restaurants do. They give you not just food, but an experience.
Exactly. They embody a culture, a history.
I was very grateful that I had spent this time in Japan because it's the kind of thing where you can't learn that from a book. You have to be there and immerse yourself in the culture.
Yes, exactly. And it made me think that you must be an amazing traveler because you had absorbed all of that in Japan and you had applied it to the restaurant here.
Well, I feel very lucky that because I became a food writer I got to learn a lot on the job. So when I wanted to know about Japanese food I figured out a way to get enough articles in Japan so I could pay for a trip to Japan and go and absorb that culture. The first time I tasted Thai food in Hollywood it was like, “Where has this food been all of my life? I love these flavors!” I knew I had to go to Thailand. And I knew that I had to know what it was really like. Is this an Americanized version? What's it like in Thailand?
I got to Thailand in the middle of a storm and it took seven hours to go from the airport to the hotel because the roads were all flooded. I was in heaven. Everything that the food had been the place was. It was electric. I just loved it and thought, “Oh so there is some kind of correspondence between the flavors and the place.”
Read "A Conversation with Ruth Reichl: Part Two."