Last night, the talented Ruth Reichl appeared at Arts & Letter Live at the DMA. During the evening, she discussed storytelling, cooking, her new novel, and what to do when life changes unexpectedly: seek comfort food.
How do fiction writers create compelling characters? According to acclaimed food writer and editor Ruth Reichl: “First, you put them in jeopardy.” It’s telling advice from the former Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet magazine and guest speaker at last night’s Arts & Letters Live series at the Dallas Museum of Art. Her newest book (and first work of fiction) was born during a time of jeopardy, indeed, following the abrupt closure of Gourmet in 2009. “It was an unbelievable shock,” says Reichl who had helmed the magazine for over a decade. “I probably should’ve seen it coming, but I absolutely didn’t.”
As her days as a Condé Nast editor came to an end, so did the lavish lifestyle and enviable perks of a personal driver, daily hair and makeup team, and a wardrobe allowance. Quelle horroeur. “I had been a daily journalist all my life,” says Reichl, “so being at Condé Nast was like being Cinderella, and I had turned back into a pumpkin.”
Her decades-long career had included stints as restaurant critic of the The New York Times (1993-1999) and food editor of the Los Angeles Times (1984-1993). Yet, with six (count ’em six!) James Beard Awards for excellence in writing and a handful of best-selling cookbooks and memoirs under her belt, she found herself unexpectedly lost.
So Reichl turned back to the kitchen and spent a year reconnecting with her passion for food. “I was so happy to be back in the kitchen; it was very grounding. I was learning about what’s really important and what you need in life. Suddenly I had time to spend with my family, wander the streets of New York, and cook.”
Along with this unplanned sabbatical came the fortuitous discovery of a filing cabinet containing every letter Gourmet had ever received. While the majority were uninspired complaints or requests for recipes, Reichl was captivated by their collective voice. “In them there was remarkable history of the last 70 years of American cooking.” And when she decided it was time to return to writing, those letters were her source of inspiration.
Delicious! tells the story of Bille Breslin, a food writer who takes a job at New York food mag, only to see its doors closed. Agreeing to stay on and answer the now defunct mag’s customer relations hotline, she discovers a packet of letters from a young girl written to James Beard during World War II. (Though the plot sounds familiar, Reichl insists it’s not at all autobiographical.)
Following her book talk, Reichl sat down in front of the packed house for a chat with Dallas’ own Chef Dean Fearing. Among their topics of discussion: their friendship (forged in China over moonshine called “White Dog”), the biggest mistake chefs make (too many ingredients on the plate), and Reichl’s favorite restaurant in New York (David Rockefeller’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns). Also, geoduck! Though Fearing mourns how poorly it sells on a menu, Reichl actually enjoys the unattractive, sea-monsterish clam.
The highlight of their conversation was Reichl’s thoughts on the democratization of food thanks to the phenomenon of blogs, Food Network, and shows like Top Chef Masters (on which Reichl has been a judge.) “The public is so much more critical, knowledgeable, and adventurous,” she notes. “When you have a population who knows good food, the level of quality goes up.” In the wake of demi-critics and mouthy Yelpers, she’s been encouraged by the rise in the overall appreciation of beautiful, thoughtful cooking. And though she’s made her name as a critic, she hasn’t let that overshadow her very apparent, genuine, and seemingly inexhaustible love for food. As she aptly put it: “What’s the point of knowing a lot about something if all it does is make you like it less?”