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If you are passionate about food, chances are Ruth Reichl is on your bookshelf.
There is so much to tell you about my experience speaking with Reichl on the phone this week and meeting her in person at the Madison Public Library Foundation's Meet the Make-Hers fundraising event followed by a Book Talk Tuesday night. I was charmed, along with the rest of a large audience, by her stories spanning forty-something years of fearless and imaginative food journalism.
How much time do you have? I suppose I'll begin with the highlights of Reichl's career. She wrote her first cookbook at age twenty-one. Twenty-one. What were you doing around that age? Maybe studying for final exams? Maybe combing the Help Wanted ads for that first "real" job? Reichl was publishing a cookbook.
In the '70s, while living in a communal home in Berkeley, California, Reichl becomes chef and co-owner of a cooperative restaurant, while writing art critique for a California magazine. Soon, she is persuaded by her editor to become the restaurant critic and before long she's covering the opening of one of Wolfgang Puck's restaurants. In the '80s and in the middle of her work writing this story, she is offered the role of restaurant critic and later food editor for The Los Angeles Times. The New York Times calls and she becomes its restaurant critic in the early '90s. At this stage in her career, Ruth is undeniably one of the most influential voices in America—restaurants not only flourish, but are literally shuttered by her words. Reichl becomes editor-in-chief of Gourmet in 1999, one of the most beloved and sadly missed food magazines of all time. According to Ruth, the magazine closed abruptly and mysteriously. She told Tuesday night's audience that, to this day, she doesn't know why the publisher chose to fold.
She pens four memoirs, edits The Gourmet Cookbook, a massive compilation of the magazine's greatest recipes, and wins six James Beard Awards.
She marries, has an affair with a prominent magazine editor—she follows him (surprises him, really) to Paris where she has great food and summer-novel kind of sex. She gets divorced, marries again (not the editor) and has a son. Her beloved German father dies. Miriam, her mother, of whom Ruth describes Tuesday night as "taste blind" when it came to cooking, yet "intellectually curious about food," is diagnosed bi-polar and manic-depressive. Which is why, Ruth tells me, "I started cooking young in self-defense. You would too if you had my mother."
Her mother dies as well. She was in her eighties.
During our phone conversation, I learn several things about this highly accomplished woman whose blood is thick with decades of New York City food stories. I now know two things she hates. One is honey.
"No! Really?!" I blurt out over the phone. She laughs and says, "It makes me gag!" Another thing she hates is writing, believe it or not. "I'd rather do almost anything else."
She's not an introvert. "I hate spending time alone writing in my studio."
But when she emerges from that room, it's the exhilaration she feels of having written that keeps her coming back to the studio.
Reichl is a captivating storyteller. One story is about honey and interviewing the late venerable food writer, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher in her home. Fisher offers Reichl a cup of tea and asks her if she wants honey. Reichl says no, that she loathes the stuff. Fisher, who had a résumé built on world cuisine, said she didn't like honey, either. "That was the beginning of my bond with Mary Frances Fisher. Suddenly we were instant friends," says Reichl.
Reichl is very open about her relationship with her mother. Her memoirs are filled with confusion, frustration, anger, resentment as well as a longing to love and understand her mother. I asked Reichl if she could cook anything at all with her mother today, what would it be?
"That would depend on what [mental] state she was in." If her mother was depressed, she would go to bed, sometimes for up to six months, eat only sugar and put on lots of weight. "I'd make brownies." Reichl is referring to her Artpark brownies—dark and intense with a crackly top and so moist, they're almost creamy. The recipe appears in her first memoir, Tender at the Bone.
When her mother was in a manic state, she would walk the neighborhoods of New York City only to return with outrageous food finds: a suckling pig, sea urchins or cactus flowers. Reichl tells the audience Tuesday night that the Reichls were a middle class family with highly ambitious food stuffed into their fridge at times.
So if her mother was in this manic state, Reichl would choose to cook something "really complicated and interesting" perhaps, she says thoughtfully, cochinita pibil—a Mexican pork shoulder dish with lots of spices wrapped in banana leaves. The leaves of which are held over an open flame first to give them, as she describes in her lovely poetic voice, "a vegetal, jungle, clean, green perfume."
This recipe can be found in her upcoming cookbook/food diary due to be released in September called My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life. It was a book she wrote about the year she spent cooking in her kitchen to try and get over the devastating close of Gourmet. She tells me, "When I'm frightened or lonely, I go into the kitchen."
Watching Reichl greet the women chefs and producers at the Meet the Make-Hers event, and taste their delicious small-batch offerings, she appeared so warm and genuine. Ruth hugged Leanne Cordisco of Chocolaterian Café (who, by the way, had sweet samples of rhubarb tiramisu to share) so generously and with a peer-to-peer reverence that it was not only heart-warming, but powerful.
Anna Thomas Bates of Landmark Creamery, Elizabeth Dahl of Nostrano, Gail Ambrosius of Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier, Molly Maciejewski of Madison Sourdough, Nancy Potter of Potter's Crackers—to name only a few of the hard-working women present at the event, are examples of Reichl's deeply-held belief that we all need to know where our food comes from. Most chefs today, she explains, are choosing sustainable practices, but the cooks at home need to have this information in order to make smart decisions not only for the well-being of the planet, but for the health of our children. Reichl is completely appalled by the idea of a children's menu, not only in a restaurant but at home as well, and says eating is a learned experience. She is very up front by saying parents are teaching their children to eat differently than adults, filling them up on "junk." At this point in the talk, I'm pretty sure I heard a collective "Amen" hushed by the audience.
For her last thought of the evening, Reichl points out a void she sees—wouldn't it be great if there were a magazine out there today, a magazine of good living, offering intelligent and beautifully photographed content on what's happening within our food system?