Hope for the Future, Caution for Today: Q&A With Ruth Reichl
If anyone knows the inside story of food trends over the past few decades, it’s Ruth Reichl. A former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and, before that, restaurant critic for both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, Reichl is now opening a new chapter as a novelist.
On August 31, Reichl will speak with Michael Krasny, host of “Forum” on KQED, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, sponsored by the Peninsula Open Space Trust.
We caught up with her on her book tour for her first novel, Delicious, to talk about innovative food technology, farming, her new books and the evolution of the food landscape.
Beth Lee: In Silicon Valley, we’re used to paradigm-shifting technology advancements. In the world of food, what are some of the paradigm-shifting moments that you would mark during the course of your career?
Ruth Reichl: In journalism, Frances Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet was a really important moment when we first recognized climate change, the notion of ethical eating and the concept of an animal-based diet. For my generation and for me, personally, it was a paradigm change. In terms of cooking, the Cuisinart changed what home cooks could do. It’s hard to overestimate what a big change that brought in home cooking. Tasks that previously required a whole brigade in the kitchen suddenly became the flick of a switch. In agriculture, the Flavr Savr tomato was the first approved genetically modified food on the market and opened the door to enormous changes in agriculture worldwide. And in food television, the beginning of Food Network in 1993 totally changed the place of food in American culture.
BL: It was around that same time, in the early ’90s, that we witnessed the proliferation of websites and then social media appeared in the early 2000s. Would you add social media as a paradigm shifter in the food world as well?
RR: Social media has had a huge effect. Especially on the emerging generation—people who are just hitting their 20s now grew up with social media. Bringing food into popular culture, making interesting food increasingly widespread, has been a shape shifter in popular culture.
BL: Silicon Valley was once filled with fruit orchards but the high technology boom replaced most of those trees with office parks, strip malls and suburban housing. Yet all this technology may become part of the solution to world hunger, food waste and sustainability going forward. Have we come full circle?
RR: Calling it a new direction is more accurate than calling it a circle. It’s really unfortunate that Silicon Valley happens to be in one of the great food-growing regions of the country. This country depends on California for a huge percentage of our produce. It’s really sad that we have to trade off really good land for a business that could be done virtually anywhere.
BL: Northern California and Silicon Valley remain major strongholds of the farm-to-table movement supplied by farms on the urban fringes and beyond. How vital is land protection in sustaining the growth of local agriculture and what else can we do to ensure these farmers and farmworkers are protected?
RR: Land trusts are enormously important—but are really a matter of public policy. What the individual can do is vote for people in government who will create and/or support legislation to foster land trusts. We are watching good farmland being gobbled up by urban and suburban sprawl. In addition, so much of our food policy is dictated by our tax policy—by what we subsidize—which is why people need to be more aware of the political implications of what we eat.
BL: And the farmworkers?
RR: Regarding farmworkers, I hope that American eaters become more concerned about justice for food workers. I think it’s the most shameful thing that is happening in America—that the entire food system works on the backs of undocumented workers. We will not truly have a sustainable food system until we understand that sustainability includes fair wages and fair labor practices for the people who are picking and cutting our food.
BL: There are two new food and technology conferences emerging in Silicon Valley this year: BITE Silicon Valley and Bon Appétech. Statistics show there is an influx of venture capital into the food technology arena. What do you think the impact of this entrepreneurial spirit will be on the food landscape in Silicon Valley and beyond?
RR: Technology holds out a lot of promise and a lot of terror for me. I wish there was more exploration of the topic beyond just two new conferences. This should be an ongoing discussion. Unfortunately, the food world tends to be divided in two—the sustainability movement, which sometimes verges on the luddite, and the tech people who think all progress is good progress. I wish there was more of a dialogue between the two camps.
BL: What is the single biggest food issue the world faces today? RR: Water—it’s not just the drought in California. The water table in India is dropping precipitously. It’s the one thing that we can’t manufacture. So far nobody has figured out an economical way to do desalinization —and, given how much we have abused the oceans, perhaps desalinization isn’t a panacea either.
BL: How do we keep the dialogue going regarding the importance of childhood food education?
RR: This is a topic we can be most optimistic about. It is on the national agenda, thanks to Michelle Obama. Every chef I know is working with schools in some way. When Alice Waters started The Edible Schoolyard, it seemed like a quixotic idea. Now there are dozens, probably hundreds, of school food programs all across the country. Again, the problem comes down to money. As a nation we need to understand that the costs of not eating well are higher than the costs of educating our children to eat well. Food TV and social media have encouraged young people to be deeply interested in food in very thoughtful ways. When you feed a group of people under the age of 25, you almost always have to provide vegan and vegetarian options because these kids are thinking about what they eat in an ethical sense. That’s a real change and it makes me hopeful for the future.
BL: Your first novel, Delicious, just came out in paperback. What advice would you give someone making the leap from journalistic writing to novel writing?
RR: My personal belief is when you are in trouble, do the hardest thing. When I didn’t have a day job anymore, I decided to try writing fiction, even though I had never done it before. The real difference between writing a memoir and writing fiction is that in memoir you know who your characters are but in writing a novel you need to get to know your characters really well before you start writing. That was a real lesson for me.
BL: What can you tell us about your new cookbook/memoir coming out in September, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life? Do you mean that metaphorically?
RR: It is not a traditional cookbook—it is a narrative. It starts with Gourmet closing and how I went into the kitchen and just grounded myself. I discovered that the secret to life is learning to take pleasure in the little things. For me, that is cooking and the joy of going to the farmers market and cooking for people that I love. The book is organized seasonally so it starts in fall with the closing of Gourmet and goes through the year. Each recipe begins with a tweet and then a diary of what was going on in my life and then the recipe that I tweeted about.
BL: Silicon Valley and the LA region both have a very ethnically diverse population. So tell us what you see as the hottest ethnic food now and what’s next?
RR: One is Korean food—you are suddenly seeing kimchee in the supermarkets. Thanks to David Chang and Roy Choi, Korean food is having a real impact. The other food that’s having real impact is Middle Eastern. I call this “The Ottolenghi Effect”—thanks to the success of Ottolenghi’s books, Middle Eastern flavors are creeping into the menus. He’s had a huge impact on the American palate. His books are so lovely and so accessible and suddenly spices like sumac and za’atar are on the menu. What’s next? I hope we will learn about the South American cuisines. And Mexican regional food. A Mexican kitchen is a really sophisticated kitchen that we know very little about. I also hope we learn more about vegetarian Indian cooking. It requires a whole box of spices that many Americans don’t have but I think we will learn to love.
BL: Thomas Keller (French Laundry) once said that the simple task of caramelizing an onion still gives him great joy. What simple tasks in the kitchen never fail to excite you no matter how many times you repeat them?
RR: I love everything about being in the kitchen. I love the sensory act of cooking. When I bake pies, I cut the shortening in by hand then I put the water in and love watching it come together. I love kneading bread. I love the smell of yeast in the kitchen. I love peeling a peach—you find a color when you peel a peach that is just beneath the skin—like it’s been hiding there waiting for you. I love the smell of onions and butter—it’s just a wonderful smell. The smell of chicken stock—it just fills up a house when you’re making it.