Saturday, April 2, 2011

Ruth Reichl on Food Writing, Twitter, and Hermine's Oatmeal Cookies

When I learned that Ruth Reichl was coming to speak at Stanford, I eagerly marked my calendar. As former Editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine, restaurant critic, cookbook author and host of PBS' Gourmet's Adventures with Ruth, Reichl has earned her place as America's doyenne of gastronomy.

I've been an admirer for years, and recently have enjoyed her poetic musings on Twitter @ruthreichl. A sampler of her morning meditations:

"Winter wonderland. Snow-dusted trees. Snow to my knees. Fluffy flapjacks in rivers of syrup, softly fried eggs, crisp bites of bacon. Juice." (2/8/11)

"So cold. Heavy snow-swollen sky. Butter-toasted oatmeal, rivers of thick cream, brown sugar. Fresh orange juice: such fragrant hope." (2/13/11)

"Sun! Ribbon of fog hugs half the city. Birds call. Mozza meatballs on toast - soft, savory, rich -perfect way to start this hopeful day." (2/20/11)

"Hot! Still. Sun pouring in the window. Lemonade, very tart. Buttered scones piled with sliced strawberries, whipped cream. Hello Spring!" (3/5/11)

Reichl spoke at Stanford a warm evening in late March about food writing. Why is it so popular now? How has its evolving vocabulary not only reflected changes in society but transformed society? Drawing from a diverse set of food writing, Reichl showed how intertwined food is with human culture. From ancient Greeks and Victorian times, to Winnie the Pooh and early American cookbooks with a strong French foundation, to current writing including the compelling food memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, Reichl highlighted an array of examples to show that food writing has gained increasing respect. In fact, it now has become a downright cultural obsession.

Our relationship to food relates to our sense of ourselves in the context of culture. In the '70s, we lived through an 'I hate to cook' era which disconnected us from food. In the '80s, a cookbook revolution took place when new cuisines and food writing exploded. Suddenly readers and home cooks devoured these books without actually cooking from them. The average cookbook owner prepares only two recipes from each cookbook owned. We're trying to understand and recapture our innate connection to food.

Now there's no more need to apologize for food writing like M.F.K. Fisher used to do. The blogosphere has exploded with food writing, and reality TV food shows garner high ratings. Even though Gourmet magazine shuttered in 2009, many other sources have quickly taken its place. Gourmet didn't survive even though it had its largest subscriber base ever and the highest renewal rates in the industry. During the recession, the magazine's five biggest advertiser categories all cut back drastically: travel, auto, finances, jewelry and watches, and large appliances. In contrast, Gourmet's competitors had advertisers that better survived the recession, with household product companies like P&G and Clorox supporting the magazines.

During the Q&A session, Reichl was asked about what she thought of mystery Twitter user @RuthBourdain, controversially nominated for a James Beard award in the new category of food humor. @RuthBourdain is a mash-up: He/she takes Reichl's tweets and re-writes them in the profane voice of Anthony Bourdain. Reichl thinks @RuthBourdain's a male and hopes he/she wins because then we will all learn who he/she is. Reichl good naturedly loves the mash-up tweets and thinks it's great that food humor has emerged as a new genre of food writing. We may solve the mystery at the awards ceremony May 9.

My morning-after-Ruth musings: Food is elemental to life. In America we're all originally from somewhere else, and have a natural yearning to connect with our family heritage including food. Not only do we want to understand and experience our ethnic cuisines, we also want to know our current American selves through food. But many of us grew up with processed and fast foods, and now seek healthier, more authentic food. We want to return to our American farmer roots, yet also yearn to innovative and improve. Modernist cuisine takes us huge leaps forward, but it's not something the average home cook can make. What's a doable middle ground that balances real food and innovation? We also seek to explore cuisines from other cultures, a kind of gastronomic tourism. Much easier than flying to a faraway place, experiencing wonderful meals from around the globe helps us understand the pulsing lifeblood of other cultures.

My final homage to Reichl: making an oldie but goodie recipe for Hermine's Oatmeal Cookies found on her website. These delicate morsels are easy to make, and taste so good. Reichl's main goal is to get more people to cook. Go to your kitchen, and try these for yourself.


  1. Thanks for this! IMO, Conde-Nast made a huge mistake when they chose to shut down Gourmet Magazine -- and the abrupt way they did it only made it worse. A friend in the magazine industry says that Gourmet's doom was sealed high-priced consultants to Conde-Nast. The company paid so much for the advice that they felt like they had to follow it, even though it made no sense. Now I get mad every time I see the cover of Bon Appetit!

  2. Yes, it really is a loss to have an institution like Gourmet shut down so suddenly. Maybe it will be resurrected someday? It sounds like Reichl has come to terms with the business reality, and she has made the best of it with many new adventures.