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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Former Gourmet Editor Ruth Reichl Cooks Up A Novel

In her new book "Delicious," Ruth Reichl turns her talents to fiction. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

In her new book “Delicious,” Ruth Reichl turns her talents to fiction. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

Ruth Reichl has been acclaimed for her non-fiction writing. She was a restaurant critic for The New York Times and she penned the best selling memoirs “Tender At the Bone” and “Comfort Me With Apples.”

She also served as editor-in-chief for Gourmet magazine. In her new book “Delicious!” (excerpt below), Ruth Reichl turns her talents to fiction, though as she tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson, “when I was the restaurant critic of The New York Times, I wore these disguises and I loved inhabiting someone else and it was kind of a practice for writing fiction.”

“Delicious!” tells the story of Billie Breslin who comes to New York city to work for a food magazine that Reichl says is very much like Gourmet, though Billie “is a 21-year-old who is really nothing like me, except that she loves to cook.”

Reichl also answers a lightning round of Hobson’s food questions, including her current favorite restaurant, which she says is Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Poncatico Hills, New York.

Interview Highlights: Ruth Reichl

On why she made her fiction debut food-themed

“Writing about food is my default. It’s — I mean, I see the world food first, and most of the food in here is food that I have tasted. You know, the gingerbread, which is sort of central to the whole thing, is — I wanted to imagine the most — I mean, that was a little backwards, because I imagined the most fantastic gingerbread I could think of, and then I actually had to create it. But most of these things are actually flavors that I know.”

“My whole idea is to, you know, try and make people hungry, try and make people taste these things. But, you know, this is not a food book. I mean, this is really a coming-of-age book of someone who, like me, does see the world food first.”

On what it was like writing fiction for the first time

“I loved writing fiction. I mean, once I found the character, or the characters, and knew who they were and knew their back-stories, it really — I mean, I went into my studio every day, thinking, ‘What’s gonna happen to Billy today?’ And my husband keeps telling me to stop mystifying this, but, I mean, for me, it really is, like I didn’t know … In fact, very different things happened than what I expected to happen. Characters who I thought — I mean, I started with some people I had worked with at the magazine, and they then demanded to become themselves.”

On the role of World War II-era food in the book

“World War II really fascinated me because it’s the only time that everybody in this country sat down at the same table, because eating on rations was your patriotic duty. And I found in a used book store a whole pile of Department of Agriculture recipes from World War II, and I was fascinated, because the recipes are terrible. I mean, these things that the Department of Agriculture set out were so bad that I sort of imagined this little girl, Lulu, trying to — you know, her dad’s in the war, she’s trying to cook, she’s 12 years old, and the first thing she makes is a real recipe I found in one of these pamphlets called ‘liver gems,’ which was, like, the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”

On getting special treatments in restaurants

“If they recognize me, I mostly get the Ruth Reichl treatment. And I have to say that I feel like, you know, after writing about food for 45 years, maybe I’ve earned it.”

Book Excerpt: ‘Delicious!’

By Ruth Reichl

Chapter 1: Gingerbread

Delicious by Ruth Reichl

“You should have used fresh ginger!”

The words flew out of my mouth before I could stop them. I glanced at Aunt Melba to see if she was upset, but she was looking at me with undisguised admiration. “Why didn’t I think of that!”

“And orange peel.” I wanted her to look at me that way again.

“Any other ideas?” Aunt Melba was rooting around in the vegetable bin.

She emerged holding a large knob of ginger triumphantly over her head, then went to the counter and began to grate it, sending the mysterious tingly scent into the air. “How come you didn’t say something last year?”

“Would you have believed me?”

She swiped at the thick red curl that had fallen across her right eye and grinned ruefully. “Ask advice from a nine-year-old?” She reached out and tousled my hair. “Now that you’re ten, of course, everything’s changed.”

“You make this stupid cake every year.” My sister was annoyed. “It’s never very good. Why don’t you just give up?”

“Because it’s the only kind of cake your father likes.” Aunt Melba reached for one of the beautiful ceramic bowls on the shelf above her. “And your mother always used to make it for his birthday. I’m trying to keep tradition alive.”

“You should have asked Mom for the recipe.” Genie was a year and a half older than me, and she had opinions.

“I did. But she would never give it to me. My sister was funny that way. And then it was too late.”

“We’re going to get it right!” They both turned to stare at me; I wasn’t exactly known for self-confidence,  but I could taste the cake in my mind. Strong. Earthy. Fragrant. I remembered the nose-prickling aroma of cinnamon when it comes in fragile curls, and the startling power of crushed cloves. I imagined them into the batter.

Aunt Melba was grating the orange rind now, and the clean, friendly smell filled her airy kitchen. The place was a mess; eggshells were everywhere, the counter was covered with splotches of sticky batter, and bags of flour spilled onto the floor. Ashtrays filled with half-smoked cigarettes were scattered among the ceramic plates and bowls Aunt Melba had made; she was famous for them. In the middle of it all sat a couple of forlorn cakes, each missing a tiny sliver.

Aunt Melba put the new cake in the oven and we began to clean up. The scent of gingerbread whirled through the room and out the window into the Montecito hills. Down below, the Pacific sparkled. “It smells pretty good,” said Genie hopefully.

Alas, this cake was doomed to join those abandoned on the counter. “What now?” Aunt Melba sounded discouraged, but she searched my face as if I had the answer. I liked the feeling.

“Cardamom!” I said, mustering all the authority I could. “Cardamom? How do you even know about cardamom?”

“She practices,” replied Genie, a slight edge to her voice. Smart and beautiful, she was used to taking charge. “You should see her.”

“Practices?” asked Aunt Melba.

“Yeah,” said Genie. “She’s always sniffing the bottles in the spice cabinet.”

I didn’t know she’d even noticed. At first it was just curiosity; why did fennel and cumin, identical twins, have such opposing personalities? I had crushed the seeds beneath my fingertips, where the scents lingered for hours. Another day I’d opened a bottle of nutmeg, startled when the little spheres came rattling out in a mothball-scented cloud. How could something so delicate have such a ferocious smell? And I watched, fascinated, as the supple, plump, purple vanilla beans withered into brittle brown pods and surrendered their perfume to the air. The spices were all so interesting; it was impossible to walk through the kitchen without opening the cupboard to find out what was going on in there.

Aunt Melba gave me the oddest look. “And you remember them?” She was crushing cardamom pods, and the deep, musky scent zipped around the kitchen.

“More,” I said, “use more.” How could you ever forget the smell of cardamom? Or cinnamon? Or clove?

I don’t remember how many times we made that cake. Each time Aunt Melba thought it was good enough, I insisted that she try again. I had made a discovery: Having the flavors in my head meant I could re-imagine them, put them together in entirely new ways. I wanted to keep doing it forever.

The kitchen was in chaos, but now each cake was better than the last. Late in the afternoon, Aunt Melba mixed the sixth or seventh batch of batter; this one had crushed peppercorns, sour cream, and orange zest. I greased the pans, Genie put them in the oven, and Aunt Melba set the timer. Just then the room began to shake. It was one of the earthquakes that I like—the roller-coaster  kind that feel as if the earth is merely shrugging off the blues. None of Aunt Melba’s precious plates broke, but when we opened the oven, we found that our cake had crashed.

The next day, we tried the recipe again. “No earthquakes now,” Genie whispered as she put the pans into the oven. This time the cake was high and brown, the spices so delicately balanced that each bite made you want another. It was rich, moist, tender. We brushed it with bourbon, added a fragrant orange glaze, and it was perfect.

“This is even better than your mother’s.” Aunt Melba reached to caress my cheek; her palm was so soft. “It’s a gift, you know. Like an ear for music. You got it from her. She used to do that thing you do, sniffing spices. Did you know that?”

I didn’t.

Everyone was always telling my sister how much she resembled our late mother. Not only was Genie brilliant and beautiful, she was also artistic, popular, and most likely to succeed at almost everything. I was the shy one, sitting in my room, writing little stories. No one had ever said I was like Mom in any way.

But I had inherited her gift. Now that I knew it, I hugged the knowledge close.

Excerpted from DELICIOUS! by Ruth Reichl. Copyright © 2014 by Ruth Reichl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

This is HERE AND NOW. To most of us, Ruth Reichl is best known as the former restaurant reviewer for the New York Times, former editor in chief at Gourmet magazine, and for memoirs including "Tender at the Bone." But now she's getting into the world of fiction. Her new book "Delicious" features Billie, a young woman who drops out of college to head to New York and work at a food magazine. Billie also discovers the New York food scene, including a phenomenal chocolate maker.

RUTH REICHL: (Reading) I stood hypnotized by the scent and the grace of her motions, which were more beautiful than any ballet. Moving constantly, she caressed the chocolate like a lover, folding it over and over on a slab of white marble, working to get the texture right.

(Reading) She stopped to feed me a chocolate sprinkled with salt, which had the fierce flavor of the ocean, and another with the resonant intensity of toasted saffron. One chocolate tasted like rain, another of the desert. I tried tracking the flavors, pulling them apart to see how she had done it, but like a magician she had hidden her tricks. Each time I followed the trail, it vanished, and after a while I just gave up and allowed the flavors to seduce me.

HOBSON: Ruth Reichl, reading from "Delicious, and Ruth Reichl joins us now in the studio. Welcome.

REICHL: It's my pleasure to be here.

HOBSON: How much of this was your story?

REICHL: None of it, really not. I mean, my...

HOBSON: None of it?

REICHL: No, I mean my whole idea My whole idea is to - you know, after, when I was the restaurant critic of the New York Times, I wore these disguises, and I loved inhabiting someone else. And it was kind of a practice for writing fiction.

And when I - I really wanted to feel like what it was like to be someone else. So my character Billie Breslin is a 21-year-old who is really nothing like me except that she really loves to cook.

HOBSON: And she works at a magazine about food.

REICHL: Yes, but she is not the editor of the magazine.

HOBSON: That's true.

REICHL: And she's new to New York, and I wanted to feel: What is it like to be 21 years old, new to New York, and what is it like to come into a magazine? I mean, I think of food magazines as very nurturing places, and in that, I mean certainly the setting is very much like Gourmet.

HOBSON: One of the most wonderful parts, though, about reading this book was all of the descriptions of the food, which makes me very hungry as I read it. But I wonder when you wrote that, did you actually have to make and eat these things to describe them the way that you do, or were they things that you had had before?

REICHL: Look, writing about food is my default. It's - I mean, I see the world food first, and most of the food in here is food that I have tasted. You know, the gingerbread, which is sort of central to the whole thing, is I wanted to imagine the most - I mean, that was a little backwards because I imagined the most fantastic gingerbread I could think of, and then I actually had to create it. But most of these things are actually flavors that I know.

HOBSON: And did you ever get hungry while you were writing it?

REICHL: Yes, I mean, my whole idea is to, you know, try and make people hungry, try and make people taste these things. But, you know, this is not a food book. I mean, this is really a coming-of-age book of someone who, like me, does see the world food first.

HOBSON: Well, how was it to write fiction?

REICHL: I loved writing fiction. I mean, once I found the character and/or the characters and knew who they were and knew their back-stories, it really - I mean, I went into my studio every day, thinking, what's going to happen to Billie today. And my husband keeps telling me to stop mystifying this, but, I mean, for me it really is like I didn't know what was...

HOBSON: From the outset, you had no idea what was going to happen in the story.

REICHL: No, and in fact very different things happened than what I expected to happen. Characters who I thought - I mean, I started with some people I had worked with at the magazine, and they then demanded to become themselves. So there's this very mean woman, Maggie, who runs the kitchen. We did not have a mean person at Gourmet. We certainly had no one like Maggie.

HOBSON: But were you basing that on somebody that you knew?

REICHL: You know, I started out with her being this benign - I mean, my favorite cook at Gourmet was named Maggie, and I actually had to apologize to her the other day. You know, I'm so sorry, that's really not you. You know, and then I did know James Beard when he was alive. So, you know, putting him in as a character seemed - I mean, you actually never hear from him, but he looms very large in this book.

HOBSON: There is also a lot of writing about eating during times of rationing during World War II, and I wonder where that came from. Why did you decide to put that in?

REICHL: Well, World War II really fascinated me because it's the only time that everybody in this country sat down at the same table, because eating on rations was your patriotic duty. And I found in a used book store a whole pile of Department of Agriculture recipes from World War II, and I was fascinated because the recipes are terrible.

I mean, these things that the Department of Agriculture set out were so bad that I sort of imagined this little girl, Lulu, trying to - you know, her dad's in the war, she's trying to cook, she's 12 years old, and the first thing she makes is a real recipe I found in one of these pamphlets called liver gems, which was, like, the most disgusting thing I've ever seen.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: Well, and there's milkweed and pumpkin leaves and things like that, as well.

REICHL: Well milkweed is actually delicious.

(LAUGHTER)

REICHL: I mean, I took a foraging class to write this book.

HOBSON: Really?

REICHL: Yeah, and milkweed is actually - you can eat milkweed in all of its forms. As the little sprouts that are coming up, they're kind of like asparagus, and the floss does taste like cheese, and it's wonderful stuff.

HOBSON: Well, I know that monarch butterflies love it.

REICHL: Yes, and there's a reason.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: One of the things you're famous for, and you brought it up, was dressing up to go, when you were the New York Times food critic, when you would go to restaurants, you would dress up so that you would be treated just like anybody else. Now that you're not doing that, do you still get the Ruth Reichl treatment when you go to a restaurant, or do they treat you just like everybody else?

REICHL: No, I have to say I mostly get - if they recognize me, I mostly get the Ruth Reichl treatment. And I have to say that I feel like, you know, after writing about food for 45 years, maybe I've earned it.

HOBSON: You've earned it.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: All right, quite lightning round here. What do you think is the best restaurant in America right now?

REICHL: I really love Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I love what Dan Barber is doing there. I love the reach of that restaurant.

HOBSON: How often do you go out to eat?

REICHL: I realized when Gourmet closed, it was the first time in 35 years I didn't have an expense account. So I go out on my own dime now, and not that - I mean, I cook a lot, and I tend not to go to very expensive restaurants.

HOBSON: What is your go-to, quick-fix meal at home?

REICHL: Without any question spaghetti carbonara.

HOBSON: Really?

REICHL: I always have dry pasta, bacon, eggs and parmesan cheese, and you can make it in basically the time it takes to boil the pasta. It's really delicious. It's satisfying.

HOBSON: Anything with bacon is satisfying.

REICHL: Well that's true, and anything with parmesan cheese is also...

HOBSON: Yeah, that's true, too.

REICHL: And eggs.

HOBSON: And egg.

REICHL: And pasta. I mean...

HOBSON: When was the last time you ate fast food?

REICHL: I really don't eat fast food.

HOBSON: Not even like at an airport sometime, you're there at 6 in the morning, and there's nothing else open?

REICHL: I - you know, my husband loves to go to McDonald's, and he loves to, like, bring it home and sort of shake it in my face, ha, ha, ha. I don't find any - I mean, I don't like the way they smell, fast food joints, the sort of grab-it-and-go culture really annoys me. I mean, to me eating is about, you know, sitting down with your friends and having a nice meal.

So if I'm in that place, I'll probably just have a bowl of cereal.

HOBSON: Ruth Reichl, her new fiction book is called "Delicious." Thank you so much for coming in.

REICHL: This has really been fun, thanks.

HOBSON: And I feel bad, Robin, that my go-to, quick-fix meal at home is not as wonderful as what she just brought up, but I have a tomato and avocado salad like almost every other day, I would say.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Oh good for you.

HOBSON: It's delicious. Well, along with other things.

YOUNG: Those of us trying to eat well. Meanwhile, I'm writing down Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York.

HOBSON: Yeah, well just start saving your pennies because that's not a cheap one. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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  • L Karamazov

    OMG, that excerpt she read was terrible. Thats just bad writing and writing like that should NEVER be read silently or aloud. Did she really say something like she “caressed it like a lover”? Please tell me I was having an auditory hallucination.

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