Ruth Reichl, the last editor of the late, lamented Gourmet, isn’t just concerned about the future of food writing. “It’s the same as the future of all journalism,” she asserted during a recent phone interview. “You really have to worry when so many people are writing for free. A lot of investigative reporting doesn’t get done if you don’t have an institution paying for it. Democracy depends upon a very robust press.”
Reichl, winner of six James Beard Awards and former food critic at both the L.A. Times and New York Times, should know. She built her food bona fides from the ground up, first working at the food co-op/restaurant Swallow in Berkeley in the early 1970s. (True to Berkeley’s revolutionary nature, Swallow was the more experimental collective compared to Chez Panisse.) In addition to working in journalism, she’s published a series of best-selling, food-centered memoirs, including Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.
Her talk at the Granada on March 27, part of UCSB Arts & Lectures’ Food for Thought series, builds from that book. She said, “I’m basically going to be telling stories about restaurant meals and the back stories to reviews. I’ll probably talk a bit about the demise of Gourmet. And I just did Top Chef Masters, as one of the judges—I’ll probably talk about that. As I’ve said in Tender at the Bone, I think privacy is over-rated.”
She does not think, however, that the recent revolution for organic and local food is overstated. “I think this is an actual change,” she claimed. “One of the ways you appreciate that is you look at the commerce—when sustainability hits Walmart, it’s not a fad anymore. Five years ago, I talked to a newspaper convention and begged them to do more food coverage; to start talking about the farm bill. Now the New York Times has someone whose only job is to write about food issues on the editorial page. Everyone has woken up to the fact that we need to change the way we feed ourselves. We don’t have the option not to change.”
Reichl’s perspective on the issue is also more solid than most. “I think that what I’ve been witness to is the coming of age of American eating,” she said. “When I grew up, food was not considered polite to think about—it’s because of our Puritan past. We had a long way to come to understand our great food resources. The history of food is about cross-culturalism, and this is a country that understands that better than any other. We are the original multicultural food scene, and we finally came to embrace that. It’s been really exciting to see everyone become interested in food the way other countries did centuries ago. Food is not just something to eat, but a much bigger subject.”
How to explore the food subject has certainly changed over time, too. Reichl has done more and more television, including PBS’s Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth, and now her guest judge turn in Season 3 of Top Chef Masters, which begins airing on Bravo April 6. Of course she can’t reveal any details, but she did admit this: “At first, I was a little scared, but it was enormous fun.” She’s also bemused, it seems, by the possibility of a film version of Garlic and Sapphires, which at one point HBO wanted to adapt into a series. “It’s had a checkered history—we’ve had four different scripts, and I just finished polishing the last one. I’m stymied by the Hollywood process; it’s so slow,” she said.
Beyond TV and film, she also recognizes the power of the Internet and how it has changed the game for food writers. “I think that the burden for the professional restaurant critic has really changed,” she stated. “With the Web taking care of the consumer end—‘how should I spend my money?’—the burden is to do serious criticism: giving readers a better way to appreciate the experience, providing elements that teach something, and writing something that gives them a good read.”
No one writing about food knows how to do that better than Reichl, and she’ll spill some of the beans—or at the least describe some of her more outlandish disguises—at the Granada this Sunday.
Get your gourmet on with Ruth Reichl at A Spy in the House of Food on Sunday, March 27, at 3 p.m. at the Granada (1214 State Street, 893-3535, artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu). Learn to cook like Reichl at the free Arts & Lectures Appeteaser event, Cooking Technique Class: Recipes Found in Ruth Reichl’s Books, Friday, March 25, 6-7:30 p.m. at Whole Foods Market. Space is limited; sign up by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.