Food writer Ruth Reichl has been many things during her long career.
She has been the restaurant critic for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. She’s written vivid, food-centric memoirs, like “Comfort Me With Apples” and “Garlic and Sapphires.”
For 10 years before it closed, Reichl led Gourmet magazine as editor-in-chief. She has won six James Beard Awards.
One thing Reichl is not, however, is an older version of the heroine of her first novel, “Delicious!,” released in 2014 by Random House. It’s a question she’s fielded again and again.
Billie is “so not me,” Reichl said. “She has a sister, which I’ve never had, so I was interested in exploring that.
“I’m from New York. She discovers New York, which is an important thing for her. But mostly I’m not shy. I’m not troubled. And sadly, I do not have a perfect palate.”
On June 2, Reichl is set to participate in a series of key fundraising events for the Wisconsin Book Festival. “Lunch for Libraries” has added an overflow room, where donors can watch her talk live on a closed circuit broadcast.
Later that day, “Meet the Make-Hers” is a cocktail reception featuring local women in the culinary field, like Chocolaterian’s Leanne Cordisco, Elizabeth Dahl from Nostrano and the owners of NessAlla Kombucha.
Then at 7:30 p.m., Reichl will read from “Delicious!” in a free event in Central Library’s community room.
The Cap Times talked with Reichl about connections between cooking and writing, historical cookbooks and her love of libraries.
She is at work on a second novel as well as a memoir about her years at Gourmet. A cookbook, “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life,” is set to be released on Sept. 29.
One connecting thread I noticed between “Delicious!” and your new cookbook is a connection between food and healing, the idea that cooking has restorative power.
I really believe that. It’s very much what “My Kitchen Year” is about, but it’s also the subtext of “Delicious!” which is: I truly believe that one of the secrets to finding happiness in life is to be able to find joy in ordinary things.
We spend an awful lot of time waiting for the wonderful, and in doing that, neglect to appreciate the things that can give us moments of pleasure during the day. For me, food functions that way, cooking functions that way.
I love being in the kitchen. I love the discovery, when you peel a peach there’s a color right underneath that’s hidden until you peel it. It gives me enormous pleasure ... kneading bread, watching it rise, the scent of onions caramelizing in butter. These are ways you can experience pleasure even in hard times.
We need to learn to take those moments.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I find baking to be soothing. I combine ingredients in a certain way, put them in the oven and when I’m done, I have cake. I made something that wasn’t there before. I find that comforting.
It feels so different than the creative process.
To me, cooking and writing are complementary. Writing is so difficult and so agonizing and the rewards are so down the road.
Cooking is the opposite. Cooking is easy. The rewards are instant. It’s something you do for other people, (and) you can see their pleasure almost instantly.
These past few years, I’ve obsessed over the Ottolenghi cookbooks and Fuchsia Dunlop’s “Every Grain of Rice.” Do you have cookbook obsessions?
The truth is I tend not to cook from cookbooks. I’m sort of playing around in the kitchen these days. I read a lot of blogs — I like The Wednesday Chef, David Leibovitz, Smitten Kitchen, Molly (Wizenberg) at Orangette. Food52 is really good.
In one interview, you read a section from “Delicious!” in which Billie gives up trying to identify flavors and lets a chocolate truffle simply “seduce” her. As a critic, you’re always searching for how to put those experiences into words. Do you find that freeing now, that when you go out you can choose to just let flavors wash over you instead of analyzing them?
I don’t think I’m a natural critic. Analyzing was hard for me; I’m by nature very optimistic. I think every restaurant is going to be great and it’s always a shock when it isn’t. It’s a pleasure not to have to hate it when it isn’t.
On the other hand, finding those words ... that was so much fun for me. I just taught a writing workshop in Iceland. One of the exercises I did with the students was I took a piece of parsley and said, you have seven minutes. Describe parsley to someone who’s never seen it or tasted it.
It was so much fun to see where people went with it. My favorite was one of the students described parsley as “like those frilly underpants you wore as a little girl.”
You have an enduring passion for old cookbooks. Are there a few you think should be reprinted? What are some things they have to teach us?
Elizabeth David is not well enough known in this country. What she has to teach us is very much what I’m trying to do in my cookbook, which is to say, a recipe is not a prescription. It’s a suggestion.
Recipes in American cookbooks tell you (everything), because you cannot trust that people know how to cook anymore. I blame Julia Child for this. You cannot take a step that she’s not telling you what to do.
Elizabeth David is the opposite. She nudges you in the right direction and sends you off. She takes your hand, leads you into the dance and says, now do it alone.
You’ve done fundraisers for many libraries. Is there a reason?
I’ve loved libraries my whole life. When I was poor and living in Berkeley, I went to the library every day.
I had a real “come to Jesus” moment when I gave a speech at the Hartford Public Library (in Connecticut) last year. I had not realized what important community organizations libraries had become until I spent a day there.
I think of libraries as reading institutions. But they’re now social work institutions. They deal with urban problems, homeless issues, English as a second language. They’re places new citizens go to learn how to be Americans.
I had always thought “libraries, books.” I suddenly realized, no, libraries are a place that people go that have no place else to go. ￼