Interview: Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters

The culinary icons, in town this week for a Chicago Humanities event, discuss male-dominated kitchens and the state of American food



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Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters discuss the state of American food culture.

Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters discuss the state of American food culture. Photograph: Courtesy Humanities Festival

Culinary icons Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl come to Chicago on Thursday for a conversation about American food culture and to promote Waters's new cookbook. While tickets for the discussion are sold out, you can still get tickets for the reception, which are $100 and include a signed copy of Waters's The Art of Simple Food II.

We recently caught up with Waters and Reichl to chat about gender inequality in the food world, what's wrong with America's food systems and how we can improve the way kids eat.

Ruth Reichl

How would you describe the state of American culinary culture right now?
It's the most exciting time. For people like me who care about food, it's the most exciting time in my lifetime and in the lifetime of the country. I mean, when Alice and I started out, we were both people who cared a lot about food and felt like almost nobody else did, and now we're at a time when food has taken its proper place in the culture. It's part of people's culture—the way theater and books and film are—for a generation of young people who understand eating. Even eight years ago, you didn't see a lot about food being covered in newspapers or anywhere but epicurean magazines. Now The New York Times has a dedicated food op/ed person and The New Yorker does a food issue. It's a thrilling time.

But we've seen a continual decline in newspaper food sections.
Those papers are cutting everywhere; it's not just food that's under siege. It seems shortsighted to me that they're cutting food and there's never been more interest than there has been right now. I don't know the economics of that, but when I was the food editor at The Los Angeles Times, it was huge, like 60 to 100 pages every week, but that was because there was a lot of competition between supermarkets and they advertised in the paper. Until about 20 years ago, food sections were the cash cows of newspapers, and then supermarkets consolidated at the same they started doing direct mail and giving out coupons when you pay instead of printing them in newspapers.

What do we need to improve about the way Americans eat and how can we do it?
Really, the only way to face the biggest problems we have is for the government to change the way they subsidize food. The way we subsidize food makes it cheaper to go to McDonald's and get a hamburger than a salad, and that's insane. It's pure government policy. Cutting back on food stamps is another really shortsighted policy, in my opinion. Our biggest problem is that 1 in 8 Americans go to bed hungry and that's shameful, especially since they're mostly children. The way we allow children to be advertised to is shocking. Eating is a learned behavior and we've made these kids sitting ducks for all the bad messages about industrialized food. The fact that we allow that to go on is horrifying.

For those of us who aren't responsible for feeding kids ourselves, what do you suggest we do?
The biggest thing you can do is understand that every time you're going to the grocery store, you're voting with your dollars. Support your farmers' market. Support local food. Really learn to cook. Actually, if everybody in this country started cooking instead of buying fast food, the food culture would change very quickly. We in the media have been guilty about not doing a better job of making people understand how really simple cooking is. We've made everyone feel like they have to be a chef. The hardest part of cooking is shopping, and if you organize yourself and shop once a week, you're halfway there.

Your novel Delicious! comes out in May. What else have you been working on lately?
I actually have a five-book contact with Random House. I have the novel, which comes out this year, and I turned in my next book, which is a cookbook memoir. I'm working on my next novel. I'm also a judge on Top Chef Masters, which is very fun. I'm working on a possible TV show with a producer in Hollywood.  

In the years since Gourmet, what have been the biggest changes you've seen in how media covers food?
Well, the thing that I'm probably most disappointed about is that one of the things we took on at Gourmet was talking about what was happening to the food supply, to farmers, and to include sociology and politics as part of the way we covered food. I'm disappointed that no other mainstream magazine has come along and is covering that. It's left to The New York Times, and there are magazines covering that, but they're not epicurean magazines.

Since the Time magazine article about the Gods of Food last November, there's been a greater discussion about the gender gap between the number of men and women as head chefs and, more recently, as food critics. Is there a way to fix it?
I just went to the Cherry Bombe Jubilee in New York and it was so exciting—it was a room full of women in food with so much passion and openness and intelligence. It was thrilling and made me feel very optimistic about women in the food movement. I think women are going to figure out creative ways to make it possible to have these food jobs that are really punishing jobs. It's very difficult to a have family and be a chef, or have a family and be a food critic. The energy I felt in that room was "we'll figure it out." I think we'll think of restaurants in new ways and think of them as a community.

One of the things I said at Cherry Bombe Jubilee, which I think is really true, is that maybe we're not really looking at it in the right way. Lots of women who are in the food industry, they're just taking a different tack. They're not going for fame, but steady jobs with benefits. I think that if you look at women working unionized jobs, you'd be stunned at what a high percentage there is. Women who work look for something different.

Where will you be eating while you're in town?
I think I'm going to go to Next. I'm so curious about it. I'm really only in town for one day, so I have one dinner, and I'm so curious about the food they do. The one meal I had there was so exciting.

Which one did you go to?
I went to the Japanese. It was fantastic.

  1. Alice Waters
  2. Ruth Reichl

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