Creative Nonfiction caught up with Ruth Reichl during a rare lull in her hectic schedule, which is usually jam-packed with a variety of creative projects and speaking engagements around the United States and abroad. It’s no surprise Reichl is in demand; during her remarkable career, she has been a veritable force who has shaped the way Americans think about—and experience—food. As the restaurant critic for both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, she became notorious for her honest criticism, which could make or break a restaurant. She is the author of four best-selling memoirs: Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise and For You, Mom. Finally. In addition, she has edited, contributed to or been featured in numerous food-related publications, including her most recent cookbook, Gourmet Today. She hosted Eating Out Loud on the Food Network, is executive producer and host of PBS’s Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth and Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie, and appears frequently on radio shows.
In 2009, Reichl lost her 10-year job as editor in chief at Gourmet when the magazine abruptly ceased publication, but she hasn’t slowed down. She has recently taken a position as editor-at-large at Random House and is also in the process of finishing the script for a romantic comedy, based on Garlic and Sapphires and starring Anne Hathaway. Additionally, she is joining the judge panel on Top Chef Masters and cooking up a yet-to-be-revealed collaboration with Gilt Taste.
Reichl’s classic modern concrete and glass home sits nestled high in woodland that was blanketed in deep snow in December. Classical music played in the background, and Stella the cat followed us into the room where we sipped tea and chatted about how food writing has changed in the past decade, how men and women write about (and cook) food differently and how she’s turning her Twitter feed into a cookbook. —Michelle Shabtai
CNF: What do you think the function of food writing is today compared to the past?
Reichl: Well, there are two ways to answer that. One is in food criticism: It seems to me that when food writing started, it was basically consumer reporting: this is how you go spend your money.
CNF: When was this?
Reichl: Well, in this country, food criticism pretty much started with Duncan Hines in the ’30s, and I would say serious food reporting probably started in France with Michelin, around the 1900’s when they were trying to sell tires—but it was basically ratings. The big change that happened with my generation was that we stopped thinking of it as just telling people how to spend their money and started thinking of it in terms of serious criticism. It seems to me the function of serious criticism, whether it be about food or movies or books, is to give people the tools that allow them to better appreciate whatever form of art it is that they’re experiencing. So with food, what you’re really trying to do is enhance the readers’ experiences so that when they go into restaurants, they’re tasting more critically.
I think another way food writing has changed is that as America became more interested in food, food writers and critics like me started thinking a restaurant review could be not just something that was for people who would actually go to certain restaurants but also that it could be a way of “taking along” people who would never go to the restaurant with you. Expensive restaurants became holy grails for many people, and one thing I could offer readers was a seat at that table, even if they couldn’t afford to go there.
Something else that happened was that food writing used to be pretty much about the food people knew. Until, again, pretty much my generation, all restaurant writing tended to be about continental food—French, German, maybe Italian a little bit and American—and as our palates expanded, food writing became a way to help people experience the foods of other cultures. Food writing—which had been food criticism—had been pretty stupid about foreign cuisines.
CNF: What do you mean by pretty stupid? “Uninformed”?
Reichl: Totally uninformed. People would say, “I don’t know anything about Thai food, but I like this restaurant,” whereas when I experienced Thai food for the first time in a restaurant, I thought, Oh god, this is really great. Now I have to go to Thailand and find out if this is authentic. What is it supposed to be like? And so I went. And if I couldn’t go, I would call up an embassy and say, “Can you send someone with me? I’m really interested in the food of Sri Lanka, but I don’t have any experience of it.” I would read as much as I could about it, but then I would actually try and get someone. For example, when I was writing about Korean food, I’d never been to Korea—and I’ve still never been—but I found Korean people to go to restaurants with me so I could find out what the rules of that food were and translate that for an audience. I think food writers of my generation were thinking we had a real opportunity to expand the palates of our readers, to bring new experiences to people.
Another thing: When Tender at the Bone came out in 1999, which was not that long ago, there was no food genre in writing, so nobody knew what to do with it in the bookstores. I would go to a bookstore and say, “I’m looking for Tender at the Bone.” And they would say, “It’s up in the cookbooks,” and I’d say, “It’s not a cookbook.” They said, “There’s food in it.” I said, “It’s a memoir.” They would say, “But it’s about food.” Food was not considered a serious subject, so this poor little book was up there with the cookbooks, where it was pretty forlorn. People didn’t go to the cookbook section to find a reading book. In a very short time, this has changed: Now you can find whole sections that are food novels, food mysteries, food memoirs. A food memoir is probably published every day. It’s a genre that, I think, people slowly began to understand. We were a culture that was fairly “food blocked” until probably about 1980; we were not particularly interested in food.
CNF: What do you think brought about this change?
Reichl: Americans have been extremely irresponsible in our eating habits. People came here, they got wealthy, and one of the ways people display their wealth, as one historian has pointed out, is in their food. Before they get fancy clothes, before they get a fancy house, before they get fancy cars, one of the ways they show they’ve made it is by eating higher on the hog. And because we’re a nation of immigrants, people who came here—who had never eaten meat or maybe ate meat 10 times a year on feast days—started to display their status by eating feast-day food every day. And so we became a country that eats so much more than our share of the resources of the world. We became a meat-three-times-a-day culture, and we did this thoughtlessly—the way we raised animals, the way we raised food. It was really thoughtless until about five years ago.
Another important way people use food to express their politics, their ethics, is by suddenly becoming conscious of what food choices mean, and that’s had an important impact on the writing of certain foods. You especially see it with young people, an increasingly ethical trend toward eating. People care about sustainability; they care about carbon footprint; they care about not having pesticides; they’re really conscious of how bad our confined animal facilities are. They only want to eat “happy” animals, animals that have been humanely raised—because if you once see what the conditions in a factory farm are, you know you don’t want to eat animals raised there, ever. You can’t do it and feel good about yourself. That’s become another approach to food that comes out in the writing.
CNF: In what ways does it manifest in writing?
Reichl: As a writer, if you say you’re a vegan, you’ve instantly conveyed a huge amount of information in one word. If you have a character in your book and the character sits down and says, “Where was this beef raised?” you’ve instantly conveyed a lot of information about that character, or about yourself, which even five years ago wouldn’t have meant anything. I always think of food choices as handwriting; it’s like we tell the world who we are through our food choices.
CNF: What do you think draws people not just to food but to food writing?
Reichl: It’s like Proust. That’s probably the only answer you need. Everybody has some food memory they can access and instantly be someplace else.
But it’s more than nostalgia: I really think it’s necessary to us as human beings to see people cooking. Children love the Food Network; they love to watch cooking. It’s like the cookbook revolution: At the point when people cooked, there weren’t many cookbooks. Now, when nobody is cooking, there are thousands of cookbooks published every year in America, and they all sell really well.
CNF: How do you explain that?
Reichl: People read cookbooks. They don’t cook from them. They take them to bed.
CNF: Why is that?
Reichl: They want that connection to food—because they’re getting up, they’re not eating breakfast, they're grabbing fast food for lunch, and coming home and sticking something in the microwave for dinner. Everybody eats on their own. I think people take cookbooks to bed to pretend. I always thought those spreads we did in Gourmet were so important to people because they were like virtual dinners and people wanted to put themselves at that table. Statistics show people use two recipes from an average cookbook. They buy hundreds of them and use two recipes from each of them. Why are cookbooks still selling when it’s so much easier to get recipes on the Internet? I think people actually have cookbooks stacked up next to their beds because they want that connection. They want to dream food.
CNF: What drew you to food writing?
Reichl: It never occurred to me that I could be a writer or that food writing was a possible career. After I got out of graduate school, we were living in this loft in New York, and I was looking for a job. All these friends stayed with us, and I was cooking these meals because I’ve always loved to cook, and it was great. … New York in the 1970s: Lower East Side, the old Jews were still there, the old Italian mothers were still there, Little Italy, Chinatown—it was a place with all this great food, and I just started wandering around collecting recipes from people. I went to this little Italian butcher shop; the guy loved to talk, and he’d give me recipes while he was talking. And then I’d go to Chinatown, where people would give me recipes, and there was the market on Mulberry Street, where these old Italian ladies still were. … I’d bring home the recipes and try them. I was cooking for all my friends, and one friend said to me, “You’re such a good cook. You ought to write a cookbook.” So I wrote this cookbook.
CNF: This was the first one? Mmmmmmm…A Feastiary, from 1972?
Reichl: Yes. I was working for my dad, doing book design, so I mocked it up. It just came together—this piece of amazing luck where I took it to an editor and said, “I have this idea for a cookbook.” You couldn’t do that today. It was such a different time.
CNF: How is it different today?
Reichl: Today, people would say, “What are your credentials? Who’s tested your recipes? Where did you learn to cook? Why you?” It was such a different time. I took a sample chapter to an editor I liked and said, “What do you think I should do with this?” and she called me a week later and said, “We’ll buy it.” It was the early ’70s. We gave them cover-ready art, my husband and I. We designed the book, all our friends did these drawings, and we gave it to them.
CNF: It was like do-it-yourself.
Reichl: Totally do-it-yourself. And for a big publisher—they just took a flyer on it. It just couldn’t happen today.
CNF: Did you enjoy the writing process?
Reichl: I just loved it. I loved the writing, I loved testing the recipes. I wish I had tested them a little better! I didn’t even know about things like putting the ingredients in order, and the publishing house didn’t either. It’s kind of a mess by modern standards. But it was very exuberant. It was kind of a hippie cookbook, and afterward, people thought I was a food writer. It was a complete fluke. It was then I realized food writing was something I could do. … After that, I tried writing a novel because I loved the writing. I wrote this awful novel.
CNF: About food?
Reichl: No. I don’t even know what it’s about. While I was writing the novel, we moved to Berkeley. I had a Masters degree in art history and wasn’t going back to school, but I found something I liked to do: I started this restaurant with a bunch of other people—doctors and lawyers and professors. We felt we could do anything, and we did; we did everything from scratch. I fell into the restaurant business, and more than anything, I was just very lucky.
CNF: Did you have any inspiration or models for your own writing?
Reichl: There were a couple of writers I would read when I was trying to get rhythm. One was M.F.K. Fisher, and one was a woman named Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. Grosvenor wrote a book called Vibration Cooking, which was a cookbook, but it was also called The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. She was from one of the Sea Islands, a Geechee girl—the Geechee are this amazing group of former slaves who had great food traditions. The book was very ’70s, and I loved her energy.
Then I got a writing job, which, again, fell on me in this stroke of amazing luck: I was writing little pieces for a magazine, and one of my editors, who used to eat dinner in my restaurant, looked at me one day and said, “You’re such a better writer than a food critic, and you can cook. Do you want to try restaurant reviews?” and I said, “Sure.” I wrote the second restaurant review as a short story instead of a regular review because I thought reviews were boring.
CNF: Why were they boring?
Reichl: Just: Eat this, tell me that. They’re not fun to read.
CNF: What makes a review fun to read? What did you do that made it fun to read?
Reichl: Well, I’ve told this story so often, but we were living essentially in a commune in Berkeley and had no money or credit cards. I told my roommates we were going out to a fancy restaurant for a meal the magazine was going to pay for. Everybody was so excited. We didn’t have clothes, so we went to Value Village thrift store to get decent clothes to go to the restaurant. Everybody really wanted me to get the job, so they were all trying to be helpful. I later learned that too much help for a restaurant review isn’t helpful; you just need to say to people, “Look, I’m working. You’re not working. Just have a nice time, and don’t talk about the food.” But I didn’t know that then. Sherry, one of my roommates, who’s a wonderful cook and now the restaurant critic for the LA Times, sat there tasting very carefully, going, “There’s rosemary in here,” completely deconstructing every dish. My husband Doug, who’s an artist, was paying close attention to the typography on the menu and the colors on the wall. One other roommate, who had been a bartender for years, was parsing the wine list and talking about how the drinks were being served. And somebody else had been a waiter. …
So we had this group of people, everyone was throwing in information, and I had this moment, like a shift in vision, when I imagined we were a group that had been sent by a rival restaurant to find fault with this place. I went home and, in the middle of the night, went to my little tree-house kind of studio in the back of the house and wrote this story. It just came to me, like a gift. How can you explain where these things come from? I didn’t even realize what I was doing, but I wrote a little film noir script. The story started: “The names have all been changed to protect the innocent.” It was done like a Dashiell Hammett story with the food woven through it. It didn’t occur to me I was creating a new form.
CNF: There’s a scene in your memoir Comfort Me With Apples in which you talk to the newspaper editor about your tendency to embellish and sometimes even make up things:
“Reichl, this is a newspaper,” he says.
“I know that,” you reply, irritated. “So what?
“You can’t make things up!” he blurts out.
Reichl: Right, I didn’t know then.
CNF: Were there things you made up when you were writing restaurant reviews?
Reichl: The food was right. I wasn’t making up the food or the service, but I made up the people and the conversation, and I created a short story. It wasn’t conscious. It wasn’t like: Oh, I’m going to do something new. I wasn’t a trained writer, I’d never taken a journalism course, and it never occurred to me you shouldn’t do this. But this was for a magazine, not a newspaper, and it was the ’70s, which was the time of New Journalism. My editor looked at it and said, “This is fabulous.” He explained that because food was changing, the writing about food should change, too; he encouraged me to stretch the form. So from then on, I wrote pieces set in the 17th century; I wrote made up letters, love stories. … For six years, I wrote what were essentially short stories as restaurant reviews.
CNF: In memoir, some things are very subjective, as they are in food journalism. But you can’t make things up in a memoir.
Reichl: You can’t, but you can combine things. And there’s the whole thing about memory: When you’re writing about something that happened years ago, we all remember very selectively. I’m not sure the way I remember things is really the way they happened. Certainly in Tender at the Bone, for instance, the best story is the one about my brother Bob’s engagement party. It’s a wonderful story, all true, but it’s really two parties conflated into one. My mother did poison people; she did buy all this stuff. Nothing in there is made up, but it makes a much better story put all together in one place. I think one of the great things you get to do with memoir is selectively cherry-pick your memories. You choose the things that make the best stories, and occasionally, you embroider those stories to make them better.
CNF: Where does one draw the line between one’s responsibility as a writer and sticking to the truth?
Reichl: The truth is there is no such thing.
CNF: What do you think people expect, as readers, when they buy a memoir?
Reichl: Well, it depends what the memoir is. Certainly, if they’re reading a memoir about someone who’s battled drug addiction, they expect it to be true. If they’re reading a personal story about someone growing up. … Again, what I remember isn’t the same as what my brother remembers. It’s pretty much your truth, and what readers expect is your truth. As a restaurant critic, the worst night of my life—which was very exciting even though I thought I’d die of nausea—was the night I’d been in a restaurant and the police came and took someone out of the restaurant. I was waiting for my car in this unlit parking lot, all alone in a not very good neighborhood. When the guy came back with my car, I asked him, “What happened?” He said someone had been held up at gunpoint in the parking lot. I was outraged and wrote this review in which I said, “How could they? They left me. …” Then, in the middle of the night, after the review was printed, I woke up, and I thought: I forgot the police report; I never called the cops to ask what really happened.
CNF: You didn’t do your fact-checking.
Reichl: I didn’t do any fact-checking. I just took the guy’s word for it; the parking attendant said somebody had been held up at gunpoint. Only when it was too late, I started to think: If this turns out not to be true, I’ve libeled the restaurant. I got myself into such a state that by morning, I had convinced myself I’d never been at the restaurant and had made up the entire thing. Not only had I made this mistake, but, literally, if you gave me a lie detector test, I would have said to you, “I never ate at that restaurant. I made the entire thing up,” and I truly convinced myself of that. Well, it turned out it was a true story. I did eat at the restaurant. But I think you can make yourself go crazy. What we remember is very elastic, and I don’t think you should set out to fool people, but I do think you really have to understand that the only reality available to you, especially when it’s a long time ago, is your own reality and that you spent years molding it into something necessary for you.
But things have changed so much. When I wrote Tender at the Bone, I said to my editor, “Look, I have conflated some things. I mean, everything in here is not literally the way it happened.” Everything is true, but again, you compress, you combine, you shorten time. And she said, “Nobody will care. Nobody will say, ‘Oh, this isn’t exact.’”
CNF: Why the change in attitude toward memoir?
Reichl: Because there have been so many scandals about fake memoirs. By the time I wrote Garlic and Sapphires in 2005, I didn’t feel comfortable with my method anymore. I felt that what I wrote had to be entirely true, and I don’t think the book is better because of it. If I’d been free to play looser with the “truth,” I’m sure it would have been a better book, but by then, I felt I couldn’t do it. Also, by the time I wrote Tender to the Bone, my parents were dead. There was nobody to hurt in it, and I sent chapters to anybody who I thought might be hurt by it and said, “Is there anything you want me to take out or change?”
CNF: Did anyone ask you to change or take out anything?
Reichl: The woman I called Serafina asked me to change her name for totally personal reasons. Marion Cunningham asked me to change and take out a couple of things; I was very concerned about her because I was dealing with her alcoholism. And I sent Doug and Bob the stuff about them. With Garlic and Sapphires, everyone is still here.
For Comfort Me with Apples, I actually asked Colman Andrews if he wanted me to change his name, and he said, “Can I read it?” I said, “No. I’ll tell you what I’ve written.” When it first came out, I think he was a little sorry I hadn’t changed his name, and now I think he’s totally happy I didn’t. It all happened such a long time ago; it’s kind of titillating to people, but Colman and I are still good friends.
CNF: How do you deal with the issue of writing about people who are no longer with us as opposed to people who can read what you’ve written about them?
Reichl: I think one’s parents are fair game for everyone; I really do. I don’t think your children are, but I think your parents are. It comes with the territory. I may regret that someday; I mean, my son, Nick, might write some awful stuff about me one day. But I do think the mother/parent-child bond is so important for children that it’s impossible to write a memoir without somehow talking about your parents. It gets very tricky with friends, especially friends who are no longer with us. I don’t think you have to protect people, but I certainly think you don’t have the right to play fast and loose with people who are no longer around.
CNF: Who are your favorite contemporary food writers?
Reichl: Gabrielle Hamilton, this young woman who is just coming out. She’s the owner and chef at Prune, and she’s written a book called Blood, Bones and Butter. It’s stunningly good.
CNF: What do you like about it?
Reichl: She’s a good writer. Almost everything we’ve heard from a chef has been testosterone-laced, male stuff, and she’s a woman writing in a very different voice: She’s tough, not sentimental, but she doesn’t swagger the way guys do. I feel like it’s a whole new voice, a new generation, so fresh. She’s a woman who pretty much raised herself. Her relationship to food and to cooking is quite different from any of the male chefs: You feel that cooking has really saved her life, but she isn’t in it for the success. She loves restaurant life, and you get a sense, through the descriptions, of her being on the line, as if she’s in a fight—the boxer coming back at her, and she’s exhausted. I know exactly how she feels. I know that sense, but I’ve never read a guy writing about it.
CNF: Apropos the relationship between food writing and gender: More than 80 percent of the submissions Creative Nonfiction received for this issue’s food essay contest were from women. On the one hand, this is not surprising, but on the other hand, so many men are involved in the food industry, and more and more men are into cooking. …
Reichl: If you look at the food writers out there now, who are the best-selling food writers? Anthony Bourdain, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Bill Buford, Jeffrey Steingarten—most of the literary food voices we hear from are men, terrific writers. There aren’t a lot of big deal women food writers out there. … There are intellectual ones like Laura Shapiro, who is wonderful.
CNF: Do you think you could tell the difference if I gave you two pieces and asked you which one was written by a man and which by a woman?
Reichl: I think I could.
CNF: What do you think you would see?
Reichl: Two things: One, women tend to be more intuitive cooks, who just throw things in, whereas men are into gadgets and measuring. If you look at the science cooks, they’re geeky guys: One of the funniest pieces I ever read was when Jeffrey Steingarten was trying to figure out how Marion Cunningham made such good pie. He went and watched her make it; he counted how many times she cut the butter into the flour and deconstructed her motions. … It was like a time-motion study. I called Marion afterward and said, “Nobody else could make a pie from this recipe, it’s ridiculous. This is like ‘How not to make a pie.’” She said, “I know, dear. I know, dear.” But that’s how guys think; they’re into the precision of cooking in some way that, I think, most women aren’t.
Two, I also think that for men, the “Iron Chef” and “Top Chef” thing is about winning in some way. … I guess that’s the difference. In the writing, I think women have a very different relationship to food and to cooking. The women who write about cooking tend to like cooking, but men who write about cooking tend to like having cooked. It’s sort of how I feel about writing. I hate writing. I love having written. Cooking is a pleasure.
CNF: Do you have a daily writing schedule? Do you wake up in the morning and go straight out to your writing hut?
Reichl: When I had a job, I would get up early in the morning and write before anybody was up. I wouldn’t make coffee; I’d try and write in a half-sleep state. But now that I don’t have a job, I sit at the desk all day. It’s hard when you sit there. You get up; you play solitaire. … You’re just waiting, waiting, for something good to happen, and in the meantime, you write a lot of bad stuff. Then you spend most of your time rewriting, trying to make it good.
Food writing, for me, feels natural and comes pretty easy: writing about tastes, flavors, the emotion of food. That’s why I tweet so easily—because it’s there, available to me, whereas an essay—a long, well-constructed essay—is just agonizing: making it flow, making sure you said it right, honing that sentence.
CNF: What can you tell us about what you’re writing now?
Reichl: I’m writing a novel that is very much about food. It’s set in two times: today and in World War II. WWII is a particularly interesting time for food because food was rationed and it was like a huge social experiment in this country.
I’m also working on a cookbook, which is a kind of memoir about the year of losing my job at Gourmet and coming to terms with being home. I’m using that year of my Twitter feed, when I was tweeting every day about what I was eating. So it’s three things: There’s the tweet at the top of the page and then the back story—what was going on that day—and then the recipe for the food I tweeted about. I think it’s going to be very nice. We’re very happy about it. I haven’t started yet, but I also have a contract to write the memoir of the Gourmet years, which I sometimes think of as “Ruthie in Wonderland” because working at Condé Nast was like a whole new world to me. It was a world of luxury and possibility I didn’t know existed, kind of the world of Sex and the City and Gossip Girl. I literally didn’t know that world existed, and there was also the great joy of having someone give you a magazine and say, “Do anything you want with it,” and having so many possibilities. It was an amazing experience, so I don’t need to make anything up for that—it’s so real, it was unreal.