Ruth Reichl Will Never Get Over The Beauty of Food
The legendary writer and former critic on the best of the five senses.
February 28, 2018
By Cassandra Landry | Photo illustration by ChefsFeed
“I mean, what is the role of the critic? I think it's something that's worth discussing, and grappling with,” says Ruth Reichl. “I don't think there are easy answers.”
Whatever the role of today’s critic might be—some hybrid of influencer and last remaining bastion of the traditional press-restaurant relationship— it was undoubtedly shaped by the woman posing the question.
Reichl’s particular style of criticism at both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times established the modern vernacular and sight-lines of dining trends. Greatness could be found in a glittering downtown restaurant, or in a strip mall, or deep in Chinatown; it didn’t matter. Or rather, it all mattered. Her tenure at Gourmet through the early 2000s informed the masses what glossy food journalism could be: snappy features and profiles about what food meant, and who grew it, cooked it, and consumed it.
I like to think we live in a post-“foodie” moment (which might be admittedly wishful thinking from the cradle of a culinary coast, but hear me out). An affection for dining and all its trappings seems so widespread a trait now that continuing to signal it with a cutesy term seems almost unnecessary, but when I first read about Reichl’s rise—the early glimpses of celebrity chefs before anyone knew their name, the disguises, the dinner parties—in her memoirs, I wore that badge proudly. People who cared deeply about the power of food existed in their own little society, and I wanted in. Reichl’s enthusiasm, and her many sanguine meditations on the senses, lit me up; I found the internet’s (later revealed as Josh Friedland's) homage to the moment, @RuthBourdain, almost too amazing to bear.
Now, we’re here, in a world both critically different and yet very much the same. Good food is still good food, but now we want to consume the world, instantaneously. Fast and slow, high and low. Reichl is still watching it all, albeit from a quieter perch.
“Food writing has burst out of its confines. It isn't just about: is it delicious? Should you spend your money on this? Food offers a lens on the world, a whole new way of looking at just about any topic,” she says. “And I don't think you can have too much information, because then people have to become smarter consumers. When there are so many people weighing in, you have to make up your own mind.”
That doesn’t mean making up said mind is made any easier. Reichl agreed to guest-edit the inaugural edition of The Best American Food Writing, the first food-themed anthology from The Best American Series—and the morning we speak, she’s toying with what she wants to say in the introduction. “[Food writing’s] in such a different place, because how Americans think about food has changed so dramatically,” she explains. “This book is filled with articles about race, and gender, and business, and even sports—it’s just fascinating.” When asked if she’s grown more confident with her writing process over the years, she laughs.
“You know, I wish I could tell you that I had the slightest idea what I was doing. But I don't!” she says. The tweets are easy—that’s a natural language for me. But god, I'm 70 years old. I wish it was easy! It isn't.”
“The days when it goes well, you're euphoric. And that's the thing that keeps you going: that moment when you're sitting there struggling, struggling, struggling, and then you go away, and when you come back, something has happened on the page,” she adds. “That’s the magic. That's what you do it for.”
And when the world gets a little too loud: to the kitchen.
“Cooking is still a refuge for me. There's nothing as centering as going into the kitchen and letting all the noise go away, and getting absorbed in flavors and textures and being there in that moment,” she says, without hesitation. “I still love it.”
Peeling a peach. You know that color that is just below the peel? It's magic to me because when you bite into it, you miss it, and when you slice it, you miss it. You only get it when you put the peach in boiling water and then take it out, and peel off that skin. It's like a sunrise.
That one's really hard, because do I go with onions and butter? Or, a really aged roast in the oven. That aroma fills the house and it's so great. Or, you know, a roasting chicken. I'm a big believer that in tough times, you should make chicken soup and fill the house with its scent. I feel like there's nothing as soothing to people. It changes the whole atmosphere in your house.
I grew up in a small New York apartment. And my mother believed that it was embarrassing to have the scent of cooking in the house, so the kitchen door was always closed. When guests were over, the cook was in the kitchen cooking food, and it had nothing to do with you.
My idea is you make your whole house a kitchen. It's a generational change.
Probably the sound when I make chicken stock, when I'm waiting just for the boil before I skim it all off. That sound, just as it begins to burble.
Punching down dough. There's nothing like that. Gathering it in your hands, being aware of when you've got enough water in there.
I started cooking when I was five or six; when you're that age, no matter what you make, people will tell you it's fantastic, right? It doesn't occur to you that you could have a mistake, so I never had that fear, because by the time I was ten, I was making dough all the time. I got comfortable early.
I'm not a sweet person. I like savory flavors, and my single favorite flavor is sea urchin. The first time I had it, it was like, "Oh my god, where has this flavor been all my life?"
It's the sexiest flavor. My other favorite is really good, cultured sweet butter on good bread. There's nothing like the taste of bread and butter—and sea urchin is kind of like butter but with a marine character. It's like the butter of the sea. Plus, it's so beautiful. When you get the Santa Barbara ones in that deep coral color. The flavor just makes my whole body sigh.
Reichl is one of more than 80 global chefs, journalists, food experts, trend spotters, and industry leaders presenting at The Culinary Institute of America’s 20th Anniversary Worlds of Flavor International Conference and Festival, April 18-20, 2018. At this year’s conference, “Legends of Flavor,” we will look back over the past 20 years and help predict what we’ll be craving 1, 5, 10, and 20 years from now. For more information or to register, visit www.worldsofflavor.com.