Ruth Reichl's bio is rich with experience. After raising her fork in the 1970s sustainable food revolution in Berkeley, Calif., she ate her way to the top as restaurant critic at the Los Angeles Times. In 1993, she hopped coasts to become the wig-wearing food critic for The New York Times, which she left for a 10-year stint as editor-in-chief of Gourmet. Reichl is the bestselling author of the memoirs Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples, Garlic and Sapphires and Not Becoming My Mother. Her first work of fiction, Delicious!, will be released in May 2014. She speaks at the Morrison Center Wednesday, Oct. 16, as part of The Cabin's Readings and Conversations series.
You were a restaurant critic for The New York Times in the mid-'90s. How would you characterize the food landscape then versus now?
It's totally different. First of all, when I was there, it was a pre-cellphone time so nobody was taking pictures of their food or pictures of the restaurant critic. It was pretty much a pre-food-blog time, so at that point, critics were much more powerful than they are today. ... At that point, New York was still looking to Europe and taking all its cues from French restaurants. ... There wasn't a decent Mexican restaurant in all of New York, certainly not all the taco places there are now. There were no food carts. One of the huge differences is today, the people who go out to restaurants, it's a completely different clientele.
Do you feel like good food has become more accessible since then?
It's not only become more accessible, but there's a whole new generation of New Yorkers between the ages of 22 and 35 who probably spend 10 times the amount of money going out to restaurants as they did in the early '90s.
What do you think ushered in that change?
I think food has become part of popular culture in a way that it just wasn't back then. Then, when people went out, they talked about theater, they talked about books they'd read, they talked about movies, they talked about music. Today, people talk about all those things but they also talk about food. "Have you been here?" "Have you tasted that?" People who consider themselves well-rounded want to have eaten at all the new places. So it's a younger and much more knowledgeable clientele than it was in the '90s.
What do you see as the role of the food critic in this Internet age of food blogs, Urbanspoon, etc.?
It has put the onus on the professionals to be much more knowledgeable, much better writers, much more thoughtful and it's much less about, "What do I think about the food?" and much more, "How can I help you experience this food in a better way?" It's become criticism in the real sense of the word. What good critics do is not tell you how to spend your money, they tell you how to get the most out of your experience. They give you context, they give you the history, they tell you where this restaurant stands in relation to all the restaurants that have come before it.
Have you seen food writing change?
It's changed totally in the sense that, when my book came out, there was no genre called the "food memoir." Now, a new food memoir comes out every day. There are food novels, there are food movies, there are food TV shows. None of this stuff existed in the early '90s. The Food Network was just starting and it wasn't remotely what it is today.
You described food as "intensely political" when you were living in Berkeley, Calif. in the 1970s. Do you find similarities between that time and now?
Oh, absolutely. We, in Berkeley in the '70s, in our wildest dreams could not have imagined that what we were doing, which was a fringe movement at the time, would become mainstream. Even as recently as 2006, I gave a speech to a conference of newspaper editorial writers begging them to pay attention to food. That was less than 10 years ago. Today, The New York Times has Mark Bittman, who is a dedicated editorial writer only about food, and all kinds of mainstream magazines consider food as part of their purview.
Why do you think the artisanal and local-food movements have become so widely popular? Do you think it's a search for authenticity?
Absolutely. I think it's, one, a search for authenticity. Two, it's an understanding that we have a serious crisis in this country. The obesity crisis is not a joke: it costs us billions and billions of dollars a year as a nation. It's made huge swaths of our population sick. Allergies that were unknown when I was a child are endemic now and it probably has something to do with the way we raise and process our food.
You've written a number of bestselling memoirs, but your next book, Delicious!, is a work of fiction. Can you describe the plot and how it incorporates food?
It's very much about food. It's about a young woman who is grief-stricken and we don't quite know why in the beginning. She drops out of college and goes to New York and gets a job at a magazine. She's just starting to try and get herself back into the world and losing this grief when the magazine abruptly closes and she's plunged back into despair. ... She goes back after the magazine's closed and she realizes she's the only person there; it's a little spooky. And she goes into the library one day and she discovers a secret room hidden behind a panel. She goes in there and discovers every letter that has ever been written to the magazine in its 100-year existence. She finds a pile of letters that a little girl wrote to James Beard during World War II, dying to learn to cook. ... You have two parallel stories: You have Lulu in the '40s during World War II, whose mother's working in a munitions plant and her father's off at war, and she's trying to be the little homemaker at home and learning to cook. She's very feisty; she's wonderful. And these two stories ultimately come together.
What advice would you give to an aspiring food writer right now?
There's never been a better time to be a food writer. I think the advice I would give anyone, any writer, who is setting out now, or actually at any time, is make yourself an expert in something. Don't be a generalist. If you really want to get ahead now, there are a lot of people who know a little bit about many topics; find something you really want to be the go-to person for. Whether it's the food of Uzbekistan, or something. But find a topic that fascinates you and learn as much about it as you can.