Ruth Reichl on 40 years in food journalism—and what’s missing from Instagram restaurant pics

Graphic by Darrel Frost.

Over the past four decades, Ruth Reichl has been one of the defining voices in American food culture. She has worked on all sides of the industry: as a chef in a collectively-owned restaurant in Berkeley, as the editor of the Los Angeles Times Food section, as one of the most influential food critics in the country at The New York Times, and as the editor in chief of Gourmet

Her newest book, Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, chronicles her decade at the magazine, from her initial meetings with Condé Nast chairman Si Newhouse, who persuaded her to revamp the magazine for a contemporary audience, to its final days in 2009. It is both a requiem for a beloved magazine that did not survive the downfall of print media, and a look at the glory days of food journalism.

I spoke with Reichl about her career, the job of food writing and criticism in the digital era, and what she might try to do differently. 

Check out other articles in our new series examining the world of criticism.

 

Your book begins with an origin story: you opened a copy of Gourmet as a child and read an article by the poet Robert P. Tristram Coffin. Can you describe those initial feelings?

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I have always liked food. Frankly, it probably has something to do with my mother being bipolar, which it means that she was crazy around food. I begin [my first book] Tender at the Bone with the story about my mother inviting people to an engagement party for my brother, and putting 26 of them in the hospital with food poisoning. 

My mother trained me to be a food person in many ways… [I started] tasting very carefully as a child. Even at two years old, I knew to taste something before I swallowed it. Is this going to be okay? And the fact that my mother was literally taste blind—she did not know when food was spoiled. I learned very early to be a careful taster, and it always gave me great pleasure.

I never thought of food as beyond something to eat. And finding the magazine and having the enormous good fortune to open at the very start to this piece by a really good writer. He was a poet laureate of Maine, he was a Pulitzer Prize winner—it wasn’t just anybody, it was somebody who wrote really beautifully about food. It was the first time in my life that I understood that a magic world didn’t have to be about princesses on glass mountains and slaying dragons and the kind of stories that I loved as a child, but that food could be magical. 

In the house I grew up in, writing really was the highest calling. My father would have liked to be a writer, but he didn’t think he was good enough so he designed books instead. But he revered writing in my household. It never occurred to me that I could be a writer. It would have been a real lack of humility to think that I could be a writer. And I didn’t think of food writing as a profession. I mean, I read M.F.K. Fisher and I read Gourmet, but I didn’t really think of it as a profession that was open to me.

I had been writing about food for almost 15 years before it occurred to me, Oh, this is my real life. This isn’t just something I’m doing until my real life comes along. When I first started writing restaurant reviews when I was 21, it always [felt like] the thing I’d do until the real thing happened.

 

Was there a sense that, even within the writing profession, to write about food was not serious?

Absolutely. It was women’s pages stuff. When I took over the Food section of the L.A. Times in the late eighties, the writing in it was terrible but it was a cash cow for the paper. It brought in $32 million a year in advertising, and they couldn’t have cared less about it. The editor didn’t care what went into it. They were using canned recipes from all the food companies would send in recipes. Even though they had their own test kitchen and they did develop recipes, they would devote pages to a recipe from Coca-Cola, or a recipe from Swanson’s. It was just the women’s section, who cared?

 

Can you pinpoint when that changed?

Oh yeah. In 1993, the beginning of Food Network. Everything changed. An entire generation of children grew up watching the Food Network and thinking that chefs were cool and cooking was cool. That was a huge sea change, and they grew up wanting to taste the food of other places.

 

When you were approached to lead Gourmet, there was trepidation on your part to take the job because you felt that, as a restaurant critic, you didn’t have the experience to lead a magazine. You write in your book that you felt like an outsider, which ultimately gave the magazine a perspective it needed. 

When I got there, the articles editor showed me a filing cabinet that had the stories for the next two years — edited and shot. I was like, “For the next two years?” And she said, “Well you know, other magazines are timely. We like to think of ourselves as timeless.” And I just said, “No. No. No.”

I literally said, “We can do anything we want. We have a mandate to change the magazine. What do you think we should do?” I didn’t say another word for two hours. This was a group of really smart, really passionate food people, and they knew exactly what they wanted to do and they all knew what they were good at.

 

You were given an opportunity to figure it out as you went along.

Exactly.

 

I don’t know if that exists anymore.

The idea that I would do a cover and show it to my boss and he would say, “This is going to be a newsstand disaster, but you should do it anyway because it’s a really important thing that you’re pointing out.” Do you think there is a publisher alive today who would say that? I don’t think so. And the idea that I had a publisher who looked at the David Foster Wallace piece [“Consider the Lobster”] and said, “Wow, that’s really cool.” That wouldn’t happen today.

 

If Gourmet still existed today, maybe even as a digital publication, and whether or not you were still leading it, what do you think that would look like right now? And what kind of stories would you hope it would be telling?

I hope very much that we would do the one thing that I think the internet does not do enough of, which is editing. I hope we would still go to the David Foster Wallaces, the Ann Patchetts, and ask them to do pieces for us and then work with them, which is what editors do. Most of the internet is such a hungry mob and you need so much to fill it that the editing gets lost. Sometimes you’re reading along, even stuff by very good writers, and you go, “Oh my God, this is like it got autocorrected to the wrong spelling, or the lede was buried in the middle somewhere.”

I hope that we would be trying to push the envelope. And that we would be trying to do, in addition to investigative and literary stories, really exciting service pieces. That we would be really thinking about what you do in this time when everybody is taking food photographs. How do you photograph food in a way that’s new and interesting? What do you do that sets you apart from the ordinary Instagram post? Why do people come to you for inspiration? 

 

Instagram has created almost an in-house style for food photography that everyone has embraced. But it seems more about how it looks and less about how it tastes or what it means. 

I would love to be in a room with people thinking about stuff that is different than all the free content. How do we make someone want to pay for this? What do we do that’s of so much value that people want to spend their time with it? One of the things that is really different about the modern age is that there are just so many voices clamoring for your attention all the time.

 

And the onus is on the audience to figure out who to pay attention to.

It is, but the onus for editors is: How do you make yourself necessary? The other thing that makes me very sad about the demise of Gourmet is that we had a real community. There were at least half a million people who didn’t even think about renewing — they just renewed. It was a real community and that’s what you’re aiming for. That was the brilliance of Tony Bourdain, right? He made a community of people who cared deeply about what he had to say and who recognized each other as kindred spirits.

I’m thinking of this hypothetical online Gourmet. How do you make it not just something that someone goes to because someone tweeted a link and said, “This is interesting”? [How do you make something that] people click on every day because every day they find something that excites them, is of value to them, inspires them — that they become part of a community of people who are talking to each other through your publication?

 

Do you think that that’s why food writing is important? 

I honestly think there’s almost no story you can’t tell through food. If you want to read about women’s lives throughout history, you can do it through cookbooks. If you want to teach math, you want to teach history, there’s nothing you can’t get to through food. It is one of the major forces in the world. When I went to Gourmet, I knew it couldn’t just be about fancy restaurants and taking trips to have a good time.

 

And is criticism another way of telling those stories? 

Absolutely. Look at what happened when [Los Angeles Times food critic] Jonathan Gold died; suddenly all these people talked about how he had changed their lives. Look at what’s happening with [chef and San Francisco Chronicle food critic] Soleil Ho who’s looking at food criticism in a completely different way and it’s really exciting. She’s thinking about restaurants as not just a place where you go and have a good meal, but as social constructs, and she cares about what’s happening in the kitchen and who goes to the restaurant and what it means. And people like that are making us rethink food in really important ways.

 

Right, and you’re going to get something different from a piece of well-written criticism than a one- to five-star rating on Yelp.

Exactly. I’m fascinated by the way that criticism is changing and the way critics are redefining what their role is and rethinking it.

 

My last question for you is a bit of a personal one. I’m one of the many people this year, the thousands of journalists, who lost a staff position. Did you feel, after Gourmet closed, a loss of identity, or a panic about what to do next after this thing you put a lot of work into was suddenly gone?

I did, but more than that I really felt guilty. Sixty-five people I really cared about lost their jobs on my watch. And this magazine I cared about—it was almost 70 years old, closed on my watch. I did a lot of soul-searching about what I could have done differently. I should have managed up better than I ever did. I should have seen it coming. Why didn’t I stop it?

In retrospect, I couldn’t have stopped it, but I spent a year just beating myself up about that — and also thinking I would never work again and I was going to be a bag lady.. But I knew that I could write books — at that point I had written a number of books — and I knew I could have a career writing books and that I would be okay when I came back to my senses. But that sense of what could I have done? I don’t think will ever go away.

 

I can also imagine that the excesses at Condé Nast at the time, that losing those privileges, might have come as a culture shock.

The thing I learned is there’s really only one luxury that matters, and that’s the luxury of security. I didn’t care about losing the stuff. I couldn’t care less what kind of car I drive, or staying in a nice hotel. But worrying about money takes a lot out of you. That’s what most of us do.

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Tyler Coates is a writer in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Esquire, The Village Voice, and The Awl, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @tylercoates.