TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's All You Can Eat Week on FRESH AIR with interviews all about food. Ruth Reichl is one of America's best known food writers. She was the restaurant critic for the New York Times and went on in 1999 to become the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, where she stayed until the magazine folded in 2009, just two years shy of what would have been its 70th birthday.
A little later, we'll hear an excerpt of our 2009 interview, but we're going to start with a conversation we had in 1998, after the publication of Reichl's memoir, "Tender at the Bone: Growing Up At the Table."
You might think that Ruth Reichl's love of food dates back to her mother's wonderful home cooking, but you'd be wrong. Her mother was a terrible cook, so bad Reichl describes her as taste-blind. Here's how Reichl described her mother's approach to preparing food.
Ms. RUTH REICHL (Author, "Tender at the Bone: Growing Up At the Table"): Well, she literally couldn't taste whether things were spoiled or not spoiled, good or - her taste was extremely limited.
The first story in the book is about her waking my father up early in the morning and putting something into his mouth and having him taste it. And he said it was the single most disgusting thing he had ever encountered. And he really couldn't swallow it, and he spit it out, at which point my mother said: Mm-hmm, just as I thought, spoiled.
I mean, she didn't really know whether it was spoiled. She really needed him to taste it to figure out whether it was good or not. Of course, the fact that it had mold on the top might have given her a clue, but it didn't.
GROSS: Do you have any memories of a particularly bad dish that she served you?
Ms. REICHL: Well, I mean, I think that my whole interest in food came really early because my mother - I mean, at the age of three, she would put things on the table that - like butter that she had left uncovered in the refrigerator for a week, which was nauseating. And I would say: Mom, I can't eat this. And she would taste it and said mmm, tastes fine to me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: And, you know, when you're a child, you see that, and you think, you know there's something wrong in the world. But I think the worst thing -and this isn't in the book because it's so simple - but she would take the dregs of ice cream cartons and pour them into an ice tray and put them into the freezer and then serve them so they would be freezer-burned, mushy and just really revolting. And then she would bring it out for a party and serve it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Now, this is the kind of thing that might have ruined somebody when it comes to food. How did it get you to become a restaurant critic? I mean, how did it get you to become a food professional?
Ms. REICHL: Well, you know, I mean, I really felt that I was sort of shaped by my mother's handicap. You know, I mean, it's the way the children of deaf people are probably more aware of sound. I became very aware of taste because I was so fascinated by the fact that my mother couldn't taste these things.
And then in self-defense, I started cooking, and my mother really would make these dreadful concoctions. I mean, she really prided herself on something called Everything Stew, where she would take everything in the refrigerator, all the leftovers, and put them all together.
And one day I was watching her put in leftover turkey and broccoli and a little can of mushroom soup. And she's throwing things in. And half an apple pie goes in.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: And she says - you know, I'd sort of look at her and say mom. And she's like: Oh, it'll be fine. And then she starts throwing everything in. And, you know, in defense, it just - I started cooking because I didn't want to eat that.
GROSS: Now, I know your first experiences in the food world as a professional was working in restaurants. One of the restaurants you worked in was L'Escargot. Would you describe the restaurant?
Ms. REICHL: Well, this was in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was going to school at the University of Michigan, and it was a very, very fancy French restaurant for the mid-'60s and certainly for Ann Arbor, Michigan, and certainly for a college town.
And it was somebody's dream. You know, I had the great privilege, really, of participating in this mad, passionate dream of the owner, who did everything beautifully, which you can't do in a restaurant. I mean, he bought Baccarat crystal, which is insane. I mean, it all breaks in the first month. And Limoges china and wonderful chandeliers.
And he brought a chef from the Four Seasons in New York, and he got the best grill man as a sous chef and wonderful, wonderful waiters and waitresses, real professionals, I mean, the kind of people that you don't see very much anymore who were very proud of their profession and very good at it.
And I've always thought that a really good restaurant, when it runs well, is like being on a movie set. The - you become a family. It becomes a whole life of its own, and this restaurant was like that. We became very tight.
And as we watched this restaurant go down...
GROSS: Go down?
Ms. REICHL: Well, I mean, it was a dream. Ann Arbor was not a place that could support that kind of a restaurant in those days. I mean, it was very high-end French food at very high-end prices, and people would come once for the curiosity but never come again.
And as business really faded, we all pulled together. We really rooted for it. I mean, what happened was the first chef was a real thief, and I learned a lot about how - you know, most restaurants go under because of employee theft, or many of them do. And this guy was a real pro.
I mean, he would take whole sides of meat, wrap them in aluminum foil, bury them in the garbage and then go out after the garbage had been taken out, and he would come back in the middle of the night and take these pieces of meat and sell them.
And we all really started rooting for the owner. I mean, nobody wanted to see this going on, and it was no good. I mean, ultimately, it closed.
GROSS: There was a waiter at this restaurant who kind of initiated you in the ways of restaurants, and he told you that the restaurant was a war zone. What did he mean by that?
Ms. REICHL: Well, it's a common thing that waiters say. I mean, what he said was that the kitchen was at war with the customers, and we were the go-betweens and that our job was to make sure that the customers never knew that the kitchen was at war with them. And this entailed a lot of subterfuge.
For instance, if a customer wanted to send a steak back because it was cooked too much, he said, now, you can go back, and you can tell the chef that the customer says it's overcooked. And he's going to scream and yell because he's at war with the customer.
On the other hand, if you go back and you're very humble and you say: I made a terrible mistake. He said that he wanted it rare, but I wrote down well done. He'll scream at you, but he'll give you a new steak because he's not at war with you.
GROSS: Yeah, but he might be at war with you if that happens too much.
Ms. REICHL: Well, it doesn't happen that often. But it was just a matter of us sort of always taking the blame so that we would get big tips. He also, you know, really felt that it was our responsibility to come up with a good story for the customers.
He said, you know, they should go home with more than a good meal. You have to provide an experience for them that is - you know, that they can talk about. So he encouraged me to pretend that I was a foreign student who was here and had not had enough money and that I needed to work to support myself.
And I developed a great story. I mean, my customers would be crying and giving me big tips at the end of it, but he said that this was a good thing because I was really giving them value for their money.
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with food writer Ruth Reich, the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and former restaurant critic for the New York Times. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: It's All You Can Eat Week on FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Ruth Reichl, the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. This first interview I did with her was in 1998, when she was still the restaurant critic for the New York Times, a very powerful position in the food world.
Now, at the New York Times, you're kind of famous for using disguises when you're reviewing a restaurant so that you can't be spotted, so you can eat anonymously. What do you use, wigs?
Ms. REICHL: I - not only wigs, I keep buying the wigs. I've now got 11. And I do use those. I also have a lot of glasses. I have fake fingernails. I have whole outfits in different sizes. I mean, I'll sometimes put on, like, three pairs of pants, one over the other or, you know, three skirts so I look much larger than I am.
I have learned - I'm not normally a makeup person, but I've learned about makeup, and you can really do amazing things with - you can change the shape of your lips and, you know, change the color of your eyebrows, and I do all that stuff.
GROSS: Now, do you pay cash or use fake credit cards?
Ms. REICHL: I use fake credit cards.
GROSS: Does The Times help you get them?
Ms. REICHL: No, I have figured out my own strategies for getting them. They don't want to know about how I do this.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: I also often ask the people I'm with to pay, and then I just write them a check.
GROSS: Now, not every restaurant critic goes to such extremes to make sure they're not noticed. Why is it so important to you that you're not identified by the staff at the restaurant you're reviewing?
Ms. REICHL: well, I have a really strong belief that I am there to be your eyes and ears when you're at the restaurant. And I'm supposed to tell you what's going to happen to you, not what happens to the restaurant critic of The New York Times, who is getting the best table, and the chef is, you know, cooking the food specially, and the portions are getting bigger and so forth.
I think it's really important for you to know what's going to happen to you. And you can't do that if you're sort of, you know, sashaying in as someone who's going to have a big economic impact on the restaurant.
GROSS: Something you did that was pretty controversial, I think - I don't remember when this was exactly, but you took a star away from the restaurant Le Cirque, which I guess had been, what, four stars, and you demoted it to three. Do I have that right?
Ms. REICHL: Yes, you have it right.
GROSS: I don't even know how the star rating works and who determines what makes a restaurant four or three stars or whatever. So why don't we start with an explanation of that.
Ms. REICHL: Well, the star system is very much up to whoever the critic is at the time. And four stars is the most that you can get, and it's a very exalted - it's a very big deal for restaurants to be...
GROSS: So when you say four-star restaurant, this is like a New York Times four-star restaurant.
Ms. REICHL: Yes, yes.
Ms. REICHL: And it has a lot of weight to the restaurants. When they get a four-star rating, it's a very big deal for them, and it brings them lots and lots and lots of business. To demote a restaurant from three stars to two stars is not such a big deal, but to demote it from four stars to three stars is -it's huge.
This was right after I had arrived in New York five years ago. I had not had a star rating system at the L.A. Times, where I'd been for 10 years. I wasn't that impressed with the star system at the time. I mean, I've since come to see how, if nothing else, how economically powerful it is for the restaurants.
But I started going to Le Cirque, and they didn't know me, and I was not treated well. And everybody had always, you know, jumped up and down about what a great restaurant it was, and, you know, I kept - I had some really terrible experiences there.
You know, I went once with another woman, and we were made to wait 45 minutes at the bar for, you know, a supposedly non-smoking table, and we were still stuck in the smoking section, and when I asked for a wine list, a maitre'd came over and snatched it out of my hands after a minute and said I need that list, and he took it off to some man nearby, and I couldn't get it back.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: After I'd been there a few times, I thought, well, I wonder what will happen if - not if I make a reservation in my own name but just if I go in undisguised. By then, I knew he knew who I was. Sure enough, I go, and I have made a - the only reservation I could get was like 9:45, but I said I think I'll go at 9 o'clock and just see what happens.
And we get to the door, and there's a huge crowd waiting for tables and the owner comes. He parts this crowd. It's like the Red Sea parting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: And he comes through to me, and he pulls me forward and says: The king of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready. And leads me to a table.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: And I thought, you know, this is too wonderful. I've just got to write about, you know, what happened to me as just me, an ordinary person, and then what happened to me as the restaurant critic of the New York Times and write about the two experiences.
GROSS: Now, I could see a restaurant easily explaining this by saying well, of course we treat our regulars with special care. That's why people become regular, because they know they're treated as like part of the family. We know what they like to eat. We know what their preferences are. We know whether they smoke or not.
And it's lovely, like, at a neighborhood restaurant, when you come in all the time, they say hello, they bring you the salad when you sit down, they know what you want. Everybody likes to be treated like a regular.
Ms. REICHL: Absolutely, and regulars deserve to be treated - I mean, they've paid their dues, and they deserve to be treated better. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that ordinary people shouldn't be treated well.
Ms. REICHL: For instance, not every restaurant can have your table ready when you arrive. I mean, there's just - they can't always calculate how long people are going to stay at a table. An apology goes a long way. If they come up to you and say, I'm so sorry that - can I give you a glass of wine, can I somehow make this up to you, you don't feel badly. You don't feel as if you've been dissed.
On the other hand, if it's just, you know, oh go wait over there, we'll let you know when your table is ready - it's a matter of attitude. And Le Cirque at that time was really known for not being particularly nice to ordinary people.
I have to say that their attitude has changed dramatically.
GROSS: Have you changed their star rating?
Ms. REICHL: I have. I mean, they re-opened. They closed for a while, and they've re-opened in a new location, and I went in many times in many disguises, and they were wonderful. They were just wonderful. And I really felt that they had sort of seen that there was no point in not trying to be good to everyone.
GROSS: That was an excerpt of my first interview with Ruth Reichl, recorded in 1998. She left the New York Times in 1999 and became editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. I spoke with her again in 2009, shortly after Gourmet folded. She had just edited a book of recipes from the magazine called "Gourmet Today." Earlier that year, she'd written another memoir.
GROSS: Ruth, you have a memoir that you published recently. It's really about your mother's life, not your own, although you figure into it, and it's called "Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way." And for people who've been following your writing over the years, they know that your mother was bipolar, that your mother was what you call food-blind, that she would serve the most horrible combinations of food, like chocolate over meat, with the meat gone bad. And she couldn't tell the difference between, you know, tasty food and horrible food or food that was good and food that was moldy.
But your new book is a real change in direction. Your new book is really your mother's story from papers that she wrote, you know, letters, journals. So I just want to start with this question. The title is "Not Becoming My Mother."
Now, your mother had bipolar, so, obviously, you wouldn't want to become that aspect of her, but that title resonates. I think there are so many women who, if they were writing a memoir, could have used this title, "Not Becoming My Mother." Why do you think that that is an expression that so many people will relate to?
Ms. REICHL: Well, I think that there are so many of us whose mothers had very sad lives. And, you know, what I discovered with my mother was that she was thwarted in every possible way, and her - what she wanted for me was not to become her. She wanted more for me, and I think that there are many, many women whose mothers dreamt that their daughters would have better lives and pushed them towards that.
And, you know, this book came out of a speech that I gave, and when I looked up, there were people all over the room crying and saying that's my mother you talked about. You know, my mother was smart, educated and bored to death, and...
GROSS: You write in your book that you're grateful not to be any of the women of your mother's generation, who were unlucky enough to have been born in what seems to me to have been the worst possible time to have been a middle-class woman. When was your mother born, so we can get a sense of what her generation was?
Ms. REICHL: She was born in 1908.
GROSS: And why do you think that was the worst possible time to have been a middle-class woman?
Ms. REICHL: Well, you have to remember what happened during my mother's lifetime. Women got the vote. Women were supposedly emancipated, but there was nobody to tell them what that meant or how to do it. I mean, it was a very fast transition from women being essentially the chattel of their husbands to being independent creatures, and so many of them were educated for the first time. It was, you know, really the first generation of women who became doctors and lawyers, or at least had the promise of becoming doctors and lawyers.
But the changes were very slow in coming, and so I just can't imagine anything more frustrating than sort of having this dangling out there, this promise of you can fulfill yourself, you can go out there and do great things, and then being held back.
And on top of that, you had what happened after World War II, where, you know, women went into the workforce and proved to be really competent and then were told to go home and tie on their aprons and give the jobs back to the guys.
GROSS: We'll hear more from our 2009 interview with Ruth Reichl in the second half of the show. The book we've been talking about is called "Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along The Way." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Ruth Reichl in 2009. She's a former New York Times restaurant critic and former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. We spoke shortly after Gourmet folded. Earlier that year she had written a memoir about her mother. The book was based in part on letters and journals her mother wrote, which helped Reichl understand her mother in a way.
I think one of the things that I find most interesting about your book Not Becoming My Mother is that you had always assumed, understandably, that your mother's sadness - and there were months when she'd hardly get out of bed - had to do with the fact that she had bipolar disorder, and her depressions were extreme and disabling. But you found a lot of sadness that had to do with life experiences and with the confined roles of women, as opposed to just, you know, as opposed to being about mental illness. So it seems to me that that must have been a real revelation to you.
Ms. REICHL: It was a huge revelation, and she was - I mean, what I discovered was this young girl who was vibrant and, you know, who was extraordinarily intelligent and was not unhappy, and this bipolar illness happened much later.
GROSS: You found something your mother wrote, in which she said: I hope Ruthie - meaning you - I hope Ruthie won't rush into marriage the way I did that first time. Your mother was married twice. I felt so desperate, and I wanted someone to lean on. My parents thought that I needed to be married, but was that really true? What if I had never married? Would my life have been better?
Did you have any idea before you read this that your mother had thought that maybe she shouldn't have married?
Ms. REICHL: None. None. I mean, my parents actually had a very good marriage, and I know she loved my father, and I was shocked when I found that. But I understood that she really thought that if she hadn't been married, she would've had to support herself, and she would have fulfilled herself in some way that she never could.
GROSS: I think with a lot of daughters it's impossible to see your mother cry without becoming overwhelmed by sadness yourself or maybe crying yourself, because even during periods when you're not getting along with your mother, there's this kind of connection, this like emotional connection that I think a lot of us have felt, where you just - like if your mother's crying - like you can't - you are too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: It's like impossible not to. Did you go through that? And reading, like reading this book, did it make you like so sad to see how sad your mother sometimes was - because of social things, because of her confined roles, because of her insecurities about who she was?
Ms. REICHL: Writing this book was the hardest thing I've ever done. And there's always that feeling as a child that somehow you ought to be able to fix your mother, that if you did the right thing she wouldn't be so sad. And, of course, what I'm reading, as I'm going through her papers, is how generous she was to me, how protective she was of me, how much she didn't want me to go through what she went through.
GROSS: Let me just read an example of what you're talking about. Your mother had been told as a teenager that she was too homely to be successful and then she writes: How could I feel good about myself when the self-image my mother gave me was that I was sloppy, inefficient, homely, ungraceful, and ungracious? I carried that person around for so many years. I want to protect Ruthie -that's you - I want to protect Ruthie from that. It's so hard to watch Ruthie going through this because I know exactly what she's feeling. I wish I could send her to the hairdresser, have her nose fixed, or buy a dress that will make her graceful. I know that none of that will work. All I can offer her is hope. It's one thing my parents didn't do for me.
Did she offer you hope?
Ms. REICHL: She really did. I mean she, she told me that when I found myself, I would be beautiful. And she gave me this idea of beauty as something that reflects your self-confidence and your knowledge in yourself, and she just kept promising me, I know - I mean I was really a horror as a teenager. I think, you know, probably most of us are. But she just kept assuring me over and over again, I promise you, you will be beautiful.
And she told me this fairy tale of this time between her marriages, when she became happy, found herself, and looked in the mirror one day and realized she wasn't that homely creature her parents had told her she was.
GROSS: Now, I want to read something that really kills me that your mother wrote, and this is something you referred to a little earlier. In her late 70s she wrote: My mother is dead. It's time I stop letting her tell me how to live. Why should I care what she thinks? I have so little time.
It's like your mother was realizing in her own way that she was about not becoming her mother.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You know? Like the title of - like your mother had gone through something like what you went through. Was that a revelation?
Ms. REICHL: That was a complete revelation. I mean that's what I saw, was that she finally realized that her mother had expected her to live out her mother's dreams, and it was what she tried not to do for me. And I did not know that she had had this incredible struggle with her mother.
GROSS: I think this is the final thing that she wrote, and this was after your father died. She wrote: I am not going to lower my sights. I'm going to live up to the best in myself, even if it means some painful changes. I am no longer afraid.
How old was she when she wrote that?
Ms. REICHL: Seventy-eight, I think.
Ms. REICHL: I mean I...
GROSS: How old was she when she died?
Ms. REICHL: Eighty-four, I think.
GROSS: So did she live out that promise to herself?
Ms. REICHL: She really did. She became the most outrageously wonderful old lady. I mean, she took people in. And after the book came out, I started hearing from some of these people who she took into her house. I mean she'd go out in the street and meet, you know, strangers in the park and bring them home for dinner, and filled her house with young people - nurtured them, took care of ailing friends, traveled...
GROSS: When you say young people, do you mean young homeless people who she found or...
Ms. REICHL: No. Not - no. You know, she - I grew up in the Village so she was, you know, near NYU.
Ms. REICHL: And she rented out part of the apartment to students and sort of became surrogate parent...
GROSS: I see.
Ms. REICHL: ...to these people, but was, you know, was very nurturing. I mean, you know, someone wrote me and said, you know, your mother made me like myself for the first time, you know, told me not to listen to any - to anybody else and that I, you know, needed to listen to myself, and she was the most wonderful person I ever met in my life. And this is a completely different vision of my mother than I'd ever had.
GROSS: Right. You didn't think of her as particularly nurturing.
Ms. REICHL: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I remember that when you left The New York Times to take the job as editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine, one of the reasons why you did it was that you wanted to be home for dinner with your son. You wanted to be able to prepare meals for him as opposed to eating out at restaurants every night. So looking back on that period of his life - he's in college now and doesn't live at home. Do I have that right?
Ms. REICHL: That's right.
GROSS: So looking back on the period of life when you were able to make dinner for your son and maybe for your husband too, was that good?
Ms. REICHL: It was the best period of my life, I think. I mean it was - cooking dinner every night for my family was, oh, it just - it felt so great. And you know, I realized that I should have done it earlier, that family dinner was hugely important for all three of us.
GROSS: How were you able to get home in time for dinner as editor-in-chief of Gourmet? I mean, that's a pretty demanding job.
Ms. REICHL: It is. But, you know, I walked out the door, you know, not - I didn't come home to make big fancy dinners. I often didn't get home till 7:00 or 7:30 but I still, you know, got dinner on the table very quickly. You know, the thing about cooking, the big misapprehension that people have is that cooking is time consuming. The shopping part is the time consuming. I mean, the part where you're sitting around saying what are we going to have for dinner tonight is very time consuming. I mean, if it's 4 o'clock and you're in your office and you haven't figured out what you're having for dinner tonight, the battle's half lost. So, what I would do was on the weekends I would take, you know, a couple of hours on Sunday, to figure out what we were going to eat that week and I'd shop for it. So, when I got home I knew what I was going to cook and everything that I needed cook was there.
GROSS: Give us an example or two of a dish that both your husband and your son would want to eat, and that you'd want to eat, too, that was easy to prepare and quick to prepare after coming home from work at 7:00 or 7:30.
Ms. REICHL: Okay. Actually, there's a recipe in Gourmet Today that's called spiced chicken and it's - you basically take chicken pieces, you can use breasts if you want. I tend to use legs and thighs. And you make a mixture of, I call it the four Cs - it's chili, cumin, cardamom and cinnamon. And you mix it with a little oil and you put it on and pat it all over the chicken and you pan sear it. And then you put half a cup of water and you throw it in the oven for 20 minutes or so. And, I mean, so this takes maybe eight minutes of active time. It's really delicious. It's nutritious. It's low fat. You make that. You make a little bit of rice. You make a salad. You've got dinner on the table in under half an hour. And it's delicious.
GROSS: Give us like one more example of a good, easy-to-cook family dinner when you get home late.
Ms. REICHL: Well, this is actually not in Gourmet Today. This is my favorite go-to meal and I actually have the recipe in Garlic and Sapphires, spaghetti carbonara, you know, it's just in the time that the spaghetti is cooking it's done. I mean, it's basically, bacon, eggs, parmesan cheese and spaghetti. And it's wonderful, satisfying, delicious. I had a little girl come up to me at a book signing recently and ask me to sign that page. She was eight years old and she said, this is my favorite dish on the planet.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So how do you prepare the bacon and the cheese, you know, while the spaghetti is cooking?
Ms. REICHL: You just - you cut up the bacon, you chop it up into little pieces. You put it in a pan till it gets crisp. I put a garlic clove in there just to flavor it a little, take that out. When the spaghetti is cooked, you, depending on how much pasta there is, you break an egg or two into it, the egg cooks on the - when it hits the hot pasta, you throw the bacon on top of it. You grate some parmesan cheese on - bingo.
GROSS: It sounds really good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: It's really good. It's really good. It's basically, you know, bacon and eggs, Italian style.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Ruth Reichl, it's been great just to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Ms. REICHL: Thank you. It's always great to talk to you.
GROSS: Ruth Reichl recorded in 2009. The book we were talking about is called Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things My Mother Taught Me Along the Way.
Coming up, insights about onions and frying from Russ Parsons. He's food editor and a columnist at the LA Times. He says it was Reichl who hired him there and he describes her as a truly inspirational boss.
This is FRESH AIR.