Ruth Reichl makes a striking impression, the way an actress does who looks like someone you've seen somewhere, but can't quite place. People who follow the food world will recognize her, however, as the former food editor of The New York Times and a major tastemaker.
While Ms. Reichl will tell you she disdains the cult of celebrity, she is also an undeniable beneficiary of it. By writing two highly entertaining memoirs, she has created platoons of fans who think of her simply as Ruth. Since her name was added to the masthead of Gourmet in 1999 as editor, the magazine has seen its circulation and ad volume rise.
She arrives for an interview in a fuchsia silk jacket and her trademark cascade of jet-black hair pinned loosely back from her face. She seems at first abrupt and clipped in her responses, likely the result of repeated interviews as part of an 11-city promotional tour. But she quickly warms to a discussion of her books.
When asked how she remembered the exact words spoken, the precise meals eaten, she answers matter-of-factly, "Journals. I've kept journals since French boarding school. I also save letters."
But surely she wasn't able to save everything? "I've never lost a journal. I'm fortunate because I am a person who doesn't throw things out. I'm still wearing things that I bought in Berkeley," she says.
One cannot imagine Reichl letting go of anything that was still useful: clothing, words, people. Her great strength in the two memoirs, "Tender at the Bone" (Broadway Books, 1999) and "Comfort Me With Apples," (Random House, 302 pp., $24.95) is her ability to describe situations and encounters with candor, but not subject readers to bouts of navel-gazing. Even when she's telling stories on herself, the writing is filled with crisp insights that prove completely disarming.
"Comfort Me With Apples" turns out to be a no-holds-barred look at her love life - with men as well as with food.
Reichl initially risks losing the reader's sympathy by describing an early affair she had with her food editor at New West magazine. As her marriage dissolved, due in part to her husband's own infidelities, she left the commune where they lived in Berkeley, Calif., for Los Angeles. There, she eventually met and married a television producer, and made a name for herself in the pantheon of restaurant critics.
The book's most moving segment deals with the adoption of a baby girl, who was subsequently taken back by the birth parents. (After much heartbreak, Reichl and her husband eventually had a child of their own, a son who is now in his teens.)
Readers may wonder how Reichl's ex-husband and former lovers feel about such literary candor. She apparently parted amicably from her first husband, Doug, an artist. The food editor, Colman Andrews, whose elegant manners and encyclopedic knowledge of food so attracted Reichl, is now a rival editor at Saveur magazine. In a recent radio call-in talk show, he bantered with Reichl and coyly deflected any credit for helping launch her career, although he commented, "I do know more about food than she does."
It's not hard to imagine that food holds the most consistent place of affection in Reichl's life. Both memoirs are larded with recipes for dishes that satisfied a spiritual
as well as physical hunger.
"I love the whole energy around food," she says. "Cooking professionally is exhilarating - it uses every part of you, intellectually and physically." She recalls busy times at The Swallow restaurant in Berkeley, which she co-owned, when the kitchen would run out of food. "I liked the pressure and intensity when you have a line of people in the front, and [someone would say] 'Go back there and make something!' And I would try to figure out how to make a meal out of leftovers. I loved that kind of guerrilla cooking."
She was also a woman at the right place at the right time. When New West, and later The Los Angeles Times, tapped her to write restaurant reviews, Americans were worshipping at the altar of French cuisine. Everything was imported: chefs, menus, and ingredients. Just as Reichl was embarking on her career ("Writing restaurant criticism looked like fun," she says of her unheroic beginnings), California restaurateurs were preparing to stage a "self-conscious revolution. They said: 'We're going to use American products and American chefs.' " Reichl became the chief chronicler of that revolution.
"Restaurant criticism is a young profession," she says. In the past, reviews were mostly consumer guides to eating out, and the only cuisines a critic needed to know were French and continental. Readers had limited palates before Reichl helped "legitimize" ethnic cuisines from such places as Thailand and Korea by traveling there and writing about them.
"I never thought that food was something I would do for a career," she muses. "But cooking has been what I love to do. I find it very comforting. My favorite thing still is to go into the kitchen on a Saturday, turn on some music, and cook all day."
Channing Way Shrimp Curry
Ruth Reichl cooked this dish often when she was living in a commune on Channing Way in Berkeley, Calif. It is a classic American curry, which she says is 'delicious, good for a crowd, and doubles or triples easily.'
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon pure red chili powder, or to taste
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup well-stirred canned coconut milk
2 cups chicken broth
2 teaspoons freshly grated lime zest
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, or to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
6 servings of cooked rice (accompaniment)
2 tablespoons raisins (garnish)
2 tablespoons salted roasted peanuts (garnish)
2 tablespoons chopped candied ginger (garnish)
Cook the onion and garlic in the butter in a heavy, 5-quart pot over moderate heat, stirring, until the onion is softened, about 4 minutes. Add the spices and flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Whisk in the cream, coconut milk, broth, and lime zest and bring just to a boil. Simmer the mixture, stirring constantly, until it begins to thicken, about 2 minutes. Add the shrimp and simmer, stirring, until the shrimp turns pink and is cooked through, about 4 minutes. Stir in the lime juice, and add salt and pepper to taste. Ladle the curried shrimp over cooked rice and top with garnishes. Could be served with mango chutney on the side.
- From 'Comfort Me With Apples,' a memoir by Ruth Reichl
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor