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Under the Table

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.

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 Comfort — The 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.

Colman was the biggest problem. I thought I could handle it by giving him a pseudonym, but in the end that seemed absurd. So I called him and asked him what he wanted me to do. If he’d asked me to disguise him, I would have. Even though I wouldn’t let him read the manuscript, he told me to go ahead and use his name. He’s since told a reviewer that he remembered things a little differently, but then I was a writer, not a reporter.

The other problem was my husband Michael. My editors thought that his feelings about the class politics of our adoption situation made him unsympathetic. They wanted me to “soften” him, make him be more on my side in the fight. I tried. But when I showed Michael the changes, he insisted that I go back to the original.

 

On a different note, Michael Kinsley in Slate (and the Washington Post) takes you to task for being politically insensitive in the book. He was incensed about a scene when you were in China and delivered a letter to a 70-year-old chef who once was famous but had been re-educated by being forced to dig a lake by hand. Now he was beginning to cook again, and be appreciated in his own country. He read the letter you handed him and asked you if he should go to America. You said you’re not sure if Americans would understand or appreciate the fineness of his cooking — that, for example, he peels his shrimp in ice-cold water. Kinsley felt that you were advising the man against Western freedom because of a trifle.

Yes, when Kinsley was writing the article, he sent me an e-mail and asked if I was certain I remembered the incident accurately. The truth is, I don’t know if the chef was even invited to America — I hadn’t read the letter I carried to him. I didn’t attempt to persuade him — it would have been presumptuous of me to give him advice. And for all I know, the old cook may have come anyway!

But I might have told him America is a deeply racist country and that this is reflected in the food culture here. Americans aren’t open to great Chinese cooking. There are no great Chinese restaurants in America, for this reason. We won’t pay for them. Chinese chefs say, “Why â make great food in America, where it’s not understood or appreciated, when you can cook in Hong Kong and Taipei, where people will happily pay $1,000 for a meal?” Nobody in America will spend that for food that isn’t French or American.

I was not making a political point in my book, but Kinsley extrapolated the politics from what I wrote. Now, an interesting argument could be made, say, about cooking and art. If you think of cooking as an art, do you expect a great artist to trade his art for a perceived political freedom? A man in his 70s? When he was watching his own country awakening to his own talents, would it make sense to come here to be unappreciated?

A good thing, though, is that a small book by a food writer engendered a political attack in one of the nation’s largest newspapers.

 

When I was a new restaurant critic, you gave me a bracing talk on preserving my anonymity: I should always pay my own way, accept no free food, go on no junkets, have no friends who were chefs or restaurant owners. Yet so many of the stories in Comfort Me With Apples involve consorting with insiders.

I was really lucky. I started writing about restaurants in the Bay Area for a magazine [New West] where I couldn’t make or break anything, and nobody ever would have guessed I was a critic. I got to learn on the job. And my friends, who later became famous, weren’t at the time. I was doing most of the reporting on restaurants (i.e., Michael’s, Chinois) in a city where I was not a critic.

The time I spent behind the scenes was really valuable later on. But it was also a handicap when I moved to L.A., and was suddenly reviewing the restaurants of people I knew. It was one thing to write about the opening of Chinois — a year later, though, I was the critic at the L.A. Times, and that was hard. I don’t think you can be a good critic when you can envision the people you’re writing about reading your review. You pull your punches. You can’t help yourself. It was much easier when I got to New York, because I didn’t know anyone. And I made sure to keep it that way.

 

So much of the best food is saved for the “back of the house,” for the friends and regulars of the chefs. A restaurant critic, almost by definition, should never have access to such food, but critics should also be educated and knowledgeable . . . You’ve had it both ways.

You’re right. The best food, the best treatment, is saved for the back of the house. But a critic needs to know what will happen to the people she’s writing for. So the training to be a critic should be in another city. That said, one of the great joys of not being a critic in New York is getting to hang out with chefs. I got into this business because I liked them, enjoyed them, respected their generosity, joie de vivre, work ethic. And I missed them.

 

So what do you think of the new crop of food writers, the ones being trained side-by-side with chefs at the culinary institutes so that they’re highly, technically educated about food and food service?

That’s so wrong. I think that’s barely a step away from all the home economists who used to put out food sections in newspapers. Writing from the food training side, they get so fascinated by the factual content, the writing gets so technical and juiceless. Such expertise should inform the writing, but not be in the writing.

Food writers are writers who choose food as their topic. You need to be an interesting thinker and bring more to food writing than just a knowledge of techniques. I mean, it’s great if someone knows how to make sole Duglere, if they know who it’s named for, and what’s in the sauce, and the history of butter — all of that is good for a piece, but it’s not a piece. It’s just where you start. You want to bring in everything around, like the people involved and how the sun feels on the day that you’re eating that dish. As a writer you have all of these things to pluck from. Also, the things you don’t write are so important, as are the things that you cut — even if it all goes away, it leaves a ghost behind.

 

You once gave me advice that changed my approach to writing, and eventually enabled me to finally write — and finish — a novel. I was a young restaurant reviewer, I’d written just eight or 10 reviews for the L.A. Times, and you called me up looking for that week’s copy. I said, “It’s right here, but it’s awful, and I’m just trying to make it better.” Then you said, “Michelle, when you write a weekly column, some of them are going to be jewels and some of them are going to be dogs. Everybody writes the occasional dog. You have to accept that and get your piece in.” This was the first time I’d been given permission not to be perfect, and just finish the thing. As this advice sunk in, I eventually lightened up with the perfectionism that had been hindering my fiction writing.

I do remember telling you that. And that’s the advice that M.F.K. Fisher gave to me. I had been writing so slowly, polishing forever, finishing nothing. And Mary Frances said, “You have to go do daily journalism. Go work for a newspaper.”

It’s great training. You learn to get the job done. There are times you just have to let go of what you’ve written, send it in and know that, anyway, it’s tomorrow’s fish wrap. You just go on.

 

I love that I’m the second generation to get Fisher’s advice.

It really works.

 

Michelle Huneven is the author of the novels Round Rock, and Jamesland, to be published next year by Knopf.

COMFORT ME WITH APPLES: MORE ADVENTURES AT THE TABLE By RUTH REICHL | Random House 302 pages | $25 hardcover