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Lunch & Learn with Ruth Reichl

Photo by Fiona Aboud
Photo by Fiona Aboud

The former Gourmet editor will discuss her new books at a Webster House luncheon on Oct. 3

The devoted readers of Gourmet magazine got a shock when, in 2009, it was closed after 68 years in print. But no one was more surprised than its renowned editor-in-chief, Ruth Reichl. “I was kind of lost; I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Reichl told us in a recent phone interview. “So I did what I’ve always done in my life when I’m scared or depressed: I went into the kitchen.” The result was her latest book, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life.

Recipes from that book will be served when Reichl makes her appearance at Webster House on October 3 for a luncheon presented by Rainy Day Books and Spaces ($70; call 816-800-8820 for reservations).

We had a chance to chat with her ahead of the event.

 You’ve spoken before about your mother’s lack of cooking skills – did that play a part in your career path?

Definitely. Other people say this, but in my case it’s true: My mother was the world’s worst cook. The first chapter in my first book is called “The Queen of Mold,” and it’s about my mother having a party to celebrate my brother’s engagement and putting six people in the hospital with food poisoning. Literally, my earliest memory is watching my mother go through the refrigerator, scraping the blue stuff off the top, saying, “A little mold never hurt anyone.” So I became a cook at a very young age. The jacket of that book, Tender at the Bone, is a picture of me cooking at 7 years old, and you can see that it’s not a cute parlor trick—I’m seriously cooking. My whole ambition as a child was to push my mother away from the stove and to make sure the food was safe.

Which came first for you: cooking or writing?

I think I’ve always kind of been a writer. My father was a book designer. Everybody we knew when I was growing up was a writer or artist or in publishing in some way. And although my mother was a terrible cook, we sat down to dinner and you were expected to have a story about something that happened to you that day. So I think I kind of learned to write at the dinner table. I learned to figure out what the most interesting thing that had happened to me that day was—the person sitting next to me on the bus, or some incident at school—and then I learn to think where’s the lead, how do you draw people in… I think in some very real way, the conversations around the dinner table were fantastic training for a writer.

How did you get started with writing as a career?

I have a master’s in art history. After I got out of school, I came to New York and thought I’d be able to get a job at a museum, but I couldn’t find a job I liked and I was pretty miserable. Meanwhile, I was just cooking for people every night—we had this big loft and friends came through and stayed with us because everyone wanted to be in New York. One day one of my roommates just said, “You’re such a good cook. Why don’t you just write a cookbook?” So I wrote a cookbook when I was 21. It was a very different time—this was in 1971—and I knew people in publishing, so I just picked my favorite editor and told her I had an idea for a cookbook. She told me to write a sample chapter and an outline, so I did. She called me a week later and said they’d publish it. They paid enough of an advance that I was able to live on it for a year and write the book. I never thought that this was what I was going to do with the rest of my life, it was just great that someone was going to pay me to do the two things I love: write and cook.

You were a restaurant critic for many years. Was it difficult when you had to write negative things about your dining experiences?

When I started writing reviews, I’d been doing some freelance writing for New West magazine, I was cooking in a restaurant, and we were really poor. My husband and I were living in a commune in Berkeley and we were living on nothing. So when the magazine asked if I wanted to try my hand at some restaurant reviews, I didn’t think about a new career; all I thought about was free meals. We could afford to go out to eat. And I was really lucky because, for the six years that I was writing reviews at New West—one, I got to develop a new form because I was writing them like short stories with the food woven through them, not as traditional restaurant reviews—but also, the reviews didn’t have the sort of impact that they do at a newspaper. It was a monthly magazine; I wasn’t going to put anyone out of business. So I had been writing reviews for a long time before I went to The Los Angeles Times and became this “voice of Los Angeles.” At that point, it was scary, but I already had six years of seriously reviewing restaurants without really considering the consequences. When I realized that people could lose their jobs, it was very sobering.

How did that experience as a critic affect how you deal with critiques of your own writing?

If you write good reviews, you have to write the bad ones too. Nobody is ever going to read your reviews if all you ever do is say things are great. I feel the same way. It’s really hard when someone hates what you do. It’s humiliating. But it’s part of the process. You put something out there and you’re vulnerable. It’s just a fact of modern life.

What set Gourmet magazine apart was that it wasn’t only a collection of recipes, it talked about the culture surrounding dining and food in general. If the magazine were still around today, what topics would you want to cover?

There’s so much to cover, it’s sort of endless. I think that the things that aren’t being covered in the mainstream food press, which should be, include social justice for food workers. We all pat ourselves on the back for growing sustainable food, but we wont have a sustainable food system until the people who are cutting our meat, and picking our vegetables, and washing the dishes in restaurants are paid fair wages. I would also be doing a lot about the loss of farmland and the pressures on farmers. I would be writing a lot about what climate change is going to mean to our food supply. I’d probably have someone whose beat was covering the technology of food—there’s fascinating things, both good and bad, that are coming out of Silicon Valley that are not being covered by any of the food publications. And I’d definitely have someone writing about government policy and how it affects what we’re eating. I’d be talking about changing supermarkets—I think they’re in the throes of this change of how we get the food we cook, things are shifting enormously. When I took over Gourmet in 1999, no one was covering any of the science or culture of food, but there’s so much more opportunity to do that now. The more we know, the more interested we are. We were writing a lot about seed-breeding. And as Dan Barber says, it shouldn’t be about farm to table, it should be about seed to table.

Your new book is called My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life – what does that title mean? IB_Reichl_MyKitchenYear

When I lost my job, I was not in a good place. I hadn’t seen it coming; it was a total shock. One day you have this magazine and a group of 50 people who work together really happily, and the next day they’re all out of work and it was my fault. The magazine was kind of a bible in America, and it closed on my watch. I was kind of lost. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I did what I have always done in my life when I’m scared or depressed: I went into the kitchen. If I hadn’t been able to cook that year, I really don’t know what I would’ve done with myself but I anchored myself back in the food world… It wasn’t that I hadn’t been cooking, but I hadn’t been doing the kind of cooking that is playing around in the kitchen. I’d been doing results-oriented cooking—you know: throw on your coat at 7:15, run out the door and get dinner on the table for your family as fast as you possibly can. Suddenly I was wandering around farmers’ markets and picking up ingredients I didn’t know what to do with and bringing them back to the kitchen and allowing myself the pleasure of being in the moment in the kitchen… paying attention to the feeling of the knife cutting through a cucumber, the smell of the bread rising, the way it feels when you’re making pie dough and it all comes together… and it was very consoling.

This won’t be your first trip to Kansas City. Can you share some of your memorable experiences here?

I’ve been to Kansas City on just about every book tour because you are fortunate to have Rainy Day Books, one of the greatest independent bookstores in the country. I think Vivien [Jennings, the owner] is a national treasure.

My first time in Kansas City, I went to Arthur Bryant’s with [former editor of The New Yorker, Calvin] “Bud” Trillin. So that was pretty memorable—one, because Bud was one of my heroes, and I couldn’t believe I was actually there with him, but also because I’d read about it forever and it was delicious food.

When the magazine closed, I was on tour for the Gourmet cookbook. I wanted to interrupt my tour because I needed some time off; I just couldn’t do it. The next stop on my tour was a luncheon at Starker’s, and the chef [the late John McClure] called and begged me. He said, ‘I’ve had farmers raising special chickens for months now—you have to come!’ So I did. The day after the magazine closed I was in Kansas City, and it was literally the first time I’d spoken to strangers since the closing of the magazine. People were so wonderful. It was a sold-out dinner, maybe 150 people there, and I felt so embraced by the city. It was this wave of warmth. I was enormously grateful, and I took that warmth with me on the rest of the tour. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Kansas City.