Ruth Reichl wrote her first cookbook in 1971, working her way up to the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and finally, editor of “Gourmet” magazine, which closed last year. Now a judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Reichl is working on a cookbook based on a year of her Twitter feed.
In her own words, Reichl talks about food writing’s past and future.
On the evolution of food writing:
I feel like all those things we were saying in Berkeley in the ’70s, which seemed so radical at the time, are all coming true. We were talking about the vertical integration of agribusiness and climate warming and what that was going to mean. We were deeply influenced by “Diet for a Small Planet” and looking more closely at the things she was talking about.
The turning point seemed to happen around the mid-’90s, when it went from everyone worrying about it to it all coming true. Climate change did occur. We have an obesity crisis. We’re looking at how industrialized agriculture has done this horrible national experience with a generation. What I mean by this is that we allowed an entire generation of children to be brought up on processed food, and we’re only now understanding the consequences of that decision.
But the writers weren’t really looking at it.
One of the things that stunned me was that in 2006, I gave a speech to the National Association of Editorial Writers asking them to please pay attention to food as an issue. It wasn’t happening. You couldn’t make that speech anymore because that’s what they do; food is on the editorial pages all the time.
When I went to Gourmet in 1999 and had my first meeting with the staff, I said “This is what we want to do; we want to cover the politics of food, to do an entire issue every year about farms and food issues.”
It was clear people who were passionate about food were going to care about where their food came from. We went as radical as the David Foster Wallace piece, “Consider the Lobster,” which DID scare me. It was really a leap of faith to write an article about what lobsters feel when they go into the pot.
When Gourmet went down, it wasn’t because of pieces like that. Our circulation was the highest it had ever been. But all our advertising was luxury goods and those categories all took big hits. We had a huge drop in advertising. And I wasn’t part of that decision. More precisely, I was not privy to any of the discussions about closing the magazine, and I really couldn’t tell you why Conde Nast made that decision.
On writing about food in an online world:
Now when I’m writing, I do use Twitter. I love Twitter because I feel like you’re part of a larger conversation, you get that instantaneous reaction.
Like, the morning of the tsunami — I usually get up and write before I do anything and I had tweeted what I ate for breakfast before I read the papers. Someone wrote back, “What planet are you on?” You know, that I’m writing about breakfast while this is going on.
It did force me to think, and I wrote a blog post about, “Would I have done something different if I did know?”
And really, one of the things I love about food writing is that it gives us an opportunity to be really grateful for what we have. Those are the good moments of the day and that’s what’s good about being alive.
The response was so interesting and we ended up having a dialogue with people I don’t know.
On the audience shift:
When I started writing restaurant reviews in the mid-’70s, I didn’t know much, but my audience knew less. Today, this audience is so informed, it makes it really interesting for professional restaurant critics now. They’d better know what they were talking about.
If they are writing about Thai food or Sri Lankan food or the food of Peru, they have tens of thousands of people who have lived in those countries and eaten that food and are absolutely looking for any mistake they can find.
Everybody has always thought they could be a food critic, that hasn’t changed.
One of the things I like about the “Yelps” of the world is that, as an audience, people can read all these things and read them intelligently instead of just listening to one voice.
One of the big problems I had as a critic was me just wanting to say “I’m just me, I’m just one person.”
Sure, I think about this stuff and I’m trained and I’m educated in this field, but I’m still just one person.
Here’s what other food writers have to say:
- Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, editor-in-chief of “Real Food” and winner of five James Beard awards
“Being a restaurant critic in Minnesota is relentlessly local”
- Holly Hughes, editor of “Best Food Writing”
“I love the alternative weeklies; they still devote space to longform writing”
- Jonathan Gold, food critic for LA Weekly, Pulitzer Prize winner
Food section “almost like a newspaper within a newspaper”
- Miriam Morgan, food editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, winner of the 2011 James Beard award for Best Food section
“Reporting about food is no different than anything else, it requires knowledge of the beat”
- Craig LaBan, food critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, James Beard award winner
“You can’t underestimate how the change in technology has changed food writing”
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