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Under the Table 

A conversation with Ruth Reichl

Wednesday, Jul 18 2001
Photo by Michael Donnelly

Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet magazine and former restaurant critic for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, is the reason novelist and Weekly critic Michelle Huneven got into restaurant reviewing. Following the publication of her second memoir, Comfort Me With Apples, Reichl sat down with Huneven to discuss food writing, fiction writing and the new book. A follow-up to Tender at the Bone, her childhood memoir, Comfort Me With Apples begins when Reichl lands her first restaurant-reviewing job in the early ’80s and moves swiftly into the whirlwind affair she had with her then-editor, Colman Andrews. (He is now the editor in chief of Saveur magazine, which makes Reichl’s revelations, at least in the small world of food magazines, downright sizzling.) Reichl recounts her heady years as a young reporter on the front lines of a food revolution, the end of one marriage, the start of another, her ever-increasing success, and the painful ordeal of a failed adoption.

 

MICHELLE HUNEVEN: You and I were both food writers who started our books at the same time. I’ve written novels, and you’ve written memoirs. Was there a reason you chose that form? You’re such an avid fiction lover.

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RUTH REICHL: Yes, but I’m not sure I could do a novel. I mean, I’m a journalist.

 

I think you’re overprivileging novel writing.

Maybe — but fiction is my great passion. M.F.K. Fisher wanted to write a novel more than anything in the world, and she tried, but that book is not a novel, it’s a series of stories, and it’s not very good. Also, I’ve known such great characters in my life, I didn’t have to invent them. Although once I started dealing with them — with the ones who were still living — I did think several times, “Oh God, why didn’t I just write a novel?” But don’t you think the line between nonfiction and fiction is getting thinner and thinner anyway?

 

Yes. You, in fact, are a writer who has always brought fictional techniques into your reviews: characters, scenes, dialogue, visuals, figurative imagery. The poet and critic Richard Howard once said to me that reading your weekly reviews in The New York Times was like reading tiny novels.

That’s the problem, though — length. When I wrote the first book, I wasn’t sure I could write long. And when I finished Tender at the Bone, my editor said, “You’ve written a book of short stories, and now you have to make them work together as a whole.” I thought this second book would be easier. I knew the premise and the trajectory, then found I had a lot of other problems, like how important it is to introduce a character— because the reader never recovers from that initial introduction. In starting as I did with an infidelity, I had the main character — me — being unfaithful to her husband. How could I then make myself sympathetic? The easy way would’ve been to make my [then-]husband Doug a villain, but he wasn’t one, and I had to be fair.

 

What were your literary models for the memoirs?

[Fisher’s] The Gastronomical Me was the original model. But I stopped reading memoirs when I started writing Tender at the Bone. I devour fiction. I’m not sure I could live without it. I read a lot while writing ComfortThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Bel Canto. Kissing in Manhattan. The Hours. Audrey Hepburn’s Neck.

 

Fisher usually remained maddeningly mum about her love life. Your book has no such problem. Was it difficult to find a comfortable level of disclosure?

Mary Frances is coy with her readers — she was coy in person too, when it came to telling the truth about what really happened. I’ve always known that wasn’t for me. There’s no point in being a writer if you’re not going to tell the emotional truth. Is it hard? Yes. I always dance away from it. My editor was the one who kept saying, “But what did you really feel here?” And at the end, I was writing so fast that I just put it all in without considering too much.

 

This new book is very candid about others, including your mother, Saveur editor Colman Andrews and your husbands — surely you worried about what they would feel when they read it. How did you handle such considerations?

I worried about this. A lot. I would not have written either book if my mother had still been alive. With Tender I actually sent the manuscript ahead of time to some of the people in the book. But this time it was different. I didn’t want to start bargaining with the men about what would or would not go in.

  • A conversation with Ruth Reichl

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