A Conversation with Ruth Reichl: Part Two
Note: This is a continuation of our “A Conversation with Ruth Reichl.”
Don George: How did you decide where to go on that trip? How did you plan your itinerary?
Ruth Reichl: Well, I was very lucky. I had a Belgian friend who had been living in Bangkok for quite a while. So I wrote him and said, “Zack, I want to come to Thailand. What do I do?” And he said, “You should stay here. You need to go up to Chang Mai and to Phuket.” But also it was partly decided by going to every food magazine (Food and Wine, Cuisine, Bon Appetite) and saying, “Can I write articles?” A lot of it was for the articles that various magazines wanted.
The hardest article was from either Cuisine or Food and Wine: they wanted an article about eating in a Japanese home. Nobody in those days wanted an article on Thailand—it was very hard to sell—which is why I went to Japan. I financed that trip by selling all of these articles on Japan and then doing a bunch of articles on Thailand on spec, because no one was interested in 1982 in Thai food. Not one publication in America. So somebody wanted an article on what it was like to eat in a Japanese home — but I couldn’t get myself invited to a Japanese home.
It’s very hard to do!
It was very difficult. Finally I went to the Japanese national tourist office and said, “You have to help me with this,” and they sent me home with somebody who worked there.
When you go to Thailand, let’s say, are the markets a huge part of your trip wherever you go? Is that a big thing you search for?
Markets are a huge part of my life, wherever I am, so much so that I actually went out to the Hunts Point Market here in New York at three in the morning last week. I had never been out there and I wanted to see what it was like.
Markets are for me the most important part of any trip; I love them. I think you learn so much about a culture from markets. Asian markets tend to be really wonderful. That market in Bangkok is so extraordinary. In the TV show I did, Adventures with Ruth, we always went to markets; it’s where you learn the culture.
It’s like a classroom.
It is like a classroom.
When we talk about markets is there a particular market that immediately pops into your head that you can picture yourself walking through?
There are a lot of them, the Boqueria in Barcelona, which is so spectacular. But probably the most interesting market that I ever went to (other than maybe Tsukiji, the fish market in Tokyo) is the market in Luang Prabang in Laos. That culture eats everything. I saw things in the market that I’ve never seen anywhere else: every part of the water buffalo from the bile—there are bags of bile—to the skin (both with and without the hair).
Depends on what you’re making?
Everything is eaten, and every kind of insect, spider, bark (tree bark is an important part of one of their national stews). A million different kinds of chilies. It’s a real insight into how wasteful we are. I came back from Laos a different kind of cook. At Gilt Taste, where I’m working now, we did a whole series called Eat Shoots & Leaves which is about carrot peels, corn husks, corn silk, and all of the things that you normally throw out. Because I came back from Laos thinking, “Why do you throw anything out? This is all edible.” In researching this, we got recipes using ginger peels and recipes for broccoli stalks. Why do we routinely throw out the carrot tops? Makes no sense at all. I came back from that trip thinking, “We eat stupidly here.”
In my business we talk about how we eat too high on the food chain and we should be eating what people used to call the trash fish instead of the big fish. We do the same thing with fruits and vegetables; we are remarkably wasteful. One of the things you learn going through the markets in Laos is exactly how wasteful we are.
You don’t strike me that you’re daunted by any of these things. When you saw the hair and the ox hide that was not a problem; you thought, “What could I do with that?”
One of the things that I think I’ve gotten from traveling so much, and especially when I was little, is that I don’t think I have the kind of disgust mechanism that is built into most American life. One of my favorite articles that I commissioned at Gourmet was when Fuchsia Dunlop, the great Chinese cookbook writer, brought three master Chinese chefs to the United States to do a demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America. And I said, “Will you take them to the French Laundry and Chez Panisse and just see their response?” And they of course thought that the food was ridiculous. First they get raw oysters—the Chinese don’t eat raw food. They looked at salad and thought it was ludicrous. And cheese—why would you eat rotten milk? For me the takeaway from that is: Why is a piece of cheese more acceptable to us than fermented tofu? Why is it not disgusting to eat the leg of a pig? Where do you draw the line? In this TV show I did in Laos one of the things we did was go out and collect ant eggs and make ant egg salad, which in fact, involves eating a lot of ants as well. Unfortunately some of them are alive and they’re biting you as you’re eating them. In Laos we also ate silk worm larvae and tea made out of silk worm droppings. It’s in your mind the idea that it is disgusting.
Have you ever had a food that repelled you or a meal that was just awful?
Oh I have had a lot of meals that were just awful. And a lot of them are here in America actually. My husband is a TV news producer and once he was doing a story somewhere in the Midwest and after two days of having me go “Oh! Ew! Oh!” and pushing away all of this chain food, he looked at me and said, “I am never bringing you to America again!”
What is it that inspires your travels when you leave America?
It can be all kinds of things. The last big trip I took was when Ferran Adrià called me and said, “I’m closing the restaurant; you’ve never been to the Costa Brava, you did the first article about me in the United States and you have to come before we close.” So I gathered a group of friends and said, “Let’s go to El Bulli.” So that inspired that; that trip was so much fun. It was a group of women that went and we decided we would make it a yearly trip, so two weeks from now we are going off to eat in London and in Paris.
Can we all join you?
If you’re willing to up the reservations. Getting these reservations in Paris is so difficult!
Wow. So you’re going to go to Paris and then to London?
We’re going to eat in London for two and a half days and then take the Chunnel to Paris and eat for another three days and then come home.
And it’s “work.”
Oh, it’s not work, it’s not work. One of the last great trips that I took was for one of the last issues of Gourmet which was the Paris issue. I had thought, “It’s so too bad that you can’t eat in Paris for five dollars a day anymore.” But I wonder what the modern equivalent of five dollars a day is? We kept having these meetings and thinking about some young person we would send to eat. One day in this meeting I said, “You know, I want to do that.” I went with my beloved travel editor, Bill Sertl, and we spent a week staying in really cheap hotels and spending as little money as we could, only going to museums on the days that they were free. We made an arbitrary cut-off that we would not spend more than 32 euros for a meal, wine included. We would only take the Metro. It was so much fun and the food was so delicious. Anybody who tells me that you can’t travel inexpensively… you can.
And it was great. Actually, we had done another Paris issue eight years earlier; we had done it in a real Condé Nast way. This was a new way of traveling for me: you go first class, stay in all the best hotels, eat three-star meals…money is no object. I have to say that I had more fun on the cheap version than the other one.
Is there a meal that stands out from the cheap version?
We had really, really great food just about everywhere; we researched it pretty carefully before we went. We ate a lot in outlying places. One meal we ate was in a wine store where they do a communal table; I think it was 20 euros a person and you serve yourself and it’s just a bunch of strangers sitting in the middle of this wine store, and you buy the wine off the shelves and just pay them what it cost. We met all of these strangers and it was wonderful.
You have this amazing spirit. I just get the feeling that you enjoy everything.
My husband says I was born with too much serotonin. I’m kind of a glass half-full kind of a person.
That’s a nice way to be. Do you find that, looking back on your life, was there a moment when the glass wasn’t half full?
Oh yeah. I had a really unhappy adolescence and college. A friend of mine once said I was the most depressing person she had ever met. It’s like I met my first husband and life’s been great ever since.
Is there a particularly magical memory that you have of travel and of food?
Oh, there are so many of them. One of the magical memories that I wrote about in Comfort Me With Apples was following this man that I was in love with to Paris and being there with him, having only been there on the cheap, on only three dollars a day. I was living in Berkeley at the time and he was so un-Berkeley; he was so, “Let’s go to the Tour d’Argent! Let’s go to nightclubs and drink Veuve Cliquot!”
Paul Feig who is going to do the movie of Garlic and Sapphires keeps saying, “We’re going to have those Paris moments in there!” He wants to go to Paris and experience them. But also, one of the great things about having been a restaurant critic for 30 years I feel like I’ve earned the right to go in and be me. So now when I go into restaurants… I was in LA last year with my son who had never been to Spago and he said, “Can we go to Spago?” And Wolf — I spent a year of my life writing a piece about him — is an old friend and they set out to make a meal that Nick would never forget. And it was four hours of extraordinary food with incredible wine pairings. Also, I did an onstage conversation like this with Grant Achatz of Alinea a few days ago and I’d never had so much fun at a restaurant. I laughed my way through that meal. He makes balloons out of pulled taffy, so they float up. He’s thinking of food as an experience, as theater, and that was magical.
To ask a somewhat silly question with an ultimate serious purpose: What is the meaning of food for you?
Well, to be really serious about it I truly believe that cooking is what sets us apart from other animals. We cook, they don’t. We are cooking animals. Richard Wrangham, the anthropologist, made a very serious argument that cooking is how we evolved from apes and that it’s how the brain evolved and it’s how we were socialized. I gave this lecture at Yale sort of on this subject about what it means to be a creature that cooks and that hunts communally. It sort of means that you have to be able to conceive a future. The idea of going out and killing something to bring it home to cook means that you’re actually thinking in a way that animals don’t. So there’s that. I also think that, realistically, it is the economic driver of the world. In the end we can live without everything, just about everything, except food.
The fact that we have not paid attention to food in this country is coming home to roost in truly dreadful ways. We have a crisis of obesity and an epidemic of diabetes. We’ve done this horrible experiment of industrialized food on an entire generation who are now sick and allergic. I think that any society ignores food at its peril. You look at what it’s done to the oceans and the devastation at the Hunts Point Market. At the fish market the other night all of the men were saying, “Nothing’s coming out of the ocean anymore.” And we’ve done that in a generation. It’s horrific. There are worse things down the road. We started out as a nation of farmers and we forgot that. Even going into World War II we were still a nation of farmers. And we became a nation of agricultural industry.
And on top of that—you shouldn’t have asked me this question because I could answer it for about three hours —I truly think that one of the most important functions is that, especially in modern life when we are all so busy, sitting around the table is one of the few times that we actually sit down and talk to one another and pay attention to one another in a relaxed fashion. And I can guarantee you that if you ask my son the most important moment of his life as a child, it was when I stopped being a restaurant critic and we started having family dinner every night. Because you can come home and you can talk about quality time but if you say to your kid, “What did you do?” he’ll say, “Nothing.” You sit down at the table and you don’t ask a question, but if you say, “This is what I did today,” and your spouse talks about what he or she did today, suddenly your kids are telling you — they’ve become part of that conversation and there is very good evidence that family meals are very important in the development of children. And I think it’s no less true that it’s important to the development of friendships and that we are losing something enormously important when we lose meals.
It’s like a sacred communion convened around food; food is an essential part of that.
Yeah, as M.F.K. Fisher said, “There is a communion of more than our bodies when we share food.”
That does remind me of that question that I wanted to ask you which was: If I said to you, I will pay for a dinner party, you can have it anywhere you want, you’re the cook, and you can invite four people. Who would you invite, where would you have it, and what would you cook?
I would of course invite a bunch of people I would like to meet or who are great conversationalists. I would invite Bob Dylan because I would love to meet him and I think he’s got a really interesting mind. I would invite Gloria Steinem because I’ve never met her but she is one of my heroines. I would invite Mike Nichols because he is the most interesting conversationalist that I’ve ever met and a person who is truly passionate about food. And I think I would invite Richard Serra because I think that he is the great artist of our time.
I have no idea how this meal would go. Then I would probably, having just seen this wonderful movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, go to Tokyo and ask Jiro to take me through the Tsukiji market with him and help me buy fish for a perfect sushi meal. Especially because a lot of those fish are not going to exist 10 years from now.
So you would make a sushi meal.
I would make a sushi meal. I would have to learn how to do it; maybe I would just make sashimi because I’m not sure I could master the rice.
Right. It takes 10 years to master the rice.
It does. But you look at that movie and that fish is so gorgeous and I do love great sushi. And you’re paying for it!
Right! And where would you have it?
I would have it… Well okay, if I’m dreaming?
Yes, the sky’s the limit.
When I was in Japan I went to this wonderful kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto that had these little separate houses, and the one that I was in was over a spring. So we would sit there in this beautiful little separate house and I would serve sushi to these interesting people.
What a great image!
It’s a fantasy.
I like it. I’ll try to make it happen—I’ll do my best.
Do you have any regrets?
Well, I’m sorry Gourmet magazine closed.
Right—we all are.
And I regret that I didn’t see it coming so I couldn’t forestall it. But no, other than that, no.
And is there something left, some intense longing to do something you haven’t done, to eat something or go somewhere or do something?
Oh, there are so many places that I haven’t traveled that I’m dying to go. I haven’t been to Africa, I’m dying to go to Kerala, I haven’t been there and every time I’ve eaten food from there it completely amazes me. I want to go back to Thailand, Japan, China, and Australia. There is not enough time.
I know a company that can take you there…. And you’re continuing your memoir?
I have just turned in my first novel and I’ve been working on the novel and a cookbook which sort of comes off my Twitter feed.
A cookbook that comes off of your Twitter feed?
Well, I tweet every day and this cookbook is actually the year after Gourmet closed. It starts with the closing of Gourmet. And it’s sort of how I got back into cooking and it saved my life, as cooking always does. But I tweet every day, so it’s like the tweet from the day is the backstory of what was happening and then it’s the recipe for what I was treating about.
Oh wow, that’s great.
So I’m doing that. And then when these are both completely done, I will start the next memoir which is about this insane luxury. When I went to Condé Nast I didn’t know that people lived like that. I think it’s probably a vanished world but it was amazing. So I’m going to do the memoir of Gourmet.
That will be fun; that will be a lot of fun.
I just want to say, you’re so iconic and you’re such a force in the world yet you’re so personable and humble and incredibly engaging. How have you retained that groundedness? You are iconic, so how do you keep being such a nice person?
Thank you. It helps very much to be married to someone who is a hard news guy. So it’s very easy at The New York Times to get your head very puffed up. Right after I wrote the now-iconic Le Cirque review, Michael went off to buy a bunk bed for Nick. He was at this store and the woman said, “Well, we can deliver it in four days.” Michael was doing some investigative reports so he said, “I won’t be there but you can call my wife and this is her number.” And the woman at the store said, “Oh! You’re married to that woman!” Michael came home so disgusted and he said, “What is wrong with people in New York? You’d think you’d done something important!” And he really feels that way which in many ways is grounding. It’s like there are really important things going on in the world.
Partly that, and the other answer I would say is that one of my favorite interviews is when Dick Cavett interviewed Katherine Hepburn and he said, “Well what do you really think of yourself?” And she said, “I’m so boring. Do you think you’re boring? To yourself you’re always boring. You’re just you.” That’s what I think: “I’m so boring.”
Well, I just want to say that I don’t think you’re boring at all. The work you’ve done is incredibly important. There’s really no question about it and the principles you’re articulating tonight are hugely important.
I feel like I was really lucky to be interested in food at a time when nobody was. It was just a matter of timing. I’ve been writing a piece for Smithsonian magazine about Julia Child’s kitchen. So I’ve done a lot of thinking about Julia, who was another person who fell into that. She did it because she was in love, really. You know, she also recognized how lucky she was to have found something that really interested her just at the time, at the right moment. If that happens to you, you’re just lucky.
I just want to say that it is so inspiring to me and so moving to me to see you loving what you do so much and doing it so well, so beautifully and sharing that gift with all of us. So thank you for tonight and thank you for everything you’ve done.
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