It’s hard to keep up with Ruth Reichl. In 29 minutes by phone, the acclaimed food writer covered a lot of ground, answering my questions about what she cooks for her family, what she loves to eat in other people’s homes, the one food she despises – and her forthcoming novel, Delicious.
Reichl will be visiting Charlotte on March 27, when she will present the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte’s 16th Annual Spring Lecture, “A Spy in the House of Food.” For a taste of what makes her such a sought-after speaker, here’s an edited version of our conversation.
Q: People are curious about what food writers eat. Do you eat breakfast?
A: I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I'm not hungry in the morning. I make a big breakfast for my family, I tweet about what I have made, and I cook all kinds of things, like creamed lobster on toast, ramen and congee pancakes. I'm a big believer in breakfast.
I'm a night-time eater. Save your calories for when your body wants them – our bodies are all very different. I love sitting down and relaxing with a bunch of people for dinner.
Q: Can a critic simply enjoy food, or are you always “on the job?”
A: It depends. If I’m working I’m on the job. One reason I stopped being a critic was I was spending too much time in public spaces. I love restaurants, but I hate that we meet in restaurants instead of meeting in people’s homes.
Q: People are intimidated at the thought of cooking for a “foodie.” Do you have any advice for them?
A: I will go to anybody’s house with great pleasure. What happens around the table is more important than the food; food is the glue that brings us together around a table. If you make a mistake it doesn’t matter. If you throw a chicken in the oven and bake a potato, you can’t go wrong.
If you’re rude enough to criticize the food, you don’t deserve to have someone cook for you. It’s an honor to have someone cook for you, no matter what they feed you. There’s something wrong with the notion of going to someone’s house with a critical air.
Q: Are there foods you can’t get enough of?
A: I cannot get enough of roast chicken, pasta of all kinds, anything with lemon, sea urchins, most shellfish, Italian and Chinese [food]. I’ve never been to India and I'm dying to go, especially to southern India, to explore that cuisine. We don’t get enough of a chance to explore it here – it’s not a restaurant culture.
Q: Are there any foods you simply can’t stand?
A: There’s only one food I cannot stand: I have a visceral loathing of honey. Literally, I will happily eat anything else.
Q: Do you plan in advance what to cook for dinner, or just decide what appeals to you when the time comes?
A: I'm not a huge planner. I do a lot of shopping in farmers’ markets. I’ll wander around the market to see what looks good, and make dinner from that. My husband will say, “Will you make meat sauce tonight for spaghetti? And a coffee cake for breakfast?” My son requests some dishes, but more he’s asking, “Show me how to make it.” Now he says, “Let me stand there and watch you make risotto.”
Q: To what degree does Jewish identity influence your writing?
A: I grew up in a secular Jewish house. We had ham for breakfast every morning. I think culturally I’m very strongly identified as a Jew. One of the differences between myself and my parents is they lived in a deeply Jewish world; it’s not the same for me. Our world is much bigger. It’s changing very fast.
Q: What made you want to write a novel?
A: I am a slave to fiction; always have been. I cannot imagine a world without a book to vanish into. I’ve always said I wanted to write a novel and if I didn’t have a day job I would. All of a sudden I didn’t have a day job.
I love all kinds of novels, from high literature to sheer junk. This was kind of a gift. No one really knows where writing comes from; it comes from a very deep place. I went into a library and imagined I’d found a stack of letters from a girl who wrote to James Beard. It’s a coming of age book about a girl who finds these letters… and the power of food to heal us across space and time.
Ruth Reichl will present the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte’s16th Annual Spring Lecture, “A Spy in the House of Food,” on March 27, 2014. Tickets can be purchased for dinner and the lecture, or the lecture and a dessert reception. For more information and tickets visit jewishcharlotte.org.