Though she built her name as restaurant critic at The New York Times and then as Gourmet magazine’s star editor, Ruth Reichl’s fans are often far more impressed with her more intimate accomplishments.
Reichl’s trilogy of best-selling memoirs exposed her as a smart, funny and all-too-human participant at the centre of the food revolution that’s overtaken mainstream North America. She might have been one of the most influential people in the business, but she also struggled with the memory of her bipolar mother, with difficult bosses, with love and friendship and with the diminishing thrills of eating out nearly every night of her life. Whether in the Times, Gourmet, in the headnotes to recipes in her cookbooks or on her blog, reading Reichl has always been as much about life as it is about what’s great to eat.
And it didn’t hurt that Reichl has a novelist’s feel for pacing, observation and dialogue; if you’ve ever started a Ruth Reichl book, you know how difficult they are to put down. It wasn’t that much of a leap for Reichl to author her first novel, Delicious!, which was published this spring.
It’s a breezy but captivating read about a young woman named Billie Breslin who lands a dream job at America’s most influential food magazine only to see it shuttered under circumstances that will be familiar to Gourmet’s many mourners (it was closed in the fall of 2009). Bereft over the loss of the magazine and the friends she met there, Breslin discovers a mysterious trove of Second World War-era correspondence between one of the magazine’s editors and a 12-year-old named Lulu Swan.
In Toronto late last month to promote Delicious!, Reichl met me for lunch.
You began writing fiction when you were the restaurant critic at The New York Times: You’d put on a wig for your disguise and you’d instantly start coming up with a story to go with it. How long have the characters in Delicious! been living in your head?
Lulu was a gift. She came to me, literally, when Gourmet was closing. Everybody was gone and so I was there alone in this scene of utter devastation, and I went into the library, because I’d locked it and I knew it was the one place that would be exactly the same. And I saw this filing cabinet I’d never noticed and it was filled with letters that had come to the magazine. But they were mostly recipe requests, complaints or recipe submissions. And so I went back into my office and I sat down and I wrote the letters I wished I had found.
Lulu was full-blown for me. I knew exactly who she was from the get-go. I wrote the letters and I didn’t do anything with them. And then a year later when I decided to write a novel, I knew that she was going to be a part of it.
People seem to project so much onto you. You’re more than just a former editor or a former critic. Why is that?
If you go on Amazon and look at the reviews, so many people want Billie to be me, and then they’re disappointed because they don’t like Billie as much as they like me. And because I’ve written all these memoirs, I’ve opened myself up to that – people feel like they know me. But people need to give me permission to write fiction.
It’s odd, to just have people so invested in me, as if I’m a character. It’s odd to be out there in the world as this … icon. The other night at [Toronto restaurant] Actinolite, somebody burst into tears, ‘I can’t believe I’m meeting you.’ I don’t feel like I’m that old, but people tell me, ‘I’ve been reading you all my life!’
One reviewer took you to task because Delicious! doesn’t take on heavy issues. But in the book you deal vividly with race, and with what during the Second World War was called “enemy food” – Italian home cooking – and with the role of women,
all through the lens of food. Do people take food history seriously enough?
One of the things that fiction does really beautifully is address big issues in a way that people can absorb.
And there’s a lot in here about the role of women, which is really important to me, and discrimination against Italian-Americans during WWII. It’s a hidden part of history.
I believe that this is the power of fiction. You don’t absorb these things any better than when you fall in love with a character and feel their pain.
One of the themes of the book is loss. All of the characters are dealing with it in one way or another, whether it’s the loss of the magazine or of family or love. As you were writing, how much was the loss of Gourmet weighing on you?
I think it still weighs on me, a lot. Because it’s not just that we lost the family there, but the magazine survived for 69 years and it closed on my watch. Sixty people lost their jobs and shouldn’t I have done something? What could I have done to make that not happen?
Working there was a magical time. I loved the people I worked with. I’m still really proud of what we did – we made a magazine that mattered and I miss it. I miss that whole time.
But also, we all go through things like this – nobody goes through life without loss. And one of the themes with the book is, it’s hard to let people help you. For most of us, admitting loss, admitting that you feel terrible about something is hard. And it’s hard to make yourself vulnerable, and let someone help you.
In all my books, fiction, non-fiction, that’s always part of the thing, how you get past that. It’s important to understand how people get through the hard things in their lives.
Your next book is a cookbook, I’ve read. What’s it about?
It’s a strange cookbook. I mean, it’s probably the most intimate thing I’ve ever written. It starts with the closing of Gourmet and I’m really devastated. I was. And it goes through the seasons – it’s a year. And each entry is the tweet: What I tweeted that day. And the diary of what was really going on in my life. And then the recipe I was tweeting about. It’s really about how cooking saved me that year.
I really wasn’t in shape to do much writing. And so I started wandering around the city, picking up ingredients, going to farmers’ markets and Chinatown.
It’s about how cooking grounded me and got me back to a good place.
But it’s also about social media and the power it has. That was the year I really discovered Twitter. I met all these people on Twitter. I mean, I don’t know them, but I do know them. And I’ve never felt alone in the kitchen since.
This interview has been condensed and edited.