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Ruth Reichl’s Home Cooked Comforts

Ruth ReichlIn 1978, when Comfort Me with Apples opens, the young woman we met in Tender at the Bone is living in a Berkeley commune with her husband, soon to find herself at the center of a revolution in the American food industry. She's hardly settled into her first job as a restaurant critic, it seems, and suddenly she's hanging out with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and sharing a table at Ma Maison with Orson Welles.

Ruth Reichl's second book tracks her career from those first professional writing assignments to her reign as one of America's most influential food critics. For ten years at the L.A. Times and six more at The New York Times, Reichl helped reinvent the role of a food critic earning a reputation as a subversive, democratizing force in the formerly elitist world of fine dining. In April 1999, she joined Gourmet magazine as editor-in-chief.

"You can be a decent critic if you know about food," Reichl writes, "but to be a really good one you need to know about life." Comfort Me with Apples demonstrates that Reichl has rarely seen cause to consider one without the other, food and life, life and food, inextricably bound. Whether sharing her recipe for the Big Chocolate Cake she used to woo her second husband or chronicling her culinary tour of China in letters mailed across the world to her ailing father, her second memoir offers the eclectic menu of her middle years: a broken marriage, a new beginning, romance in Paris, heartbreak in Barcelona, and always another exquisite meal ahead.

Dave: Despite a similar writing style and voice, Comfort Me with Apples is very different from Tender at the Bone. Granted, they both include recipes at the end of chapters to tie some things together, but in terms of content, they're hardly similar.

Ruth Reichl: Totally different. When you're dealing with a child, it's charming. When you're dealing with grown-ups, you lose that sweet aspect - and, as my editor pointed out to me, I chose to begin this book with an infidelity, which means I instantly had the challenge of making the character, me, likeable to the reader. As a writer, I really struggled with that.

Also, all these characters are alive. In the first book, I was dealing with people who were, for the most part, no longer with us. Here, I'm dealing with people who would be reading it. They'd be seeing themselves and how I portrayed them, which was a potential problem.

I had an interesting set of problems, not the least being that the great character in Tender at the Bone is my mother - any writer would die to have her as a character; she was a force of life, bigger than nature - but she's very peripheral in this one. Not having her, I found myself putting her in and taking her out, reminding myself, No, this book really isn't about her.

Also, in this book I was writing about my career. I wanted to deal with the whole food revolution. I'd started with the notion that food in the eighties in California was like Paris in the twenties. It was a wonderfully romantic time. We thought anything was possible. We were entirely self-conscious about the fact that we were creating a revolution. It was a pre-AIDS time when, sexually, things were much looser. We were young, and we were having a great time. These kitchens were wild and wonderful places. I wanted to talk about that energy. I bit off a lot in this one.

Dave: As I'm reading and you're crossing paths with Alice Waters or Marion Cunningham or Wolfgang Puck, whomever, I'm thinking, Well, yes, that would have been the time...So many things came together for you, your background as well as your location: you were in exactly the right place at the right time.

Reichl: Somebody once called me "the Zelig of the food world." I was in Berkeley when the food energy in America was in Berkeley. Then it moved to Los Angeles, and I went to Los Angeles. It moved to New York, and I went there. I've been extremely lucky, and being just that age, being there when Alice was starting and Wolfgang was starting...It was exciting and wonderful - and lucky.

Dave: It would be impossible to understand your career outside the context of your social environment, and on that note, I have to ask one question about Tender at the Bone before I forget. People say you've "democratized" food criticism - I've seen that word used a few times, meaning that food writing isn't so snobby anymore, it's not so elitist. Well, in reading through some interviews you gave to promote the last book I was shocked that no one asked you about diving through dumpsters to make Thanksgiving dinner.

"The morality of garbage changed our diet," you wrote. America's leading food critic, the editor-in-chief of Gourmet, once cooked out of dumpsters. Not because you couldn't afford to buy food. That's so funny to me.

Reichl: It has informed not only me but, also, what is Alice Waters about? Okay, she didn't cook out of dumpsters, she didn't take it to quite that level, but this whole food movement came out of a political movement. It's not an accident that America's food revolution started in Berkeley. You know, the war ended. All of us who had fought to end the war in Vietnam saw that we had created change; we had been effective. It was very heady. Then the war ended - what do you do next? Where do you turn that energy?

Right about that time, Diet for a Small Planet comes out and we all suddenly see that Americans aren't eating right, in lots of ways. We all got very politicized about it. That grew into this gourmet movement, but we brought to it a real consciousness about sustainable agriculture, about the fact that Americans eat more than our share of the world's resources. It's not just about Isn't this great? Gobble, gobble, gobble. I think that's important to remember.

Dave: You say that food writing, when it's simply about food, is boring. There has to be more to it. There's more to eating.

Reichl: If you're just going to talk about, "Oh, it tastes good," you'd yawn. You might as well be eating it. But if you're going to talk about the politics of food, the sociology of food, the connection of food...To me what's important about food is that we sit down at a table and we stop our busy lives and pay attention to each other, which isn't something we do very often in America. It's important.

Dave: Have you read Fast Food Nation?

Reichl: I've read part of it, not all of it, but I intend to.

Dave: I haven't had a chance to finish it yet, either. It's fascinating, but I was surprised how much it disturbed me.

Reichl: It's thrilling that a book like that is on bestseller lists. The implications of Americans devoting their lives to fast food are more profound than the fact that our kids aren't eating well. There are real repercussions that we need to know about and think about. It's fantastic that people are reading it.

Dave: Now that you're the editor-in-chief at Gourmet and no longer a food critic in L.A. or New York, how has that changed your voice? How has it changed what you're able to say and how you're able to say it?

Reichl: One of the reasons I took the job was that as one person you can only say so much. To me, in many ways, the magazine is like another collective that I'm in, a lot of us working together with a common goal, bringing a lot of different viewpoints.

I can't write about the politics of genetic modification, but I can ask someone to do it. I can't do fast recipes, but I can get someone else to. So we sit down and decide what we want to cover, and we have the manpower to do it. It's really exciting. One person comes up with an idea, and we all refine it, get it down to its essence, then go out and do it. It's broadened the scope of what I can do.

The truth is, as much as I loved writing restaurant reviews, it always felt very self-indulgent to me. It was so much fun, I loved doing it, but there's so much else to say about food. Now, we're saying it.

Dave: How do people react to the use of recipes throughout your two books?

Reichl: My feeling was that the recipes would be like photographs. Other people let you see parts of the story; I was letting you taste it. And they're clearly of the time.

People seem to use them that way. Book clubs will read a chapter and bring the dish along. It adds another element. I have to say, though, that it drives me crazy when they get classified as cookbooks.

Dave: You mentioned starting the book as you do, with the infidelity, but I thought you handled that with a lot of grace. I don't know if in real life you're that graceful - I have no idea, I don't know you - but the fact is that you're addressing some difficult subjects.

You're not the first person to get divorced. You're not the first person to experience these life changes. How has it been since the book's been published? Someone told me they'd heard you on NPR and, from that interview, they really understood the affair and the scandal as being the focal point of the book.

Reichl: What's the point of doing a book about yourself unless you're going to show people something they might not have understood, the kind of thing you don't talk about normally? I think it's important to talk about those things.

As an example, we all like to talk about good sex. People rarely talk about bad sex. For the longest time, when I was having bad sex, I thought it was me. I didn't understand that it was just chemistry between people. You can love someone very much and have bad chemistry. It can work in every other way, but not in that one. I wish someone had told me that.

I wish someone had told me how painful leaving a marriage was going to be, even if it was mutually agreeable, and even if you weren't fighting about it, that it was going to be years and years and years of pain. I think it's important to let each other know those things. Sometimes it's easier to say it to a roomful or a nation-full of strangers than it is to say it to your friends. It's often easier to be honest in writing than talking. And it's a gift to have someone tell you something that helps you with your life.

Dave: I'm still wondering how to deal with the end of the book when this interview goes online. I've read some pieces about the book that speak very specifically about it and I've seen others that just allude to it. I don't think I want to be specific about it. I think it would be better to read it, not to find out here. I'm glad I didn't know what was coming when I read it.

I'm guessing that the ending was meant to serve as the book's conclusion from the moment you started.

Reichl: Absolutely. I knew that's where it was going.

Dave: To me, it wasn't your infidelity that made me question your sanity or your reliability as narrator, but the way you acted in those penultimate chapters. I was thinking, My God, she's lost her mind. Michael is there. He's the voice of reason. He's loving and understanding, and he's trying to deal with you, and you're completely crazy.

Reichl: It's interesting because this was the only place where Michael really put his foot down and said, "You have to write it the way it happened." My editors felt that he was being unsympathetic and they wanted me to soften him. I did, to try to make him seem more on my side. He looked at it and said, "I don't care how unsympathetic I seem. This was my position."

People have taken very different viewpoints. Some people think he seems unsympathetic, some think I was bananas. I think I was bananas, but I also felt like I had to show that. I don't think I behaved very well in that situation, but I didn't have a choice. It was beyond me. I was in the grip of something I never could have understood before it happened.

I always knew I was going to write that chapter, and except for that fight with the editor and Michael saying, "No, put it back," it's pretty much the only piece of the book that's unedited. I didn't go back and rewrite anything; I pretty much wrote it start to finish the way it is.

Dave: We haven't even mentioned all the traveling you write about in this book: Thailand, China, Paris, Spain...

Reichl: I've been unbelievably lucky. The idea that I could taste Thai food and say, "Okay, I need to go to Thailand," and that at that point in my life I needed little enough money, didn't have any real responsibilities, and was able to cobble together enough assignments from magazines to go, seems amazing to me now. I was able to give myself the kind of education in food that most people never get. You want to learn about Thai food? Go to Thailand. You want to learn about Japanese food? Go spend two months in Japan, eat your way through the country.

What could be better than to be in love and in Paris - and knowing it, appreciating it while you're living through it - with someone who can take you to all the best places and show you everything from Proust's grave to the place with the best oysters and 1911 Champagne?

Dave: Nowadays, what does a person who wants this kind of career do? Where do you start?

Reichl: I never thought I could be a restaurant critic. It just wasn't out there in the ether. Now, I get letters every day from teenagers whose dream is to be a food writer or a restaurant critic. It's so interesting to me that it's even become a career.

All you can say to people is that you have to train yourself. There's not a school to go to. Work in restaurants for a while. Get a lot of experience. As I write in the beginning of this book, Liebling was oversimplifying when he said, "The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite." That's not enough. You need to have a lot of experience. You need to bite off as much of the world as you can. Travel. It probably means not getting entangled with too many responsibilities.

Dave: That life experience comes through in your writing. I noted various passages in the book, for instance:

The crust was flaky, but once I got through I hit the truffle, which tasted the way a forest smells in autumn when the leaves are turning colors and someone, far off, is burning them.

You could cite any number of examples where your descriptions of food convey the sense that eating is much more complicated than simply tasting and digesting.

Reichl: One of the things I was lucky to learn early on is that you can't describe flavor, but you can put someone into a space where they can understand what you're talking about. You can paint a picture for them. If you really think hard and you try to imagine what the flavor is, if you hold it in your mouth and your mind for long enough, you can make other people experience that taste. You don't do it by saying, "It's salty, it's sweet, it's citric." You have to paint a picture.

Dave: The writer you mention repeatedly as an influence in both books - and she's actually a character in Comfort Me with Apples - is M.F.K. Fisher. You recently wrote an introduction to one of her books, right?

Reichl: I was very honored. Her estate asked me to write an introduction to a collection of her writing, The Measure of Her Powers, which was published late last year.

Dave: You spoke so highly of her that I started skimming through An Alphabet for Gourmets. It's interesting. I can definitely see the influence.

Reichl: She has a lot of wonderful books. My favorite is The Gastronomical Me. It was pretty much the model for Tender at the Bone. When I thought about what I wanted to do, that was that book I considered. It's extraordinary writing. She had three husbands, but she had one that she really, really loved best, and every time she writes about life with him, the words just leap off the page. Much of that book is about their life together in Europe.

She was just an extraordinary women, very generous with young writers. I went to interview her once, and she kept inviting me back - but not just me, dozens of other people. She liked company. There were many of us who knew everything she'd ever written. I had absolutely memorized her words.

Dave: There will be a third book of yours at some point, yes?

Reichl: Not anytime soon, but there will be. I'm going to take a little break.

While Reichl signed books after the interview, I asked her about living in Montreal, where I went to college. We spoke of Canada for a few minutes, until I mentioned that Greil Marcus had recently visited Powell's. "Greil!" she exclaimed. They'd known each other in Berkeley, apparently, way back when, so before heading across the street for her reading we surfed the Powell's site (at one of the computers in the Content & Marketing flotilla), looking at pictures of Marcus that had been taken in the same room a month before. "He's so old," she said initially. "But he still looks exactly the same." Reichl visited Powell's City of Books on May 8, 2001.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret... Used Hardcover $8.50
  2. The Gourmet Cookbook: More Than...
    Used Hardcover $10.95
  3. Chez Panisse Fruit Used Hardcover $14.95
  4. The Measure of Her Powers: An M.F.K.... Used Trade Paper $9.95
  5. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of...
    Used Hardcover $7.50
  6. Diet for a Small Planet Used Trade Paper $6.95
  7. Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  8. Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham Used Hardcover $7.95
  9. Comfort Me with Apples: More...
    Used Trade Paper $5.50

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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