Dishing With Ruth Reichl

"I really want to like this place," says Ruth Reichl, breezing into a recently opened restaurant in lower Manhattan's Battery Park. "It's got a view of the water and that's so rare in this city, and they've spent a lot of money refurbishing what was a utility station. Unfortunately, they're clueless." The chief flaws on this day: inept, though friendly, service, and mediocre food--a limp Caesar salad, dry shrimp satay and oversalted grilled tuna sandwich. It's not like she hasn't given the place a chance: this is the sixth visit by the nation's most powerful restaurant reviewer.

Reichl doesn't make snap judgments about food--or life. In fact, for her the two are inextricably entwined. And her reviews reflect it. As chief restaurant critic for the New York Times since 1993, Reichl doesn't just judge meals, she critiques manners and mores. Do waiters automatically give the bill to the man at the table? Where are women diners seated? How are ordinary folk treated? In a memorable review of New York's tony Le Cirque, she noted that she got the bum's rush on a visit when she wasn't recognized (bad table, indifferent service) and was fawned over on another visit when she was identified (seating ahead of the King of Spain, special tastings from the chef).

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"To say that the only thing that matters is what's on the plate is to miss the major role restaurants have in our lives today," says Reichl, who dines out eight to 12 times a week under various aliases and disguises (for the record, the 50-year-old Reichl is slender with dark curly locks). "So much of our culture's social life takes place in restaurants."

For Reichl, eating has always as much a psychological as a physical experience. As the daughter of a woman who was legendary for serving bizarre, undercooked and spoiled concoctions that routinely sickened guests (including attendees at her son's engagement party), Reichl learned early on to cook as a means of self-preservation. Gradually, she found that cooking was also a means of self-expression.

Ultimately, as she relates in her memoir, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (Random House), she discovered that: "food could be a way of making sense of the world...If you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were." Reichl recently dished with PT Editor Anastasia Toufexis about how food unites and divides people, the difference between eating in restaurants and at home, the trend toward families celebrating holidays in restaurants--and why what's on the plate isn't as important as what's in one's heart.

PT: You've said food defines people. What do you mean?

RR: It's a way that we tell the world who we are, a way of setting boundaries. You can see it in young children. Food is a place where they say, "This is mine. I will not eat this." You know, it's virtually impossible to force someone to eat unless you stick a tube down the throat. So it's really an area where children can have their own way. Everybody tells about their parents warning, "You can't leave the table until you've eaten this or that." And the child will sit there, all day long and say, "You can't make me." What they mean is "I can tell you who I am through this."

PT: Does this continue as we get older?

RR: Yes, but we become more conscious about it. We define people in relation to food. We'll say, "Oh, yeah. He's a beer and burger guy," or "He's a caviar and champagne person." And you instantly know what that means.

When I first started doing restaurant reviews, I actually made my husband into "the reluctant gourmet," though he's never consciously thought of himself that way. He became Everyman--the guy who goes to the restaurant and says, "I'd rather be home eating a piece of pizza and watching the football game." Everybody instantly understood who this character was, and he was someone for me to use as an antipretension meter in assessing a restaurant. Here we are eating foie gras and drinking fancy wines. And here's a guy saying, "God, what would I give for a good steak!"

PT: Haven't we become more sophisticated about food?

RR: Yes, we have. On the other hand, McDonald's isn't hurting. There's a reason why politicians go on the food circuit. They go to a community and eat bagels in one place and fried chicken in another. The message is, "I am you. I eat your food."

PT: I remember Nelson Rockefeller going to Coney Island and eating hot dogs during his campaigns to show he was just a regular guy.

PR: Right. Right. And you know what was one of the most telling moments of a recent presidential campaign? The fact that George Bush didn't know anything about how supermarket checkouts had changed because he hadn't been in a grocery store in ages. That said volumes right there. It made him look out of touch with people and he couldn't take it back.

PT: Does food influence our choice of friends?

RR: Sometimes. In the most extreme example, somebody who's kosher could not really have a serious social relationship with someone who didn't keep a kosher kitchen because he wouldn't be able to eat in his friend's home. Similarly, someone who cares deeply about spending a lot of time in fancy restaurants isn't going to want to be really close friends with someone who never wants to be in a fancy restaurant. It's a real impediment.

PT: Do different cultures have different attitudes towards food? And what does that tell us?

RR: Well, in China people actually greet each other with "Have you eaten?" That shows the great respect the Chinese have for food, how central it is to their lives. Here in the U.S., there's no one attitude when it comes to food. Background and ethnicity tend to mold our view of food.

The WASP segment, for example, is so different from the Chinese. WASPs often act almost embarrassed by food. The idea of food as pleasure is deeply troubling. I remember reading in a book about Benjamin Franklin that he was sent to bed without supper for saying he enjoyed his meal. In his family, food was a taboo subject. Contrast that with a big Italian-American family, sitting around a table lustily enjoying a platter of pasta and "gravy."

There are huge cultural differences between people and even in one culture over time. How we deal with food now is very different from how we dealt with food a hundred years ago in this country.

PT: In what way?

RR: For one thing, we're much more removed from it. It used to be--everywhere, not just here--that the overwhelming preoccupation in life was feeding your family. We were a nation of farmers. Women spent most of the day just getting the food on the table. Now we have choices which people didn't used to have.

Also, Americans have become global eaters and we're very proud of that. It says something about us as a nation that we eat everything. We used to be a hamburger nation, now we're a taco-sushi-mooshu-steak country. What it says to us is that we are an expansive people, we are an accepting people. The melting pot has gone beyond just the people. It's now the food. There's a positive fallout with this. It's very hard to hate people if you're eating their food.

PT: Can food also be used to reclaim culture?

RR: Definitely. You can see it in the black community. What African-Americans used to eat is largely based on what slaves were allowed to eat. Now there's a shift among blacks to trying to cook some of the foods of their heritage, whether it is African or from the Islands, dishes like groundnut stew and ackee. It's a celebration of identity, like Kwanzaa.

You can see a switch among immigrants too. People used to come and try and assimilate. Now people increasingly want to hold onto their nationality. And one of the most potent ways you do it is with food. You keep your food ways.

I once took a close look at what kids in Los Angeles were taking to school for lunch. When I was growing up, most kids had pretty much the same thing in their little waxed paper bag--we didn't have lunch boxes then--a white bread sandwich that had peanut butter and jelly or balogna and cheese. Now you go in the school yard and the Japanese kids have little boxes of sushi and the Mexican kids have burritos and the Korean kids have kimchee. And it really is their parents saying to them, "Don't try and get too far away from who you are."

PT: Do you see these kids exchanging their food?

RR: Sometimes. But it's a brave Mexican child who's going to want to taste kimchee. And a very brave Anglo kid who's going to say, "I want to taste that rice wrapped in seaweed." Mostly, they don't trade food until they're in about sixth grade, and suddenly they're very curious about each other's food ways. It's a real way of absorbing culture.

PT: We tend to think of food as a way of drawing people together, but it can keep us apart, too.

RR: Absolutely. It's how we say, "These are our boundaries. This is what we brought from our homeland."

PT: Do you make judgments about people you know or meet in terms of their food preferences?

RR: Oh, I definitely do. I don't mean to choose friends by food but it's very central to my life.

PT: What criteria do you use?

RR: Well, I want people around me with the most catholic palates that I can find. I have a hard time with people who want to eat just a few things and won't experiment because what it says to me is that they are people who are very closed.

PT: I'm surprised with your upbringing that you weren't totally turned off to food. What accounts for your catholic taste now?

RR: My mother, for all her horrible cooking and all the really miserable lunches she sent me to school with, was very curious about food. We lived in Greenwich Village and she would go wandering down Bleecker Street and come back with anything she'd never seen before. Mussels is one example, cactus fruit another.

Then we would figure out how to use it. We would research it. We would ask people. It was fun--not the actual cooking, but the discovering. So, early on, food seemed to me a way of exploring the world.

I also got to show off a little bit for my friends. Kids who had come for dinner would say, "God, we had asparagus and artichokes at your house," when they were eating peas in their own home.

PT: Were there others who sparked your interest in food?

RR: I was around great cooks. My mother wasn't one of them, but I had my Aunt Birdie's maid Alice, and throughout my life there have been people who got great pleasure out of cooking and would take me into the kitchen. I think all children love to cook if they're given the opportunity.

Cooking is a kind of magic. You take flour and water and yeast and it starts to grow. And what happens in an oven is pretty amazing. It changes color, it changes shape, it smells great. Very few children would reject the opportunity to be in a kitchen. And then, if you actually are allowed to cook, what you find is that everybody loves a cook.

Food is a great defuser. I've found the best way to eliminate tension is to go into the kitchen and cook. It makes everyone feel cared for and loved.

PT: Have we taken the magic out of cooking these days?

RR: You can't take the magic out of cooking. It is magic. But we've made a big project out of it. We've made it into something more complicated than it is. We've told each other that you need a lot of expensive equipment, you need lessons and you need a lot of time.

We now regard cooking as recreation rather than an integral part of everyday life. People say they're a "good cook." But what they mean is that they can create a splendid dish. Being a good cook really means being resourceful. We've lost the ability to go into a kitchen and throw together what's available and turn it into a satisfying meal.

PT: How do you eat at home?

RR: Very simply. I eat most of my meals in restaurants, which is unnatural, and increasingly in restaurants you get this very complicated food. So when I'm home, I really want home cooking. I want a turkey that's just been taken out of the oven. I want meat loaf. I want roasted potatoes. I want a very simple plate of pasta, maybe with just butter on it. I want the kinds of things that we think of as comfort food.

What I want are very elemental flavors--a great peach, a wonderful salad. I love bread and butter. I love peaches. I love clams.

PT: What do you think of the change in the family meal? When people sit down at the dinner table, no one seems to eat the same thing anymore. The kids may have a meal from McDonald's. Mom has a tossed salad and sandwich from the deli and Dad may be eating leftover Chinese that's been heated in the microwave.

RR: That's if they're all eating at the same time in the first place--which is more and more of a rarity. The end of the family meal is a tragedy. The most important thing about a meal isn't the food. It's that we sit down together, we stop and pay attention to each other and we talk.

Any parent knows that you can say to your kid, "What'd you do at school? .... Nothing." You sit down for 15 minutes and you just have aimless conversation, and then suddenly out comes, "Do you know what the teacher said to me today?" It's not just children. It happens with any two people who sit down. You need that quiet time. You need that paying attention to each other.

PT: Don't milk and cookies do it, with children at least?

PR: Not quite. You need more time. You need the span of a meal. You need to know that you're going to be there for a while together. Milk and cookies amount to five minutes and the child is out the door. A meal is not done at a kid's pace. It's done at a family pace. Much as a kid may hate it and twist and turn, the point is to wait for everyone to finish.

PT: Well, you're supposed to, but that doesn't happen much anymore. People finish their own food and they're gone!

RR: And that's terrible! We learn about each other from the conversation and from each other's pacing.

PT: Is everyone eating the same thing important?

RR: Yes. There is something very important about sharing the same food at the same time at the same table. It's a way of building family connection and unity.

There's a bill coming due for everybody sitting down to eat his own little meal in his own five minutes. We're going to discover that it's had a profound psychological impact on people and that this generation of children who have been brought up eating alone are going to be different. They're not going to be socialized the same way.

PT: They also won't have a sense of family traditions.

RR: Right. When a mother cooks a meal, or a father, or whoever, you're giving your family something of yourself. All of us who are cooks prepare something the way that someone in the family made it. I find myself scrambling eggs the way my father did.

PT: What did he do?

RR: He had a trick of taking the pan halfway off the fire and cooking the eggs over a very low flame, and as they curdled, pulling them apart.

Or when I make meat loaf. My mother always tore up pieces of bread and soaked them in milk, and I loved those little funny pieces in the meat loaf. I've made a thousand meat loaves from a thousand different cultures and here I am, when I'm making it at home for me, it could be my mother's. And when I'm kneading the onion and the egg into the hamburger, it's like I'm with my mother.

PT: It's a sense memory, isn't it?

RR: Yes. My grandmother, who really didn't cook, did prepare one dish. It's a hamburger done in a cast iron skillet sprinkled with salt and served with peas and rice. Every once in a while, I'll make it and when I eat it, my grandmother's with me.

PT: Food seems to become even more important to us during the holidays. From Thanksgiving through the New Year, our activities seem to be centered around family and food. What do you think of this new trend of families eating the Thanksgiving meal in restaurants, or even hotel suites?

RR: I hate it! I think that it is a disaster! In a society that doesn't cook as much as it used to, the holiday is our opportunity to be in a home. And there is no way that a restaurant is ever going to be a home.

Yes, you may avoid the tension and the fights, but you also lose the moments and traditions that define a particular family. For example, your aunt's cooking: "Oh, God, she's going to bring that terrible casserole she always brings and nobody's going to eat it." It's so sterile to go to a hotel and pay someone to put your food on the table.

I hate this trend of having children's birthday parties away from people's homes, too. They're held in bowling alleys or fast-food halls. What are we telling our children? "Let's not show anybody our messy house."

PT: "Let's let no one in." It's really a barricaded approach to life.

RR: Exactly. There's a kind of bravery in inviting people into your house and knowing they can criticize you. "The house is a mess, the silver hasn't been polished. Did you see that tablecloth? And that food!"

Still, it's an offering on your part: "I'll share who I am with you." The idea that we don't have the courage anymore to be that naked with people, to show them that part of ourselves is a very bad sign.

PT: What about the idea of having the meal in your home, but having all or portions of it catered?

RR: How hard is it to put a turkey in the oven, for crying out loud? One of the great things about the Thanksgiving meal is that it's extremely easy to cook. It's been road tested for a hundred years.

Now obviously, there are things you aren't going to make, maybe the salad dressing, maybe the pies. But it seems to me that you ought to cook something.

PT: You've written that when you were growing up, you went home for the holidays but hated them. What were they like?

RR: At Hanukkah we couldn't find the menorah, ever. At Christmas, every year we'd have to buy a new stand for the tree because we couldn't find the old one. And the food was always a disaster. My mother just couldn't get it right.

One of the things that you want with a holiday is the sense, especially with Thanksgiving, that you belong to America. My mother would forget obvious things like the gravy. And the turkey would come out raw because she was so terrified of over-cooking it.

My mother, who was manic-depressive, also had a terrible time with organization. So we would be frantically running around the house trying to clean it up two seconds before people would arrive. It was a nightmare.

On the other hand, I'm glad we had those holidays. Much as I resented having to go home for them and would think of any excuse on earth not to, when I think about my family, what do I think about? I think about these family events. That is my family, dysfunctional as it was.

PT: Is there a difference for you, psychologically, between Thanksgiving and Christmas?

RR: Yes. Christmas is problematic.

PT: In what way?

RR: Well, it's a Christian ritual in a nation that is not entirely Christian. I tend to think of it as an ecumenical holiday myself, and we always celebrated Christmas when I was growing up. I am Jewish, but we didn't really celebrate Hanukkah. We meant to every year, but we never did! But every Christmas morning when I was growing up, we had matzo for breakfast.

PT: That's one way of adapting the holiday. Do ethnic groups have special ways of changing American holidays?

RR: If you ask people what they had for Thanksgiving when they were growing up, they usually say, "I had what everybody else has." But when you question them closely, it turns out that every culture adapts the holiday to incorporate some of their own foods.

So you'll find that a lot of Chinese-Americans will stuff the turkey with sticky rice, water chestnuts and shitake mushrooms. Many Mexican-Americans stuff the bird with corn bread and jalapenos. Native Americans often use wild turkeys.

There are all kinds of little signposts on people's Thanksgiving table that give away who they are. Christmas is much the same, and even Easter has become an American food holiday

PT: What's the distinction in your mind between eating out and eating at home? What should be the difference?

RR: Restaurants should be for a grander experience. They should give you something you can't get at home. You can pretend that you're rich if you're going to a very fancy restaurant. You can learn about a culture if you're going to a Chinese restaurant. For me, going to a restaurant means playing out a fantasy.

Eating at home, on the other hand, above all else should be comfortable. That means being able to put your elbows on the table and spend a really long time at the table. It's about not having to worry that other diners are waiting for you to leave.

One of the great things about having people to your home is that you have that luxury of time, of space, of not clearing the table, of saying, "Well, maybe we won't eat right now. Maybe we'll just talk. I'll take the food out of the oven for now and we'll eat later."

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