Sunday, October 4, 2009

Farewell to Gourmet and A Q & A with Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl (photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

This posting was intended to be a question and answer feature with Ruth Reichl, Gourmet magazine's editor-in-chief, and editor of the newly published GOURMET TODAY (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Just as I was publishing my review of this wonderful new cookbook comes the news that Conde Nast has shuttered the magazine, which has been the most influential culinary publication in this country for nearly seventy years. The decision to close Gourmet is a terribly sad one. And I'm sure home cooks will mourn its demise for a long time.

I began to read Gourmet while still a teenager. It helped to form my life-long love of cooking and reading about food and inspired my travels. I just had to sample the wonderful meals in the trattorias of Rome and the bistros of Paris. I went to restaurants reviewed by Jay Jacobs and Caroline Bates in California where I grew up. It was in Gourmet that I first read about Alice Waters and the food revolution she started at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. It was in the pages of Gourmet where I first read Lori Colwin's wistful columns about simple cooking at home. Those wonderful columns were collected and published in book form as Home Cooking and its sequel, More Home Cooking, and have an honored place in my cookbook collection. Her recipe for Damp Gingerbread, is a favorite that I've been baking for more than twenty years. Those columns led me to Ms. Colwin's novels and short story collections. I wrote her a mash note about the books and she wrote back. I still have her response.

I usually read the magazine cover-to-cover. The Sugar and Spice column in the front of "the book" was a regular feature I never missed. It was wonderful to know that people could request a recipe from restaurants they visited and Gourmet could always obtain them. I never found the ambition to cook an entire menu from their big monthly entertaining feature, but I often cooked one of more of the dishes from that section--many of them can still be found at my table 30 years later. A recipe from my files in 1979 is a pasta sauce with sausage meat, green pepper, onions, garlic, red wine, tomatoes, oregano, chili flakes and served over penne pasta. I cannot tell you how many times I've made this wonderful dish. It's the sauce I go to whenever I need the warm comfort of pasta. It's a crowd pleaser or dinner for six on a Friday night and a perfect meal with a salad to unwind after a arduous week of work and deadlines.

Under Ruth Reichl's superb leadership, the magazine attained a new sense of purpose while maintaining its relevance. Prior to her era, the magazine seemed to be on autopilot. Reichl shook it up a bit--made it more modern without toadying up entirely to the chef zeitgeist of the new century. New features stayed in tune with the changing tastes of new generations of readers. She brought her own celebrity to the magazine and energized it. All the more shocking that Si Newhouse found himself faced with the prospect of pulling the plug.

Lots of culinary contenders have come and gone over the years to challenge Gourmet's influence and I sometimes switched allegiances, but I always came back. Reading all the post-mortems about the magazine's demise made me realize that a newer and younger generation is probably not Gourmet's core audience. Now one of the most iconic magazines on the newstands is gone. It will be missed.

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This interview with Ruth Reichl was prepared before the news broke about Gourmet. StoveTopReadings has learned that Ms. Reichl is touring the country in support of the publication of GOURMET TODAY, appearing at bookstore signings and other events.

Ruth Reichl has been thinking about food for most of her life and writing about it writing for more than thirty years, first as a restaurant critic, for The Los Angeles Times and then at The New York Times, before becoming editor-in-chief at Gourmet. She is also one of our most memorable contemporary memoirists. Not Becoming My Mother, Garlic and Sapphires, Comfort Me with Apples and Tender at the Bone, were not only wildly entertaining, but bestsellers too. Anybody who loves to eat, go to restaurants, or grapples with the vicissitudes of their career should read Garlic and Sapphires, which is often as emotional as it is compelling.

For the publication of GOURMET TODAY (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Reichl's publisher invited her to talk about the book and its place in our culinary lives.

What inspired you to create GOURMET TODAY?

I was wandering through the supermarket, eager to make risotto, and trying to figure out if they had anything that could stand in for Arborio rice. When I asked a clerk, he pointed toward a banner reading “Rices of the World.” Turns out they had not only Arborio, but also basmati, jasmine, sushi... I began to see that, while I hadn’t been paying attention, the supermarket had been transformed. Walking through the store, I was struck by how much the way we eat has changed over the past few years. It’s not just that salsa outsells ketchup, but that we now casually incorporate an entire array of international foods into our cooking. It seemed to me that we needed to create a cookbook that deals with this new reality.

What has changed about the way we cook and eat in the last five or ten years?

Almost everything: Our entire outlook on food has changed dramatically. We’re cooking lighter; where we used to throw butter into a dish to make it tastier, now we're being much more creative, using herbs, spices, and broths to add that extra flavor. We’re eating a much wider variety of grains and vegetables than we did even five years ago. And we’re eating less protein—the middle of the plate is less often the giant steak. We’re eating more fish than we used to, and supermarkets are selling better fish and offering many more seafood choices than they once did. And people are thinking about the health aspects of food almost without realizing it; we’re thinking about where our food comes from in a way we didn’t used to. We’re asking, “Where was this raised? Is it in season?” We don’t want strawberries that come from halfway around the world--we’re more willing to wait now -- and we're considering the carbon footprint of everything we purchase. The farmers’ market movement has accelerated so rapidly in the past five years that it’s made a big difference in what we choose. We're also thinking about the cost of food in a new way; we're much less wasteful than we once were, and conspicuous consumption has become an embarrassment rather than a point of pride.

What does GOURMET TODAY offer for the time-pressed or inexperienced cook?

This is a book that deals with the fact that nobody has much time these days—sixty per cent of the recipes can be prepared in under half an hour. And it is also a book that understands that there are a number of people who are just coming back into the kitchen and need a refresher course in cooking.

That's why we've included boxes on the easiest possible way to cook every vegetable you'll find at the supermarket or the farmer's market. We want people to cook again, and we know that the way to encourage that is to give them easy recipes

What is the testing process at Gourmet—how do you ensure that home cooks can reproduce your recipes in “normal” kitchens?

We test almost to the point of absurdity. We start with an idea for a recipe; wouldn’t it be nice to have a really good fish recipe with a terrifically easy rub? Somebody goes into the kitchen and starts experimenting and comes up with a blend they like. A group of us then tastes the result and stands around critiquing it—with a dozen or so people weighing in on how the dish can be better and easier, the criticism can be brutal. The cook takes notes, goes back to the drawing board, and does it again. This happens over and over, usually eight or nine times, until we all agree it’s as good as it can be. At that point, the recipe goes to a cross-tester, a cook who has had no contact at all with the recipe; he or she is a stand- in for the reader. If the cross-tester’s result isn’t exactly the same as the final prize recipe, we go back and figure out where the problem is.

What can we find in GOURMET TODAY that we didn’t find in the first book?

These are all new recipes. We started from scratch and thought about what people really need today. So we put in a cocktail chapter, because we've become a serious cocktail culture. We have a vegetarian chapter, because today, in the United States, I don’t think there's anybody who doesn't occasionally end up cooking for a vegetarian. We’ve put in a lot of one-dish meals, because they make such perfect weeknight solutions for the working cook. And we’ve added a big grilling chapter that takes grilling to the next dimension, with a long primer telling you everything you want to know about how to be a better griller.

What are some of your favorite dishes from GOURMET TODAY?

I really love every recipe in this book. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be here. Still, there are certain recipes I make again and again. For example, there’s the Planter’s Punch, which is one of those forgotten drinks that is so incredibly festive it takes only one sip to make everyone understand that they’ve come to a real party. There is no better tidbit to serve on the side than those Bacon and Cheddar Toasts. And I can’t think of any more seductive way to start an evening than a plate of Korean Pancakes—why don’t more people know how utterly delicious Korean food is?—and some spicy Jamaican Meat Patties.

What else do you serve when you have guests?

I often find myself offering them South Indian Shrimp Curry because it fills the house with such a wonderful aroma while it cooks. Crisp Roast Duck is another great company dish; everybody always thinks it’s difficult, but it couldn’t be easier, and it just feels so special. And for those who are on a diet (and there’s at least one at every party) I find myself turning to Steamed Bass with Ginger and Scallions again and again. Everybody loves chocolate, and the Devil’s Food Cake with Marshmallow Frosting gives you a huge wow factor for very little effort. But the easiest way I know to impress people is with cheesecake. Turn it into a Sour Cherry Cheesecake and no matter what you may have served before, your reputation is made.

Is there anything you make just for yourself?

My single favorite dish to make when I’m home alone is Egg Fried Rice. Fried rice takes about five minutes, but it offers hours of comfort. I like it so much that I always ask for an extra box of rice when I order Chinese food. To please myself, I absolutely love that Cranberry Almond Crostata for its slight edge of tartness. And I am simply unable to resist the Peaches-and-Cream Eclairs with Bourbon Caramel Sauce—because all I have to do is look at them and I am instantly about ten years old.

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