PEOPLE – A Conversation With Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl was one of the first American food critics to define and even create American cuisine – and to recognize the fundamental role of ethnic and immigrant foods in the United States. Over the last 30 years, she has literally shaped America’s opinion about food: from her start as a restaurateur in Berkeley in the 1970s, through her switch to food criticism as the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, and, later, her long tenure as the New York Times restaurant critic and as editor of Gourmet Magazine.
I had the chance to speak with Reichl in Milan recently. The main subjects we touched upon were her best-selling autobiography, Tender at the Bone and her impressions of America’s food and cuisine. I began by asking Ruth how Americans have developed a distinct cuisine, and how loosely it ought to be defined. She explained that to understand American cuisine, you must appreciate the lasting effect that immigration has had on the nation’s ingredients and cooking styles. One example she gave of the instant connection between immigration and American cuisine was the boom in Schezuan food in the States that began in 1966. In that year, the combination of America’s elimination of its race-based immigration policy and Mao’s instigation of the Cultural Revolution prompted a massive emigration of political refugees from China to America. Swelling immigration was closely followed by a boom in Chinese restaurants in American cities. Currently, American gastronomic culture is benefiting from a similar influx of Latin food thanks to the northward tide of Mexican, Central American, and South American immigration. Reichl then went on to describe the incorporation of immigrant foods into the lexicon of the American kitchen as a series of small steps. The first step is the acceptance and positive evaluation of immigrant foodway; early immigrant groups were hesitant to recognize the value of their indigenous food cultures. The initial desire of new immigrant arrivals in America groups has been to blend in – at all costs – to assimilate, and bury their ethnic heritage. Reichl explained that ‘the biggest change has been in the notion of assimilation’, noting that ‘immigrants once wanted to become instant Americans, they sent their kids to school with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and made meatloaf at home. Now they have more respect for their historic foodways’.

Along with the changing appreciation for immigrant foodways, the increasing availability of ingredients used frequently by ethnic groups has led to the incorporation of many elements of the immigrant kitchen into American cuisine. Farmers’ markets in America now stock all the types of foods that immigrant cooks need to appropriately recreate their home country foods; Reichl mentioned Vietnamese eggplants and Schezuan pepper as examples of immigrant ingredients now widely available to the American cook. The availability of fresh foreign ingredients was also an important step in the foundation of fusion cuisine. Reichl emphasized that the first step in fusion cooking is when a chef encounters and experiments with foreign ingredients for their dishes – something that happened frequently after a trip to the Chinatown produce market or to a local Hispanic grocery store. ‘Today, interesting chefs go out and eat food all over – they experiment,’ she explains.
The second major step in the creation of American cuisine was the change in the role of the chef, and the exaltation of creativity in the kitchen. Reichl gives credit to her friend Alice Waters for inspiring and developing the idea that knowledge of French technique is not the primary determinant of quality for a chef, and that seeking out great ingredients and combining them is the most important development. Instead of accepting French cooking as the apex of quality cuisine, Waters helped American chefs learn to understand the importance of locally grown foods and the vital connection between chefs and producers, growers and providers. According to Reichl, this attitude developed hand in hand with the 1970s ‘back to the land’ and homesteader movements – periods when professionals began to reappraise the importance of living on the land, growing their own food and livestock.

One of the guiding principles of Slow Food is that good food should not only be a pleasure for the elite and that all income levels should have access to high-quality foods. Did Ruth see that as a feasible goal in America?
Her initial response was that the elitism of the American gourmet world ‘is terrifying’, although she quickly corrected herself to say that Americans ‘…are still in a transitional phase, but we are changing’. She explained that, although the benefits of the boom in the availability of fresh locally-grown foods have been limited primarily to the upper socio-economic classes, that boom will eventually have a positive effect on lower socio-economic groups as well. Reichl added that ‘every revolution in history starts with the middle classes’, mentioning that in the late 1980s, middle-class shoppers began requesting organic produce in specialized grocery stores.

Now, you can buy organic produce in all types of supermarkets, she added. Reichl is more worried about the palates of young Americans who have eaten primarily sweetened, salted, and flavor-enhanced fast foods throughout childhood. She thinks that eating exclusively processed foods may lead to a limited ability for taste comprehension in adulthood. She is also concerned about the next generation’s understanding of the culture of eating, especially in less-advantaged social classes. Some economically deprived children, she pointed out, have never seen a vegetable, and are only acquainted with the disassociated flavors of fruits and vegetables that they consume with soft drinks and flavored foods. She recounted a story of some young participants in a lunch at Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard: when they sat down at the table, many of the children had no idea what a napkin was or how to use it. ‘I don’t know why this is so disturbing’, Reichl exclaimed, but went on to describe her sadness at seeing a generation that spends no time at the table and is totally unfamiliar with the simplest parts of a pleasurable meal. She says that the next step for America’s understanding of eating is that foods must be contextualized in culture: ‘It is not simply a question of food as an energy-giving substance, but also food must be considered an important part of life for a school child’. She herself discovered at an early age that food could be a way of making use of the world. ‘If you watched people as they ate you could find out who they were’, she concluded.

Anya Fernald, winner of a Watson Fellowship for the study of artisan cheese in Europe and Africa in 1998, has worked for the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia in Sicily. She currently works for Slow Food.

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