In person, Ruth Reichl speaks the way she writes in her memoirs. When the Georgia Straight asks over a morning coffee at a Vancouver hotel what she thought of dinner the night before, she doesn’t just say good or bad. She relives the whole experience.
“It was wonderful,” she says of her meal at Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie. “There was so much energy in that room.…We had this wonderful steamed dim sum that was fantastic. My favourite thing was this kind of lamb sandwich.” The legendary New York–based food writer puts her hands around an invisible shao bing flatbread, trying to summon up the Chinese name. “It was a flat, sesame-crusted bread and it had this wonderful, really cumin-y lamb inside.” Dropping her hands, she slowly lets the sensual memory flow. “The textures were really nice. The bread was really crusty and then yielded to softness, and then you’ve got the meat in the middle.…It was totally irresistible.”
Irresistible is a word many people would apply to Reichl’s four memoirs, including 2005’s Garlic and Sapphires, which detailed how she donned disguises to dine undercover as the New York Times restaurant critic. While Reichl has a new book in the works covering her 10 years as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, she’s in Vancouver to promote her recently released work of fiction, Delicious! A Novel (Appetite by Random House), with a book signing that evening at Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks.
The novel is Reichl’s first foray into fiction. It follows Billie Breslin as she starts a career at Delicious! magazine, a place remarkably similar to Gourmet magazine. When the publication suddenly ceases operation, she finds herself alone in an empty building maintaining a hot line for reader complaints. That’s when she discovers a hidden room in the magazine’s library containing letters written by an Ohio girl during World War II to James Beard, the pioneering American cookbook writer. While 12-year-old Lulu initially writes to ask for advice on how to cook better within the constraints of wartime rationing, the correspondence evolves and gives Billie insight into her own life.
“I think every writer really wants to write fiction,” Reichl says, noting that she grew up steeped in publishing as her father was a book designer. “There was always this notion in my household that the greatest thing you could do in your life was be a fiction writer.” So memoirs don’t count? “Not as much,” she said laughing.
Then, on a more serious note, she refers to her mother, whose struggles with mental illness Reichl detailed in 2009’s For You, Mom, Finally. “When my mother was really in trouble, what she would do was read,” Reichl notes. “She would dive into a novel and disappear. It’s the same for me: when I’m in trouble—other people drink and take drugs—I dive into books. I really wanted to see, ‘Could I write the kind of book that has given me such pleasure?’”
In Delicious!, Lulu’s letters hark back to the American food culture of the early 1940s, when items like meat and sugar were rationed and thrifty cooking was both a necessity and a virtue. The book refers to a recipe for liver salami and another for a peanut butter and lima bean loaf. That kind of cooking contrasts sharply with the luxurious food Reichl has covered in the past. So why did she want to write about such an austere period?
“Everyone was eating the same food—it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor,” she says, adding that it was a unique, equalizing period in American history. “In the United States right now, we have the most divided food system we’ve ever had,” she explains. “Rich people can eat from farmers markets, humanely raised animals, food that’s never been touched by pesticides, whereas poor people are eating this stuff that we know is making them sick.”
Reichl notes that food culture has evolved in America since she delivered a “Why Food Matters” talk in 2005 as part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Yale University. Back then, many people weren’t aware of the issues surrounding industrial meat production, factory farming, and unsustainable fishing. Now, Reichl says, diners increasingly understand that “eating is an ethical act” in terms of treatment of animals and the environment. But she feels the discussion needs to go further.
In the U.S., “the conversation we should be having about food right now is justice for food workers,” she says. “We care more about the cows than the people who are milking them.…We’ve had the conversation about the animals. It’s time to have the conversation about the humans.”
It’s fine if you want to buy organic produce because it’s good for your health and helps preserve the environment for your children. “But we aren’t thinking that the people who are picking that beautiful produce that is making us healthy are exactly the ones who are stuck eating fast food,” she says. “That conversation needs to shift.”
She notes that most farms in the U.S., even small ones, run on “undocumented workers who are unprotected and exploited”. The dishwashers at most restaurants in the U.S. are illegal immigrants who are “unprotected in every way”, and working conditions at meatpacking plants are “horrific”. She has become involved with New York State's Rural & Migrant Ministry to raise awareness of food-justice issues.
These days, when Reichl goes to farmers markets, she asks more questions. These include, “How do you pay your workers? How are they housed? Where do they come from?” She admits that doing so is embarrassing—“You don’t want to ask such things of a lovely farmer who is growing gorgeous produce for you”—yet “it’s a conversation we have to have.”
While Reichl clearly doesn’t shy away from the serious issues surrounding food, she feels that we shouldn’t be so earnest that we neglect to enjoy eating.
“I think one of the reasons food matters is that there’s always horrible things happening in the world and it’s really easy to be depressed about the future,” she says. “On the other hand, there’s also great pleasure to be had from everyday things.”
She lifts her round ceramic cup and cradles it in her palms. “We too often overlook the pleasure of picking up a cup of cappuccino and saying, ‘Taste this. This is a really good moment.’ ”