Ruth Reichl: Favorite Food Memoirs The food memoir now has a major shelf in most big bookstores. We asked Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet magazine and the author of two food memoirs, to talk about some of her favorite books about food.
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Ruth Reichl: Favorite Food Memoirs

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Ruth Reichl: Favorite Food Memoirs

Ruth Reichl: Favorite Food Memoirs

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Okay. Some people love to eat, some people love to write about they eat, and apparently many people love to read other people's writing about what they eat. Walk into a big bookstore and you may find an entire shelf devoted to food memoirs. So, this morning, we'll pull some books off that shelf to review them.

Our reviewer is Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet magazine. She has written two food memoirs of her own, so she is the perfect person to answer this question.

Would you explain what a food memoir is for somebody who's never read one?

Ms. RUTH REICHL (Editor, Gourmet Magazine): It's a sort of new genre where people are writing about their lives and food. I mean, they are actually looking at the world, food first.

INSKEEP: Food first?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REICHL: Yes.

INSKEEP: You begin with the meal that you prepare and go on from there. There's actually a quote from George Orwell in one of these books.

(Soundbite of pages turning)

INSKEEP: This book by Bill Buford called "Heat" included a quote from George Orwell, which begins: A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REICHL: Many of the other authors that we will meet today don't quite agree with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: They think that there's meaning in food itself, and they try to draw out that meaning and try to draw larger meanings, don't they?

Ms. REICHL: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about one of these books that you have selected here, the "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver. Maybe that's an example of someone drawing a larger meaning out of what they eat.

Ms. REICHL: Well, Barbara Kingsolver, who is by anybody's measure just an extraordinary writer. I just sort of opened the book at random and picked out one sentence. This is just her description of cactuses. It says: The tall, dehydrated saguaros stood around all teetery and sucked in like very prickly super models.

So here's this extraordinary writer who decides that for a year she and her family are going to try and raise all their food or get it from neighbors.

INSKEEP: What do they have to do without, if anything?

Ms. REICHL: Citrus, because there was…

INSKEEP: (Unintelligible) they're in Virginia.

Ms. REICHL: Exactly. They had to do without almost all processed foods. They each got to choose one thing that would be outside of this law. So her husband chose coffee because, of course, there would be no coffee if you were totally feeding yourself.

INSKEEP: Did you find yourself thinking about what would be the one thing that you would insist on not doing without if you were doing this?

Ms. REICHL: Oh, there were so many things. And there are actually moments where you find them cheating a little. They do a party for her 50th birthday and suddenly they're doing these Vietnamese rice rolls. And I'm thinking, wait a minute, these rice paper wrappers, I don't believe that they were grown in Virginia.

INSKEEP: Now, how is a year of eating depicted differently, if at all, when we move to a book called "The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater"?

Ms. REICHL: I cannot tell you how much I love this book. Nigel Slater is an English writer and chef, and I don't think anybody has ever made food sound more delicious. When he describes a beet, for instance, it comes alive for you on the page and you suddenly want to run out and eat as many beets as you possibly can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REICHL: This is from late May. He says, there were beets at the farmers market today. I buy six, each the size of a plum and the color of damson jam. The stalks are young and translucent, a vivid magenta purple, yet the beets have the coarse, curly whiskers of an old man. They need no washing, just a rub with a wet thumb and while in a very hot oven. I cut off the stalks, leaving a short tuft behind, then put the beets in a roasting tin with a splash of water and cover the tin with foil. An hour in the oven and they are done. Their skin slides off effortlessly to reveal sweet, ruby flesh. And everything he talks about is like that, and I mean there's no shoulds in this. It's just sheer pleasure and sensuousness in food.

INSKEEP: How long has this sort of food memoir been around?

Ms. REICHL: I think that M.F.K. Fisher really, at least for us in the United States, is the person who first wrote a food memoir. And hers was written in the '40s. She wrote a book called "The Gastronomical Me." She says that when she's writing about food, what she's really writing about are larger things, about love and our need for it. And she has a wonderful quote when she says she believes that we would all be better people if we paid attention to our appetites.

INSKEEP: May I read a sentence or two from that very book. This is from - she's remembering something that happened in 1912. She says: The first thing I remember tasting and then wanting to taste again is the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam. I suppose I was about four.

That doesn't actually sound very delectable, but it's clearly about the relationship there, isn't it?

Ms. REICHL: It is about the relationship, and it's about the memory. And actually, Barbara Kingsolver has a wonderful quote where she talks about when she's cooking, all the people who taught her to cook are standing in the kitchen with her and that there's a sort of communion of the stove and that they're all there, you know, every time she cooks. And it's that same idea, that the act of cooking is sort of going down through the ages and it's, you know, passed on from mother to daughter, from grandmother to child, and that there's a kind of sacred place in the kitchen where your relatives come to join you when you cook.

INSKEEP: Ruth Reichl, great talking with you

Ms. REICHL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: You can find more of Ruth Reichl's food writing recommendations and explore other summer reading ideas by going to

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