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Ruth Reichl: On her mother, Gourmet, Twitter

Ruth Reichl last year in her then-offices at Gourmet. (Associated Press)

Last night represented a dilemma for some Washington-area food lovers: Which event to attend? Over at the National Building Museum, more than 60 chefs, sommeliers and mixologists were serving up bites and sips at Taste of the Nation for anti-hunger efforts. At the Natural History Museum's Baird Auditorium, meanwhile, Ruth Reichl would be dishing about her time as editor of the late-great Gourmet magazine, as the New York Times restaurant critic and, of course, as her mother's daughter as she started the publicity tour for the paperback edition of her latest memoir.

My choice was clear: No offense, Share Our Strength. I'm glad the sold-out TotN event raised more than $124,000. I would be at the Smithsonian program, because I was interviewing Reichl on stage in front of a crowd of a few hundred.

I didn't take notes or record our conversation, because, frankly, I was too concerned with doing my homework and making sure the evening was an entertaining one. But I took a cue from Reichl herself. After her restaurant meals while a critic at the Times, she would rush home and download her thoughts on her computer, so I jotted down a few memories after I got home last night so I could pass along some highlights:

First, the book. We spent the first part of our talk on Reichl's reason for being here: "For You Mom, Finally," the paperback edition of "Not Becoming My Mother" (Penguin Press, 2009). She talked about how she came to write it -- a speech written for what would have been her mother's 100th birthday turned into a book project that took a turn once Reichl finally opened a box of her mother's papers. "I'm lucky that my mother comes from that generation where people wrote letters to each other even when they lived in the same town," she told the crowd.

I asked her why the book changed names from one edition to the next. The simple answer: She never liked the first title, thinking it didn't represent the tone of the book, but the sales and marketing people had insisted on it. She got her way with the paperback edition. The new title captures her feeling that after what she had written about her mother in previous books, she owed her this one: a truer exploration of a brilliant-but-bored woman who felt trapped by family life at the expense of career and personal fulfillment and who was determined that her daughter have anything but that life.

How would she have written about her mother, Miriam, in previous books, had she known then what she knows now? Reichl described the contrast between the incident she writes of at the beginning of "Tender at the Bone" in which Miriam sends dozens of party guests to the hospital from food poisoning. In Reichl's memory, her mother was comically flippant about the episode, but more recently, when she read a note from her mother to her psychiatrist about it, it was clear that was obviously not the case. Still, in one sense she's glad she didn't know the truth earlier, "because I would have lost some of my best material."

The Gourmet years. I knew people would want to know her thoughts on what she referred to a "the golden age of American magazines," and why and how it all went south. Reichl's proudest moments at the magazine, she said, were David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster" story, Barry Estabrook's expose of tomato-worker slavery, the Latin American issue and the fiction insert. But the magazine's advertising base was all luxury products, and when the economy took a nose dive, the bottom dropped out, and Conde Nast decided to pull the plug.

Would she have done anything differently? She talked about how in the year or so before Gourmet closed, the publisher was vastly overestimating the number of editorial pages each issue would have based on the ad pages sold. At the last minute, "we would go from 80 pages to 40 pages, and then we would have to start pulling things apart." She had to leave intact stories that had advertising sold against them and regular monthly columns, so what was left didn't necessarily make for the kind of mix she wanted. "If I had to do it all over again," she said, "I wouldn't have believed the estimates."

Will she have another chance to make an impact on a food magazine? She would say only that she's been offered an editorial position that she couldn't detail because the deal isn't finalized. Is it in food? "Not in food," she said.

She's also working on a novel, which will have food sprinkled throughout, and indeed a memoir about the Gourmet years, but not just yet: "I don't want to write it now, when people are expecting something mean."

Twitter. I couldn't NOT talk about Reichl's haiku-like Tweets on the simple glories of whatever she's cooking or eating at the moment. I quoted from a recent piece by John Kessler in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution saying that Reichl may have invented a new genre of food writing. And then I brought up Ruth Bourdain, the anonymous Twitter user whose schtick is to filter Reichl's Tweets through the sensibility of Anthony Bourdain. I had printed out an example (after searching for one without too much profanity, given the genteel nature of the setting) and asked Reichl if she would read them out loud to the audience, and she demurred: "Oh, no, I'll let you," she said with a laugh.

Ruth Reichl Tweeted: "Sun spangled morning. Tiny yellow birds. Peeling tangerines. Fresh warm bread, cold sweet butter, apricot jam."

Ruth Bourdain Tweeted: "Sun spangled morning. Tiny yellow birds. Deep fry them, perhaps? Zesting tangerines for le bong. Meow. Warm bread, cold butter. Jam on it."

Now that R.B. has become such a sensation, does R.R. Tweet any differently knowing the twisted result that is about to occur? "It's true," she said, "sometimes I think I'm feeding material directly to him."

Before the signing, I had quickly answered "Palena" when Reichl asked me where she should eat when she's in town. So afterward, when I realized that she was free for dinner, that's where we cabbed off to, meeting cookbook author Joan Nathan, caterer Vered Guttman and Amy Bartscherer there. Reichl said appreciative things about pretty much all of Frank Ruta's food, but, as I had promised (and hoped), it was the roast chicken that did her in.

The proof was on Twitter the next morning: "Skin crisp, golden. So crisp. Flesh soft, sweet, slick, fragrant. The simplicity of great roast chicken. Last night. Palena. DC."

It didn't take long before Ruth Bourdain followed: "Skin crisp, golden. Almost Snooki-hued. So crisp. Flesh soft like Emeril's thighs, sweet, slick, fragrant. And crisp. Great roast chicken."

-- Joe Yonan

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By Joe Yonan  |  April 13, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
 | Tags: Gourmet, Joe Yonan, Twitter  
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Gotta love Ruth. Both of them.

Posted by: Dialynn | April 13, 2010 10:04 PM | Report abuse

I was rereading my copy of Garlic & Sapphires last night (taking care of kids and couldn't come out). If I were permitted to pick dinner companions for a table of 4, my companions would be:

Bill Bryson
Ruth Reichl
Dorothy Gaiter (or John Brecher)


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | April 14, 2010 1:37 AM | Report abuse

I look forward to reading Ruth's book. I too have a relationship to my mother that initially focused on what not to become. She was adamant that I study and earn money, because she wasn't allowed to go to medical school.

Now that I'm the chef and host for HUSH Supper Club, I'm overjoyed to say that I'm becoming more like her everyday. She's my guru in the kitchen and it's been healing and fun.

Posted by: GeetaHUSH | April 14, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

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