In Ruth Reichl’s Writings, Food Is Always the Star

By Anne Levin 

Ruth Reichl is sometimes asked the question: If you had a superpower, what would it be? For the author, food writer and editor — formerly the restaurant critic at The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times and the editor-in-chief of the late and lamented Gourmet magazine, the answer is a no-brainer: To have a heightened palate.

“I wish I had it, but I so do not,” she said during a telephone interview last week. “Especially in my business, it would be a great asset.” Ms. Reichl will speak this Friday at a sold-out Book Lover’s Luncheon hosted by the Princeton Public Library and the Friends of the Library, at Springdale Golf Club. “The closest I’ve ever seen is Paula Wolfert, whom I traveled with once,” she continued. “She really does have an uncanny ability to pull flavors apart.”

Perfect palate or not, Ms. Reichl has been at the center of the food world since writing the first of three memoirs, Tender at the Bone, in 1998. Three subsequent memoirs, other books, and television appearances followed. Last year, Delicious! marked her first venture into fiction. She is currently at work on another novel and a memorial to Gourmet, which folded suddenly in 2009.

Making the transition to fiction was harder than Ms. Reichl expected. “Everybody said to me, ‘This will be so easy for you. Your memoirs read like novels.’ And I thought I knew how to do it,” she said. “But the truth is, I didn’t. It was really slow. I realized I needed to know the characters very well, and that took longer than I thought.”

Delicious! is the story of a young woman with a remarkably sensitive palate who travels from her home in California to take a job at New York’s oldest and best known food magazine. When the much-loved publication is abruptly shut down, she agrees to stay on at the empty office to maintain its hotline for reader complaints. Along the way, she makes some compelling discoveries about the magazine and its history, particularly concerning the persecution of Italian-Americans during World War II.

Ms. Reichl admits to a few obvious parallels between the world of Delicious! and Gourmet — the camaraderie between the staff members, the test kitchen where staffers would drop everything and rush in when someone testing out a recipe yelled out, “Taste!” — but that’s about it. “Everybody says your first book is autobiographical. But I really wanted the fun of inhabiting someone who was very different from me,” she said. “It was interesting to me to explore the sister relationship because I don’t have a sister. And it was fun to be 21 again. I like that she’s not really me, but when my son read it he said, ‘But Mom, she’s optimistic like you.’ I hadn’t realized that.”

The main character’s discovery about the treatment of Italian-Americans comes from Ms. Reichl’s own interest in life on the home front during World War II. “I did a lot of research for this book,” she said. “I read a lot, and I suddenly came upon this whole history of what happened to Italian-Americans, especially on the west coast. I was shocked. I don’t think anybody knows about it, except that there was an apology read into the Congressional Record in 1998 or so. The thing that really ended it was that Fiorello LaGuardia put a stop to it. He said, ‘OK, that’s enough.’”

She continues, “As a writer one of the great things is when you get blocked, you just go do research for awhile. I probably own every rationing cookbook that was published. I read a lot about Roosevelt and his feelings about food being another front of the war. To me, this was such a fascinating time. Today we live in a time in America when the rich and poor have probably never eaten so differently from each other. But World War II was a time when just about everybody ate the same. “

Ms. Reichl was born and raised in New York and spent several years as a young adult in Berkeley, California. She was a co-owner of a restaurant in Berkeley and served as restaurant critic not only for the Los Angeles Times, but also for New West and California magazines. She currently lives in the Berkshires with her husband, a television producer.

Her own ventures into television include hosting specials on Food Network, producing a public television series for Gourmet, and serving as a judge on the show Top Chef Masters. Ms. Reichl has mixed feelings about food shows. “A lot of them are remarkably stupid,” she said. “ But we have food TV to thank for the fact that we have a food-obsessed public, which is a good thing. Kids raised on food TV are now cooks and curious eaters. With the stupider shows, it’s kind of like when you first start drinking wine. You drink Blue Nun and Mateus, and then you graduate to better things. I have no animosity toward any of the shows.”

Her own cooking repertoire consists mostly of fairly simple food. “I had people over the other day, and I just did a roast chicken with German fried potatoes and creamed spinach and a big salad, with a lemon tart,” she said. “I don’t think home cooks need to cook like chefs. I’m fortunate because we buy most of our food from local farmers and providers. We pretty much eat with the season.”

Keeping abreast of what is advisable to eat and what is not can be a chore. “We’re so frightened of food in so many ways,” Ms. Reichl said. “Every couple of years we’re told you shouldn’t eat this, you should eat that. Butter’s bad, butter’s good. The same with eggs. But then the things that are really bad, we’re not frightened enough of, like margarine. We’re not wary enough of industrial food and way too frightened of natural things. I think if your grandmother ate it, you shouldn’t worry about it.”