In the 1997 film My Best Friend's Wedding, Julia Roberts, her curls tossing and her waistline improbably small, plays a glamorous New York restaurant critic who has chefs and managers quaking in their aprons. She nibbles here, quivers a nostril there and heads off to write reams of prose that have dining dilettantes salivating in absentia. Underscoring her character's connection to food is the fact that many of the movie's key scenes take place during some type of meal.
Roberts' character may not have been directly inspired by Ruth Reichl, but it's impossible to believe that she didn't at least influence the screenwriter's choice of profession. As restaurant critic for The Los Angeles Times and then The New York Times, and now as editor of Gourmet magazine, Reichl's passion, humor, abandon, intelligence, whimsy and vital sense of food as culture have revolutionized a nation raised on Betty Crocker cookbooks and school cafeterias. While not the only "new" food critic of the '80s and '90s, she was among the most imitated and, by dint of her own wild mane and physical presence, the one who put the quietus to the stereotype of the short, fat, freeloading food writer.
"It's a very seductive profession these days," says Reichl, whose 1998 memoir Tender at the Bone was a bestseller. "Tender turns out to be a big hit among pre-teenage girls."
In that case, you have to wonder whether her follow-up, Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table will get past the more PG-minded librarians. This second volume of memoirs, which details her affair, the breakup of her first marriage and her romance with and marriage to her second husband, is both bittersweet and almost hilariously indulgent. For Reichl, all passions are connected. In fact, her sensory reactions are so synesthetic you wonder how she survives.
Consider the way she writes about her affair. At 31, she meets a man she refers to only as the food editor. He's pompous, she thinks, and older; she, in her turn, tries too hard to seem knowledgeable and finds herself waxing fervent about black truffles, champagne vintages and tiny-gauge caviars subjects she knows nothing about.
But when they have dinner at L.A.'s legendary Ma Maison, all pretenses drop away. The beluga caviar was "seductively fruity." There were "baked oysters wrapped in lettuce, sprinkled with caviar and bathed in beurre blanc [and] terrine de foie gras with warm toast. The flavors danced and the soft substances slid down my throat."
The next morning, waking up in his bed, she is momentarily horrified. "What was it that I found so irresistible about this man? I replayed the night in my head the caviar, the oysters, the foie gras, the cigars. It had been like a wonderful dream, all my fantasies made real." Fantasies about "the man from another time, the bon vivant who had unabashedly devoted himself to food."
As it happens, the lover was Colman Andrews, now editor of Saveur magazine, and in a friendly way Reichl's rival, since it was the success of the extravagant, literary and sensual Saveur that convinced the publishers of the increasingly frumpy Gourmet that it needed a bonne vivante of its own. The affair, which hadn't been public knowledge until the book's galleys got around, will undoubtedly be a food trendies' gossip sensation, but it really says more about their mutual sensual attentions, and how we have all benefited from their fearlessness.
"You can't be a good cook if you don't have a generous soul and the impulse to take care of people," says Reichl, whose books are studded with recipes that parallel her experiences. "Look at someone like Alice Waters: no matter how much she's done for someone, she always thinks it's not enough. I only know two good cooks who are stingy in their souls."
Comfort goes on to the harder parts the divorce, the new marriage, the adoption and then loss of a baby whose birth parents successfully reclaimed her as well as the happier stuff, her hiring by the L.A. Times and the birth of her son, Nick. Throughout, she obviously tries to be honest and even-handed.
"I thought writing the second book would be easier, but it was much harder. For one thing, I have an extremely demanding job now, so the work ended up being consigned to the cracks, early and late. But also I was dealing with living people and issues of divorce and love and some very difficult emotions. I think of Tender as a happy book, but there were times when I was crying as I was working on this one."
In Tender at the Bone, Reichl detailed a remarkably bohemian youth and, intriguingly, an ambivalent attitude toward fine food. Her manic-depressive mother was so bad a cook, and so breezily indifferent to bacterial caution, that she inflicted food poisoning on an entire wedding party.
When Comfort Me with Apples picks up the tale in 1978, Reichl and her first husband are living in a San Francisco commune, still half-scavenging for whole-earth foods, and her interest in freelancing stories about food and restaurants is looked upon almost as a betrayal of principle. Her palate wins out, of course, but the principles remain, and in many ways inform the change of Gourmet from an armchair grocery list to a thinking person's kitchen tool.
"The quality of food writing is much better than it was 20 years ago. If you pull out some of the reviews from back then, they're shockingly bad," Reichl says. "It used to be considered almost poor taste to be concerned with food. We were all raised on Diet for a Small Planet, thinking how much more food could be produced from the grain fed to a cow and so on."
"We still eat far more than our share of the world's protein. We're greedy pigs. But I think that will change, too, because as a nation we know so much more about food."
Comfort Me with Apples ends with Nick's birth in the late '80s. As for whether she will write a '90s volume, Reichl says, "Well, not right away. Up until I went to work at The Los Angeles Times, I was freelancing; so I would tape record everything and I had the time to transcribe them all. So I had reams and reams of material, plus I had diaries and packets of letters to go back to. But somehow when I started working in the newsroom I quit keeping journals. It just isn't compatible with a computer. So I'd have to depend more on other people." She laughs. " The next book may have to be fiction."
Eve Zibart is the restaurant critic for The Washington Post's weekend section and author of several books including the forthcoming Ethnic Food Lover's Companion (Menasha Ridge Press).