One of America’s best-regarded food writers, Ruth Reichl, will speak at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference on Sept. 22 in Lexington.
Reichl’s address, titled “Eating Our Words,” will be given at the Worsham Theater in the UK Student Center (404 Limestone St.) from 7-8 p.m. The speech is free and open to the public.
Reichl is a former restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. After she left the NYT, she began work on the first of four novels, “Tender at the Bone,” followed by “Comfort Me with Apples,” and later, “Garlic and Sapphires,” and “Not Becoming My Mother.”
Her last hired gig was her work as the editor of Gourmet magazine. There she modernized the nation’s best regarded, but arguably stuffiest food and travel magazine and turned it into one of the world finest such publications. (Sadly, Gourmet’s publisher Condé Nast, folded the magazine in 2009, in a cost-cutting spree. Its website, however, lives on.)
My personal take: Reichl’s work as a restaurant critic at the New York Times is the best I’ve ever read. While really good ones preceded and followed her, none delivered Reichl’s balance or brought similar color to their prose as she. (If you can find her old work on the web, it’s worth reading.)
Compared to some of her successors, such as Frank Bruni, who seemed to savage some restaurants just out of spite, I always thought she made sense. When she was harsh, I thought it appropriate—while simultaneously cringing for the restaurateur.
Reichl’s use of the New York Times’ star ratings was the fairest I’ve ever seen at any publication. She once gave a humble Chinese restaurant one star because the place was largely a dump with non-existent service. But her praise of its food screamed, “You have to go here! This is authentic as it gets in the Big Apple!”
In contrast, her praise of places such as Le Bernardin and Lutece always included remarks about the luxury delivered beyond the food and service: décor, atmosphere, music, flowers, furniture, etc. Any restaurants that wanted her four-star blessing had to meet their standards.
Of her books, I liked “Tender at the Bone” and “Garlic and Sapphires” the best. All three are autobiographical: the first centering on her life as a child, growing up and coming of age as a food writer; the second on her evolving career, love affairs (tedious and self-centered, frankly) and travel; and the third, on her work specifically at the NYT and the challenge of remaining anonymous as a food critic. Anyone who thinks life as a dining critic is easy should read that one first. Going out to eat 12 times a week and often in costume is no mean feat.
All that said, if you have the time to go see her speak, I’d do it. (Were I not bound to another engagement that same evening, I’d be there.) I doubt you’ll regret it.
Visit the Kentucky Women Writers Conference site to see more details on this and other events.