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Speaking with: food critic Ruth Reichl

Speaking with: Ruth Reichl. CC BY-ND31.4 MB (download)
Ruth Reichl MWF

Ruth Reichl, the former restaurant critic of The New York Times and author of best-selling gourmet memoirs Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples, is known for describing, in vivid detail, how food can define us.

While in Australia this week, to discuss her first novel Delicious! at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, Reichl talks with food researcher Isabelle de Solier about why food really matters, the social contract of inviting people to dinner, “industrial food” and the importance of getting people back into the kitchen.

Ruth Reichl will be appearing at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on Saturday 23 and Sunday 24 August. Details here.


Read more coverage of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival.

Listen to other podcast episodes here.

Full transcript

Isabelle de Solier (IDS): My name is Isabelle de Solier and welcome to The Conversation podcast. I’m speaking with food critic Ruth Reichl, who’s in Australia for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival where she will be discussing her first novel Delicious! and sharing tips on the art of food writing and restaurant criticism.

Ruth, welcome. Let me start by asking you about the significance of food in our lives. What’s your response when people say, “it’s just food”? Why does food matter?

Ruth Reichl (RR): Oh that’s such a big question. The quickest way to answer this is when I went for a tour through San Quentin Prison, they told me that they made sure that, in this high security prison, they had really good food because all riots in prisons started in the cafeteria.

And the truth is that food is the primary concern of people, you need food and water to exist and it drives just about everything else in our lives. It drives our social relations, it drives our politics, it drives the way we connect to each other, it drives the environment. And if you don’t care about food, you ultimately really don’t care about life.

You can not care about flavour, which would be a shame because you would be denying yourself a great pleasure. But to not care about food, to not think about food, to not think about what it means today that half the world has too much to eat and the other half doesn’t have enough to eat is to really not understand the major problems of the world.

And down the road, I mean as we’re speaking, I mean we’re in like, one of the most horrific times that I can think of, certainly in my lifetime, I mean there are horrible things happening all over the world. The Middle East is exploding, America at the moment is having race problems, but that’s nothing compared to the coming issues we are going to be having with water.

You know, if you don’t think about those things, you’re really denying what’s important in life.

IDS: I think part of the critique often directed at food culture today is that it epitomises consumerism, and in the research that I did with amateur foodies for my book, Food and the Self, I found that producing food, in terms of cooking it was more important to them, and held a higher value for them than just consuming it in restaurants.

I’d like to know what your thoughts are on this and if you think there’s been a return to cooking and production in food culture as opposed to more of an obsession with restaurants and consumption in the 80s.

RR: Well, I think you can divide this in two ways. If you think about producing food, is there a return to gardening? Yes. Is there a return to young people being interested in farming, which I mean, we’re losing farmers at an incredible rate, now we have a generation of smart young people who are interested in farming again. That’s all to the good.

Are we losing cooking? Sadly, we are. You know, I’m kind of shocked at how little knowledge young people have about how to produce food and I feel like one of the real things that we need to be doing is getting people back into the kitchen. Getting people comfortable, I mean, cooking is easy! It is my belief that it is man’s natural activity. You know, it’s like what makes us human. We cook, they don’t.

Cooking is also the most generous impulse. I mean people cook as a form of an expression of love, I mean it’s a generosity to want to feed people and I am really hoping for a time when this sort of foodie obsession with running to the newest restaurant will come around to an obsession with feeding people.

One of the reasons I stopped being a restaurant critic was that I was increasingly disturbed by the amount of private time people were spending in public spaces. It’s a very different thing to meet people in a restaurant. To say “meet me at a restaurant for a meal”, than to say “come to my house for dinner.” Because when you say come to my house for dinner you are not just saying come to my house, I’m going to cook for you, you are sharing your life, you are opening yourself up, you are becoming vulnerable. I mean, people come to your house and they see if you are messy, if you have good taste, if your children have manners, if your animals are disciplined, it’s a kind of vulnerability that we are no longer ready to risk.

So, I’m hoping for people to start cooking again for so many reasons. More than just it’s a wonderful thing to know how to cook, it’s a very pleasurable thing, there’s nothing nicer than having people around your table, there’s nothing more comforting than knowing that you know how to feed your family on very little money, which you need to know how to cook to do.

But it’s bigger than that. The whole social contract that happens around a table, it’s very different in a restaurant than it is in a home.

IDS: One of the main changes in the sphere of restaurant reviewing in recent times has been the emergence of online amateur food criticism, and in particular, food bloggers. How do you view amateur restaurant bloggers?

RR: You know there are many ways of doing a restaurant review. Restaurant criticism is no different to any other kind of criticism. The primary purpose of a good critic is to enhance the experience for the reader. So if you read a really good critique and you go to a museum, you see that art in a different way.

And with restaurant criticism, with a really good critique, you go to that restaurant prepared to experience that food in a richer way. You’ve learned something about, you know, where this food comes from, where the chef comes from, where it fits into the history of restaurants.

The kind of blogging reviews that happen are essentially consumer reports. They’re … go spend your money here or don’t spend your money there. And what I like about them is that as a consumer of those kind of critiques, you need to use your own judgement. You need to be able to triangulate between: this is probably a friend of the chef, it’s his mother, this is a disgruntled person who is probably a jerk. You need to like read them and bring your own intelligence to it.

And the other side of it is that it has made the professional critics better. I mean I think, certainly in the United States right now, we have the best restaurant critics we have ever had. I mean they are the most knowledgeable, the best writers, the most interesting group of restaurant critics we have ever had. Because restaurant critics used to able to just be consumer reporters.

I mean if you look at Craig Claiborne, who essentially invented restaurant criticism in the United States, all he was really doing was saying was “spend your money here, don’t spend your money there”, and if you look at the evolution of it and you look at say, Jonathan Gold who was the only American ever to win a Pulitzer for restaurant criticism. I mean what he brings to it is so incredible. He’s comparing food to music, he’s putting in context, if he’s eaten, you know if he’s writes about a taco he’s comparing it to every other taco in LA.

IDS: When you were working as a restaurant critic, especially the New York Times, you were often described, in terms of the cliche, as having the power to make or break a restaurant. How did you handle this kind of power and responsibility as a critic? What kind of ethics do you think structured your reviewing?

RR: If you believe that criticism is important, and that’s a big “if”, but if you believe it’s important, it’s important to be fair. And being fair means saying something is bad when it’s bad. Although always acknowledging that what you are talking about is basically something that’s going on in your mouth, I mean it’s like, it’s your idea of bad.

But what I kept, a photograph of a young couple who only got to go out once a year. And they saved their money all year and they went out for a really great meal and they went out on their anniversary. And I imagined that I had written a very nice review of a place that wasn’t very good, and that they went and spent their money at this restaurant and were very disappointed and they were my reader. And my responsibility was to them, not to the restaurant. They were the people who were paying my salary. And every time I was tempted to pull my punches, I’d look at that photograph and think: they’re going to be disappointed.

And, it’s hard to do. I mean you don’t want to, if you are a normal human being, your inclination is not to be be mean and to close restaurants and to put people out of work. On the other hand, that couple, it’s not fair to them if you’re saying this restaurant is good when it just isn’t.

IDS: Another thing when you worked as a restaurant critic for The New York Times, you decided to wear disguises when visiting restaurants so you wouldn’t be recognised and given preferential treatment. Some of your identities included Molly, a frumpy blonde and Brenda, a bohemian redhead. How were your various characters treated differently, and what do you think it revealed about prejudice towards different kinds of people in society?

RR: Well, certainly Betty, my frumpy little old lady, was treated like dirt in every restaurant she went to. But the other thing that it taught me was that we’re basically in control of how the world perceives us. Betty was a little old lady, but so was my mother - who I also turned myself into - and she knew, that if you are going to go to an expensive restaurant, you dress up. You demand respect.

And part of, for me, I mean it was fascinating, because I had never really cared about clothing or what I looked like and I didn’t really feel like I was in control of it. But doing all of these disguises was so odd because I would put on all of these disguises but inside I was still me. But what happens is that people respond to what they’re seeing. And suddenly, I would respond to their response.

And so suddenly I would be wild Brenda, who was lovely. I mean she was just the loveliest person, I mean my family liked Brenda better than they liked me! She was so nice, I mean nothing ever bothered her. She was the ultimate “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”, and I realised that we are in control of how we get treated.

And you know, if you go to a fancy restaurant in shabby clothes, they don’t want to see you in that front seat. I mean restaurants are kind of theatre, and to me, you know it’s a contract with the restaurant. If you’re going out to spend a lot of money in a restaurant, their deal with you is that they take your major money and in return they will give you the illusion, if only for a few hours, that you are a privileged person.

But if you want that experience, you have to dress the part. And so you know the contract goes a little bit both ways.

IDS: And did your experience of playing those different characters influence you when you were writing you new novel Delicious!?

RR: Absolutely. I mean when I decided I wanted to write fiction, well actually an editor came to me and said, “You should write fiction” and I said, “well, you know, I’m a memoirist”, I’m not sure I can write fiction. And she said, “oh come on Ruth! What do you think you were doing when you wore all those disguises?” She said, “you weren’t writing fiction but you were living fiction. All you have to do is figure out what character you want to be and instead of being her, put her on the page”.

And she said, “who do you want to be?” And I said, “I want to be 21!” [laughs], and so Billy is 21.

IDS: You said that your Jewish identity is very important to you. How has that shaped your relationship with food?

RR: My mother was the antithesis of a Jewish cook, the sort of stereotype of a Jewish cook is someone who cooks things to death. My mother barely cooked things. I mean, she’s put a turkey in the oven and pull it out ten minutes later and in tell you it was cooked! And I did not grow up with classic Jewish food, and in fact, don’t have much taste for it.

I grew up in a very sort of Jewish intellectual household, that maybe because my parents were Jews, they almost deliberately disdained food. They were, like “food isn’t important to us at all. We don’t care”. And so in response to their not caring, I care enormously.

I certainly don’t come from any religious background, but my parents were very strongly cultural New York Jews. I realise now because so many of my friends are not Jewish, what a small world, I mean, I grew up in publishing, and my parents’ friends were, pretty much, all Jews. It’s odd to think about because none of them were religious. You know, I went to a public school in Greenwich village, the schools were empty on the Jewish holidays.

IDS: The contemporary obsession with food and popular culture in everyday life comes at a time when rates of obesity in the US and Australia are extremely high with 25% of adults in Australia and 35% of adults in the US are obese, and projected to rise further. What role, if any, do you think the food media has to play in educating people, not only about the pleasures of food, but also about health and nutrition?

RR: My own bias on this is less with the notion of health and nutrition and more with the notion of get rid of industrial foods. I don’t think that people need to think of food as medicine to be healthy. But I do think that clearly, we have run an experiment on two generations now, where we have allowed our food to be industrialised and constantly refined, become worse and worse and worse.

And it’s very clear that, I don’t know if it’s the antibiotics, but you have to think about the antibiotics that are used in the meats in the United States. You know 80% of the antibiotics in the United States are used on perfectly healthy animals, and it’s basically to fatten them up. Well is that fattening us up? The jury is out on that.

Is the fact that people think it’s perfectly normal to drink 64 ounces of soft drinks? You know, is the fact that kids get these huge empty calories in soft drinks, that they’re eating cereal that is filled with chemicals, that we allow children to be advertised to, who are sitting ducks. Kids are plonked in front of the television and there are these ads about terrible foods and these ads are being streamed at them constantly. They have no way of filtering them at all.

Eating we know is learned behaviour. Japanese children do not grow up liking rice and fish because they have a natural inclination, that’s what they’re fed.

Children learn to like what they’re fed and so my real bias on this is that I wish we had less sort of “touchy-feely” media about food and more a hard hitting: this is a political issue, we need the government to step in on this. The food lobby is enormous in the United States and we need to activate people because these things are only going to change when people get up on their two feet and start demanding that the government institute laws about what we are allowed to be fed. What children are allowed to be fed, what children are permitted to watch. I mean we really need to take control of this.

IDS: So the industrialised food system is sort of the key?

RR: I think so. I don’t think it matters how much fat and eggs and butter you eat if you are eating real food. But I think we, and we in the media, really need to, it is really important for us, to just keep going over this again and again and again and again, and making things transparent.

You know we’ve done a very good job in the United States of making “cafos”, confined animal facilities, 10 years ago, nobody knew that animals were being tortured in animal factories, people know that now. If you choose to eat industrialised pigs and that those animals have miserable lives. We really need to keep pushing for transparency in everything.

IDS: Do you think the shift towards local food is important as part of that?

RR: I think it’s very important. I think that you know for one thing keeping money inside the community is very important. The more we globalise food and, you know, make it cheaper for people to buy food from China than food from the farmer next door, the more we are making our own environments worse places.

We need farmers. We need food to be local. The safest way to eat is to know the people who raised your food. You know, one of the big problems we are finding with these huge food epidemics of food-born illnesses is that it’s very hard to trace. You know, what sickened these people? Where do these animals come from? Where did that cantaloupe come from that made people sick?

If you are buying, you know, if someone in you family gets sick and you bought food from the farmer next door, it’s very easy to trace.

IDS: As you spoke about earlier, there’s 800 million people in the world who don’t have enough food to eat, and it’s not just a problem confined to the developing world, but also one on our doorstep with 5% of households in Australia and 15% in the United States of people experiencing food insecurity.

RR: I think it’s more than that. I think it’s one in five children in the United States goes to bed hungry. One in five.

IDS: What do you see as ways of addressing this?

RR: It’s such a big problem and we all know that it’s largely a problem in the third world. It’s largely a problem of distribution, it’s not that there’s not enough food. In western culture, one of the ways you address it is that people need to learn to cook again. You know, if you know how to cook, it’s easy to live on things like rice and beans, which are very cheap. And if you know how to balance protein. If you think that you need meat at every meal, you create a system of scarcity.

So, part of it is teaching people to eat, part of it is, waste is an enormous issue and not just on the macro level but, within households. I mean the amount of food, there are estimates that, you know 50% of food in the states gets essentially wasted. And part of it is, we need to teach people to cook on a household level. People are just throwing things out.

One of the things that is really encouraging is that chefs all over the world are starting to address these issues. When I first started reviewing restaurants there were no second harvests, no food pantry people. Now there are people who go and collect food from restaurants for redistribution.

But again, I can’t speak to Australia, but the biggest issue in the United States is taxation policy. It’s like we tax the wrong things. So meat is subsidised, sugar is subsidised. If you changed that and you started subsidising healthy food. I mean there’s a reason why when you go to McDonald’s – it is cheap to buy a hamburger and more expensive to buy a salad. And that’s because of our tax policy.

So, so much of this needs to be changed at a government level. It’s very hard for individual people to do anything other than lobby the government.

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