When Ruth Reichl—famed food writer, author, former Gourmet editor in chief, New York Times and Los Angeles Times restaurant critic and holder of six James Beard Awards—stepped up to the podium at the Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum, darkness was just beginning to fall outside its peaked wall of windows. The pews of the church held a full house of foodies, mainly middle-aged and elderly women with the occasional husband or student thrown in, there to hear Reichl’s lecture, “Protect What We Eat.”
Her talk was part of a series of events put on by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts focused on bees, the American food system and how both are being threatened, and many of her remarks centered on dysfunctional food production and consumption in the United States. Reichl finished with a spark of hope, however: the promising developments in food that are on the horizon thanks to a new generation of eaters.
- Lex Nelson
- Ruth Reichl is the author of seven food-related books, four of them memoirs.
“While we were reveling in all this deliciousness, horrific things were going on behind the scenes,” Reichl said.
She detailed factory farming, which “treat[s] living creatures as if they’re widgets” by squeezing hundreds of cows, pigs and chickens into unsanitary warehouses, and produces lakes of manure that turn “once-lovely vistas into nightmare country.” On the obesity epidemic, she said, “while half the world goes hungry, the other half is killing itself with calories.” She reported that the average American tosses 1,250 calories into the trash per day, and that 48 million Americans, one-sixth of the population, contracted food poisoning last year.
Just when the dire statistics seemed endless, Reichl changed her tone.
“Okay, after all that bad news, it’s time for some good news,” she said, “The first is about our kids. If you know anyone under the age of 25, you undoubtedly know that they are the first generation of truly ethical leaders our nation has ever raised. They understand how much their food choices matter. They care about the fate of the earth, and they know that they have the means to affect it. And they are the ones who are creating the most hopeful innovations in food."
Reichl said she is putting her money on, and her faith in, “young silicon valley engineers” who are pioneering new foods and ways of eating, from “meat” grown in labs to “fish” made from vegetables injected with soy sauce and other seasonings.
“Colleges and universities have become the birthplace of food trends,” Reichl said, referring to the recent movements toward meatless, local and organic eating.
“It’s time to put our elbows up on the table and stop being so darn polite,” she continued in her closing remarks. “We need to keep in mind how important our food choices are. We need to keep demanding change. We need to go into stores, ask them where their food is coming from [and] refuse to buy the things that are made by bad companies. This is my message to you: Remember that food is more than something to eat. It is our health, the environment and our communities … We can’t look to the government to fix our broken food system, but we can certainly do it by ourselves.”
Reichl’s words were greeted by enthusiastic applause from the crowd, and feedback on the lecture was resoundingly positive, though it’s likely Reichl was preaching to the choir. Some listeners said they were inspired to battle big food, while others left feeling assured they were already doing everything right.
Peter Curran, a local doctor, said he thought Reichl “did a great job of encapsulating important issues,” and Christine Davis-Jeffers, executive director for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, was pleased with the turnout for Reichl’s appearance.
“We had a full house,” she said, smiling broadly, “It really shows the importance of a speaker like Ruth, talking about taking care of our planet. [It shows] how much people care.”