EDITOR-IN-CHIEF GOURMETNone of the women in Ruth Reichl's family were good cooks, neither her grandmothers nor her mother—the "Queen of Mold"—who was notorious in family lore for preparing the food that sent guests at her son's engagement party to the hospital with food poisoning. Yet, from early childhood, Reichl loved to eat and prepare food.
That love has helped shape her life. Reichl joined Gourmet as editor in 1999 after serving six years as restaurant critic for the New York Times. She previously worked as food editor and restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times. Tender at the Bone, Reichl's deliciously amusing and affecting 1998 memoir of her early life and growing passion for food, was a bestseller and a James Beard Award finalist. She picks up her story again in Comfort Me With Apples (Random House, $24.95), published this year, which features her encounters with such culinary greats as Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck.
What direction do you see Jewish food taking today?
More and more people are looking to cookbooks like Claudia Roden's book [The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York], which goes beyond what Americans traditionally think of as Jewish food—which is Eastern European food. There is a growing understanding that Jews live all over the world, and people are really trying to embrace a much larger tradition of Jewish food. Americans are looking, for example, to the Jews of Italy for recipes. The palate is widening.
Why does it seem that people are buying more and more cookbooks and cooking gear, yet cooking less?
That's absolutely true. We're losing the family meal, which is a terrible loss. We live in an increasingly harried society. We have families where the mother comes home at one time and the dad at another and the kids have after-school activities, and they all grab food when they walk into the house. We are losing the sitting down together for a meal on a daily basis. We long for it and miss it. So we buy cookbooks, read food magazines, and buy kitchen equipment longing to get back to a place where there is someone cooking in the kitchen.
Real cooks know you don't need a lot of equipment to cook. There's a dream that if we have perfect equipment we'll create perfect food. The best cooking I've ever done in my life is when I've had the most inefficient kitchen. I finally had enough money to get a dream kitchen, and now I'm too busy to use it very often.
As evidenced by your books, your parents were people of strong character and beliefs. What influences did they have on your personal and professional lives?
I took very different lessons from each of them. My father was a man who loved his work [as a book designer]. My image of him is of opening a book and running his hands across the pages because he just loved books and type so much. What I learned from him is that work you like is a great joy and will save your life. It has saved mine. From my mother, who was very vital and a life force but handicapped by manic depression, I learned to appreciate my own sanity and sanity in other people. Mental illness was a terrible tragedy for her. There is not a day that I don't get up and feel incredibly grateful for my sanity and for the fact that I know who I am, which my mother never did.
Can you talk a little about your Jewish identity?
My parents did not practice religion in any way, but we lived in New York and all of their friends were Jewish, so I grew up with a very secular Jewish identity. I don't practice religion of any kind, which is odd given that my only brother, Bob, his wife, and their children live in Israel. But the truth is, they're not religious either, yet they are strongly identified as Jews. I take my son to Israel because though we're not religious, being Jewish is an important part of our life. I think it's important for him to know where he comes from.
This has been an amazing year for you. You have a new book, are celebrating Gourmet's 60th anniversary, and are embarking on your third year as editor. What's next?
Here at Gourmet we're going to publish a major cookbook. We have an archive of 50,000 recipes [to draw from]. It will probably come out in 2003.
Having worked really hard at both the magazine and the book, I'm trying to spend a lot of time with my family. My son is twelve and a half. I want to spend all my free time with him.
How did you get it all done?
By not sleeping a whole lot. Getting up at 4 a.m. to write and then coming in to work. I'm happy to have only one job for a while. September 11 made you feel very grateful for the life that you have and that you need to slow down and appreciate it. Almost nobody in New York got away unscathed. We all have losses. You feel how fragile life is, and how precious.