Writer Ruth Reichl Sees The World Food First
May 14, 2014 1:10 p.m.
Ruth Reichl has spent her career tasting, talking and writing about food, most recently as editor and chief of Gourmet magazine. Her first novel is called, "Delicious."
Related Story: Writer Ruth Reichl Sees The World Food First
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. We will keep you updated on the fire situation in Carlsbad and the other fires burning in San Diego County, but now we will go to something completely different. I did an interview recorded yesterday with Ruth Reichl, she spent her career taking, talking, and writing about food, most recently as the editor in chief of the now-defunct GOURMET magazine. She has written a trilogy of well-received memoirs. When I spoke to her yesterday it was about her first novel, Delicious!
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MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This would seem at first like a largely autobiographical novel, because the main character is an inspiring food writer working for a great food magazine called Delicious! So how close to your life experience is this novel, Ruth?
RUTH REICHL: Not at all, I obviously wrote about Amelia, I know. But I am not twenty-one, and when I was twenty-one it would never have even occurred to me that there was such a profession as a food writer. Billie is very shy, which I am definitely not. She has a sister, I have never had a sister. I was really trying to invent a character who was as unlike me as I could possibly imagine. That said, I am a person who sees the world food first. So does Billie. So in that sense, we are alike.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: After publishing such successful memoirs like Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires, why did you want to write a novel?
RUTH REICHL: Because I love fiction more than anything, fiction is the thing that has gotten me through a lot of really tough times. Because I wanted to see if I could give other people the kind leisure I have gotten from fiction, and because and editor said might memoirs read like novels and he really thought I could write a novel. I thought in Garlic and Sapphires, I write about all of the disguises I put on to be a restaurant critic. And she said to me, that is in essence creating fiction, you know what it is like to be someone else. I thought, she is right.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You just told us that there is no autobiographical connection between your life in this novel but I am going to sort of make one right now, if you will allow me. Magazine delicious in your novel delicious goes out of business just like the magazine gourmet, where you worked as editor in chief. Many people are still mourning the loss of GOURMET magazine, what would you say is its legacy?
RUTH REICHL: GOURMET was almost 70 years old. If you have back issues, which many people do, you virtually have a history of American food in those forty years. It was America's first Epicurean magazine and it changed very much across its lifespan. And each editor brought something new to it. I think that if you look at what the magazine was in the 40s, which was essentially a magazine for the very small group of gourmet's who existed in America, who were mostly rich white men. And then you see what happened in the 70s when it became a magazine for Julia Child generation, the women who were starting to cook really fancy food and you sort of watched development. In the ten years that I was the editor, we were trying to really drive the conversation about food in America and make it not just be about recipes and travel and beautiful photographs. But included all of that substantive stories about what was happening on America's farms, and problems with the food supplies, and bring invoices of really great writers. So I think the magazine has an amazing legacy.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You make a very interesting point about sort of the evolution not only of the magazine but of our nations relationship with food as it were, as you say you started out being a gourmet was a rarefied vocation that people indulged in. Now it seems that everyone either is or knows of foodie. What is the difference between being a foodie and being a gourmet?
RUTH REICHL: I have always thought of being a gourmet as a pretty snobby thing. I would not start a magazine called GOURMET. There is a reason that I called my Magazine Delicious!, because I wanted to be a real word rather than an aspirational lifted pinky, which is what I think of as a gourmet. A foodie, and now America's filled with foodies, people that see food is part of popular culture and think about food the same way that they think about art, music, and film. To me we were kind of wondering as a culture that during this a very important part of life, and we are tipping the balance back to where it should be.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I am wondering, do you think that it is a good thing that there are so many people now will are interested not just in eating and where the food comes from, but in adventurous eating?
RUTH REICHL: Yes, I think as an MFK Fisher said, I think we would all be better off if we paid more attention to to our own hungers. One of the great things about adventurous eating is, it is very hard to hate a culture when you love their food. I think it is one way of experiencing other cultures. You go and eat Chinese food and suddenly Chinese people, you understand them in a new way.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In addition to being an almost to food, your novel Delicious! is also kind of a tribute to the eccentricities of New York City. You started your career on the West Coast, what is it about the New York food world that fascinates you that you wanted to perhaps re-create in this novel?
RUTH REICHL: I am a New Yorker, I love New York and what I love most about the city is that it is still filled with all of these wonderful artisans, and so you have the old ones, and I chose to anchor part of the book in this wonderful shop that is very much based on a real shop called the Palos in New York. It has been run by the same family for almost 100 years. There are old bagel shops and herring shops and every ethnicity in New York has shops that have lasted for a really long time, so you can literally go in and taste the culture. That is fascinating to me, to see this evolution and see old stores survive and new ones come up.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly, and new ones and the old ones that you are fascinated about in the book, the tea shop is almost a character in Delicious! Another character in Delicious! is the late chef and food writer James Beard. He features prominently as somewhat of a character in your novel Delicious! Tell us what role he plays.
RUTH REICHL: Well, in the book Billie is, she has had a terrible versatile laws and she is very shutdown, and she discovers by accident this cash of letters that were written by a little girl in World War II to James Beard. I wanted it to be World War II because World War II was an amazing time in America. It was the only time that we all sat down at the same table. Eating was part of your patriotic duty and it was also a time that women came into their own. I really wanted to talk about rationing, the women's crop and land army and the crop conservation corps and talk about this one time in America where food was front and center in the brains of everyone here at home. This little girl has got these pamphlets from the Department of agriculture, which are real, I own them. They offer you ideas for recipes, and the recipes are terrible. I sort of imagined that if I had been a little girl during World War II and my job was to cook for my family as lose was, and I got these awful recipes, I would have written to James Beard and said surely you could do better than this. There are a lot of us out there cooking for the first time and why don't you give us help? I knew James Beard, and he would have written back, he was very generous with his readers, he was a man who loved to be loved. I totally invented this correspondence, but I completely think it is plausible that he would have written to her throughout the war and they would have developed this relationship.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ruth, that correspondence between Lulu and James Beard is only one of the number of ongoing storylines in the book Delicious! That is a different kind of writing for you, from the memoir genre. Did you find that aspect of writing the novel challenging?
RUTH REICHL: I really loved it, I went in thinking that I really wanted to vanish into a book. I like good reads, I am a natural storyteller, and I like happy endings. They really did have the experience of sitting in my studio and once I knew who the characters were, just going in there every day and finding out what would happen to them, it really did not know. It is an amazing experience to have these characters run your life. I often wanted them to do things that they did not want to do. The best example is Mackey, the woman who is the test kitchen director, she turned out to be very mean. I did not want her to be so mean, I tried to soften her and make her nicer but she would not have it. She was just mean.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No matter what you did.
RUTH REICHL: Yes.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As you said, you are encouraged to write this novel because you had already been creating characters in your food critic days in donning disguises so restaurants would not know that you are there. I wonder how differently do you think the restaurants would have been if they knew it was you, what would they have done differently?
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RUTH REICHL: I mean my first experience in this, in garlic and sapphires, my first experience of putting on a disguise is when I found out that the restaurants had a photograph of me, and I thought if they know who I am I will be someone else. I went in one of my early reviews in the New York Times, and I was treated like dirt. It was one of the more humiliating restaurants experience of my life, and at that time, this is no longer the case, that restaurant was famous for being a club. If you are not a member of the club, not the right kind of person, they did not treat you well. I ended up writing as my last visit I went in as myself and it was a completely different experience. The first time I went as my character Molly, they made me wait for forty-five minutes in the bar. The waiters were rude, and when I went in as myself, there is a huge group of people waiting for their tables, I was early for my table, and the owner actually came and took my hand and led me forward to all of these waiting people and said the King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready. And then he proceeded to dance around the table giving me white truffles and black truffles and caviar, and it was a different experience. What they cannot change is the food, but most people don't go out merely to eat. We go to have an experience and that changes dramatically. I really believe that it is important for a restaurant critic to tell your readers what is going to happen to them, not what happens to someone who gets the red carpet rolled out.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ruth Reichl will be speaking and signing copies of her novel Delicious! on Sunday from 11 to 1. More information is available on our website at KPBS.org. Ruth, thank you so much for speaking with us.
RUTH REICHL: It was really fun talking to you, thanks.