October 28, 2009
Ruth Reichl and Gourmet Today
Ruth Reichl is one of my favorite people. It’s funny how after reading three memoirs about her life, I feel like I know her. It kind of makes me sound weird and stalker-ish, but I’ve spent hours with Ruth, hearing about all of the phases of her life. (At the event I attended, she told an audience member that she could only write the next installment of her memoirs if she no longer worked for Conde Nast–the publisher of Gourmet magazine, where she was the editor. The weekend after the event, it came out that after sixty years Conde Nast is canceling the magazine, so it looks like I’ve got something to look forward to!) In real life, Ruth Reichl is just as personable as she is on the page.
I headed down town to The Nines hotel alone one Wednesday night last month. Up to the swanky sixth floor ballroom. People were drinking wine in the lounge outside waiting for the event to start. I picked up my signed copy of the huge new lime green Gourmet cookbook that Ruth had edited and was promoting.
Tickets were $40, a lot of money to get to see Ruth, but really it’s just the price of the cookbook and the talk is included for free. Except, I was there for the talk and couldn’t really care any less about the cookbook. So, I really did pay $40 just to hear Ruth Reichl talk for an hour. It was worth every penny. I’m sure everyone else there thought so too. But, to them $40 probably didn’t break the bank. It seems that the demographic for such events is comprised almost entirely of rich, middle-aged white women. I felt slightly out-of-place, but who knows, in 30 years that may just be me.
By the time I entered the ballroom clutching my copy of the book, the front row seats were filled. “Damn! I should have gotten here earlier,” I thought to myself as I slid into my seat on the far end of the second row. Luckily, it happened to be the side that Ruth walked down before heading to the podium. Her iridescent blue-green tunic shirt glistened as she walked by. For a foodie in her fifties, Ruth is skinny and a little more petite that I would have imagined–she has such an over-sized personality for someone of her stature. She wore her famously wild hair long, sleek and straight that night.
She launched into her talk. She spoke about why we need this new cookbook, how Americans are cooking and eating in an exciting new way. She noted the changes in the average suburban supermarket, the range of ingredients you can find these days; about her son Nick and his friends and their vegetarian/vegan eating habits, about how people are more conscious than ever of their food and where it comes from.
Ruth Reichl makes chicken stock every weekend. She makes risotto whenever she gets home from work and doesn’t know what else to cook. She is afraid that Nick, who is in college on the East Coast, will move to Portland after he graduates, because “it’s the place all the kinds want to go after college” these days. We are so hip right now.
Ruth is political, which is definitely part of why I like her. She included an article in Gourmet recently about how slavery in alive and well in Florida’s tomato growing regions. People wrote in letters to the editor that a food magazine like Gourmet should not be involved in politics, but I happen to think that eating is a political act. At the event, she noted that 80% of the cookbooks that she signs for people’s kids lately are for their sons, indicating that we have a new “generation of people who don’t think of cooking as women’s work,” like they used to. She talked about the dire state of school lunches in this country. Ruth pointed out that personal outrage was not enough, that we must complain to our politicians. We need to tell them that good food for our children is important. “It’s got to be political,” she said. “It’s been deemed frivolous, but training people to eat well is going to save us money in the long run.” Yes! It’s common sense, but still so hard to get that point across publicly.
Ruth answered questions from the audience, mostly about boring stuff like what fat does she use in pie crusts (apparently a terribly contentious issue in the baking world, as it came up at a Wordstock baking Q&A, too), or what to call mushrooms that are farmed, but somehow are referred to as “wild” on restaurant menus, much to the despair of mushroom hunters (Ruth had no idea—and why are these people wasting my time with Ruth anyway?).
About three-quarters of the way through, I got up enough courage to raise my hand and ask a question. At first I wasn’t sure if she was going to call on me. She picked a woman sitting right in front of me first, so I thought my chances were slim. But soon enough, she came back over to my side and I spoke to Ruth Reichl. I asked her if she read any food blogs—if so, which ones?!–and how she felt blogging fit into the new food landscape she was describing.
She said that she used to read 20 food blogs a day, but that she just didn’t have time to follow them anymore (of course! Silly question to ask someone in Ruth’s position, damn!). But, she said it is a “new and wonderful world” where food is being cooked and discussed and celebrated. When she started cooking in Berkeley in the sixties, she said no one was talking about food, as I suppose it was considered more of a woman’s chore than a thing to celebrate. Ruth also likes that fact that it makes food professionals better, as their consumers are more informed. It keeps chefs accountable.
But, the best thing that she said all night was about cookbooks. She described how many times Gourmet’s chefs and home cooks had tested each of the thousand recipes in the new Gourmet Today cookbook. Even the simplest dish with the fewest ingredients was made and remade in their test kitchens. The reason, she said, is that she is continually “shocked at how many failed recipes are in famous cookbooks by famous authors.” And the worst part, she pointed out, is that when you are at home and you try one of those poor, untested recipes, you inevitably think that it’s your fault when it doesn’t turn out. Which is a terrible thing, said Ruth, because how you learn to cook is with courage. You make something, people like it, so you make more.
I couldn’t agree more.