Gentry's Christine VanDeVelde catches up with
Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl
the former New York Times restaurant critic and now the editor of
Gourmet, had an unorthodox culinary upbringing for a future star in
the food firmament. Reichl was raised by a mother she generously describes
as "taste blind," because she frequently poisoned people by serving
spoiled food. Dubbed the Queen of Mold, on one memorable occasion she sent
26 people to the hospital after serving food from Horn & Hardart that had
My own culinary coming of age was more prosaic. While my mother never
poisoned anyone, I was a finicky and wary eater, grateful for
meat-and-potatoes meals and cakes from a box. When my father brought home
fresh salmon from a fishing trip, my mother poached the whole fish and
served it with a a veloute sauce and fresh peas -- whereupon I informed my
three brothers that we did not have to eat it and they couldn't make us.
All four of us went to bed hungry.
Ruth Reichl went on to become one of America's preeminent food writers,
someone for whom food continued to be an adventure, but also a passion,
someone capable of swooning over dishes like hare stew, the sauce of which
is traditionally thickened with the hare's blood. Suffice it to say you
will not find me ordering hare stew at any point, but Reichl and I do
share something in common – the knowledge that food is always an occasion
for a good story. So, though I'd be loathe to try the raw shrimp at
Honmura An, I am fascinated to read the story of a restaurant where raw
quail eggs are cracked over bowls of soba noodles, the occasion of which
is a lesson in 400 years of Japanese history and culture.
Early on, Reichl saw food as a "a way of making sense of the world… If you
watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were." Her stories
of sustenance – of discovery, love, loss, and food -- are arrayed
throughout her three memoirs. The first, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up
at the Table, recounts her years growing up in Manhattan with the
Queen of Mold, but also recalls their housekeeper Mrs. Peavey, who always
remembered to make extra pastry for the Beef Wellington, Reichl's first
trip to Paris, and the comfort of crème puffs while away at a French
Canadian boarding school.
Comfort Me With Apples picks up where the first memoir leaves off –
in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1970s. While living in a commune in
Berkeley, Reichl began working in restaurant kitchens and made her first
forays into food writing. In the process, she crossed paths with Alice
Waters, M.F.K. Fisher, Jeremiah Tower, Marion Cunningham and Wolfgang
Puck. To this day, she says, she still has a "Berkeley palate."
Mingled with stories of a Thanksgiving dinner composed of foods they
collected while going through dumpsters, having been inspired by Frances
Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet, are stories of her "People's
Republic of Berkeley" roommates who disdained her new career writing about
restaurants for rich people and the heartbreaking tale of an unsuccessful
adoption. And while others may let you see a part of their story with
photographs, Reichl lets you taste it, punctuating the tales with recipes,
like the Apricot Pie she made for her first husband as their marriage was
falling apart and the recipe for Big Chocolate Cake that she used to woo
her second husband.
Reichl has had the uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right
time at every turn of the food revolution and when what began in Berkeley
headed south to L.A. in the '80s, Reichl followed, becoming the L.A.
Times restaurant critic. Ten years later, she got the gig of a
lifetime in the food business as the restaurant critic for the New York
Times, where her reviews of Japanese soba restaurants and Korean
barbeque joints led her predecessor to launch a vicious letter-writing
campaign to unseat her for the crime of democratizing food criticism.
The New York years are covered to hilarious and poignant effect in her
just-released memoir, Garlic and Sapphires. Reichl cultivated a
repertoire of disguises, dining out as a retired teacher from Michigan
named Molly or red-headed Brenda in an orange tunic and green silk capris.
Such was the power of a Times review that restaurants hung her
picture in their kitchens and offered cash rewards to employees who could
recognize her. And it is here as a restaurant critic that Reichl's ability
to paint prose pictures of food is on full display: "…the geoduck was pure
ocean – crisp and briny and incredibly clean – so that what I thought of
was the deep turquoise waters of the Caribbean.." Flavor can't be
described, says Reichl, but you can put someone in a space where they know
exactly what you're talking about.
Once called the "Zelig"of the food world, today Reichl continues to
chronicle the politics, sociology, business, pleasure and lore of food in
the pages of America's oldest food magazine Gourmet, a magazine I
would read if only for her Letter from the Editor each month. Because
while I probably won't be ordering the geoduck clam, I want to be there to
read the story about it.