Dual passions drive food writer Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl is widely renowned for putting love of food into writing

ctruman@herald-leader.comSeptember 16, 2012 

  • Ruth Reichl

    Age: 64

    Family: Husband Michael Singer, a retired news producer for CBS; one adult son, Nick

    Childhood: Grew up in Greenwich Village in New York

    Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees, University of Michigan

    Books: Include several cookbooks and the memoirs Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (1998); Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table (2001); and Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (2005)

    Career: Has worked as editor in chief of Gourmet magazine until it closed in 2009, as a restaurant owner, as a food writer and editor at New West magazine in the 1970s, and as restaurant critic and food writer and editor for the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Won numerous prizes including four James Beard Awards, a coveted honor in food writing.

    Memorable traits: Developed 12 disguised personas for her work as restaurant critic of The New York Times, where she was known for her ability to make or break a restaurant with a review.

    Quote: When as a child she became aware of her mother's take-no-hostages style of cooking, Reichl writes in Tender at the Bone, "I was slowly discovering that if you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were."

    Writers who influenced her: Include journalist A.J. Liebling, pioneering female food writer M.F.K. Fisher, and poet and short story writer Grace Paley

    Online: Ruthreichl.com and on Twitter, @ruthreichl

  • Kentucky Women Writers Conference

    What: Seminars, workshops and talks featuring food writer Ruth Reichl; novelist Karen Joy Fowler, author of the Jane Austen Book Club; more

    When: Sept. 21, 22

    Where: Various venues around the University of Kentucky and downtown

    Cost: The conference includes a mix of free and paid events. For example, Reichl's speech, at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at the UK Student Center's Worsham Theatre, is free, but admission to the Reichl reception at UK's Maxwell Place is $20 to $40 as a conference fund-raiser. Some events are sold out.

    Learn more: (859)257-2874, Uky.edu/WWK

On this August morning, Ruth Reichl ate a peach with cream. But it was a fine peach, and the cream was locally produced.

Reichl does not eat junk. She is a best-selling author who was the final editor in chief of the much beloved but defunct foodie bible Gourmet magazine and before that restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and later The New York Times.

She is selective about what she eats, and that is how someone who can eat anything she wants has managed to stay the same weight for much of her life.

Reichl, the keynote speaker for the 34th Kentucky Women Writers Conference this week, does not eat processed food or snack food, and is sparing with meat and sugar. Reichl (pronounced rye-chil) is a food critic, but she said she is not a chef: She cooks as a part of everyday life and cooks food that is substantial but not fussy.

"I have a different connection to food than many people," Reichl said. "I don't eat food in ways that many people do. I don't use it as compensation ... and I think about what I'm eating. A lot of satisfaction from eating comes from thinking about food, so I think about what I eat. A lot of the obesity problems come from 1) industrialized, processed foods, and 2) from the fact that the food is unsatisfying."

Her favorite dish has long been spaghetti alla carbonara — pasta, egg, bacon, cheese, garlic and pepper. She has said that her favorite food is bread with cold butter.

She asks what to eat in Kentucky and is told that under no circumstances should she allow herself to be lured into a gooey traditional hot Brown. (I was initially too gutless to tell her that the Kentucky food that makes me happiest is a bowl of pinto beans and sweet corn bread with raw onion, preferably eaten while crouching on an Eastern Kentucky porch.)

Reichl also has an appreciation of the simplest of foods thrown into an oven: "There is very little that's better than a good baked potato."

'I found a voice in Twitter'

From her Web site, Ruthreichl.com, on why peaches are the perfect food for August: "Take a bite. Enjoy the caress of fuzz against your lips, and the cool shock of flesh beneath your teeth. Savor the erotic wash of juice as its goes roaring through your mouth, trailing the scent of lilacs, of almonds, grass and vanilla."

Reichl is a master of the tweet, regularly posting on Twitter (@ruthreichl) with intensely described, but oh so brief, haiku-like evocations of food and place.

Her tweet from Aug. 3: "Dappled sky, pink and blue. Grass green (again). Outdoor shower in the mint. Coffee, hot. Sliced peaches, splashed cream. Cat purrs."

"I found a voice in Twitter that I don't have anyplace else," Reichl said. "There is something about the discipline of 140 characters that really works for me, that I love."

One of Reichl's challenges as editor of Gourmet, which closed in 2009, was to start Gourmet.com "and watch as the Internet slowly took over from print."

She responded to the challenge but says she wonders about who will pay for in-depth independent reporting once print reporting permanently winds down and distinctions are further blurred between reporting and news aggregation Web sites.

Reichl mourns "that we have raised a generation of people who think that information is free ... when nobody is paying people to go out and report in serious ways."

Be careful when you go looking for Reichl on Twitter: Spoof accounts abound.

An advocate of cooking

Why do people think that food is so hard?

Reichl's books speak to her growing up with the wildly terrible cooking of her mother, who once tossed half an apple pie into a dish she was making. Reichl started cooking when she was barely old enough to top the stove.

"One of the upsetting things about the mostly wonderful food revolution is that we, the food press, have made cooking seem like something that's difficult," Reichl said. "Cooking is the most wonderful activity. ... Most of the food that most of us love to eat is not complicated."

Reichl, 64, has seen various food trends and was an early adopter of the pleasures of upscale sushi and co-op eating, which was heavy on vegetables and light on the Earth.

Francis Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet advocated a vegetarian diet because it's more efficient and causes less damage to the Earth than wide-scale grain-fed meat production.

Although Reichl praises Lappe's book as ahead of its time, she is not a vegetarian. Nonethelesss, she avoids eating animals raised in confinement.

"We are omnivores," Reichl said. "We are hard-wired to eat not just vegetables."

That said, she admires vegetarians for sticking to their spot on the moral compass.

"It's harder to be a vegetarian than to throw some meat on the grill," she said. "I admire people who are doing it for ethical reasons. ... What I love is that people are thinking about the ethics of eating, ... the real costs of the food we eat."

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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