When you think of the pioneers of the organic, "simple food" movement, perhaps the first two names that come to mind are Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl. Waters is the co-founder of the legendary Chez Panisse, one of the earliest American fine-dining establishments to emphasize locally sourced meat and produce, in Berkeley, Calif. Reichl made a name for herself as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, then became editor of Gourmet magazine and the host of a related television series on PBS before the magazine was abruptly shuttered by its parent company, Condé Nast, in 2009.
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Masters of the kitchen, both women also know their way around the page. Waters is the author of several cookbooks, including, most recently, "The Art of Simple Food II: Recipes, Flavor, and Inspiration From the New Kitchen Garden." Reichl, author of several memoirs — including "Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table" and "Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table" — has branched out into fiction with her first novel, "Delicious!" Based partly on Reichl's experiences at Gourmet, "Delicious!" centers on its heroine's discovery of a cache of letters written by a little girl named Lulu Swan to the great chef James Beard during World War II.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Waters and Reichl recently while they were in town for a public conversation as part of a Chicago Humanities Festival program. Over vegetable juice and hot tea at the Park Hyatt, the two women discussed books, food, "molecular gastronomy" — Reichl had eaten at the Chicago chef Grant Achatz's Alinea the previous evening — and their shared commitment to teaching children how to eat well. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: Given that you both are all about "simple" food — Alice, I once saw you on television cooking an egg in a ladle of olive oil over a fireplace, and I've seen you, Ruth, eating sauteed greens right out of the pan — what do you make of the very fancy kind of cooking that Grant Achatz and Alinea represent?
Reichl: I think it's a big kitchen, and there's room for lots of things in it, as long as it's good food. I spent part of the morning writing about that meal last night. It's a performance, and so much fun. It's not just feeding you. It's an evening of theater that's delicious and makes you happy to be alive. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people doing it who don't do it very well. Grant happens to be one of the people who make magic happen in that room. We had a balloon made of apple gelee filled with helium!
Waters: I remember once I had a pillow filled with some sort of lavender essence. They put the lavender ice cream on top in a bowl. As the air was let out, the aroma of lavender came out.
Q: That seems very different from the food tradition you represent.
Waters: For me, the bottom line is where the food comes from. I know where Grant gets his food from, and it's organic food from real farms, ranches raising real animals. And that's what we're trying to do in the big picture, which is to support those people. If it were someone who was not doing that, I wouldn't be interested at all.
Reichl: You have to think about where food was when Alice opened Chez Panisse, and when I moved to Berkeley. Food had been hijacked by technique.
Q: Are you speaking of the nouvelle cuisine era?
Reichl: Earlier than that. I'm speaking of Julia Child, even, who said you can make great food out of the supermarket if you have the techniques down. What Alice did was shout to the world, "Look, you really have to start with good products. And if you have good products, you don't need great technique." If you start with a great peach, there's nothing you're ever going to do that's going to make it any better than when it comes off the tree. In 1970, that was a revolution.
Q: When did you two meet?
Reichl: I remember the first time I met Alice, but she wouldn't remember. I was living in a commune in Berkeley, and my parents came out to visit, in 1973 or '74. They had read about Chez Panisse and said, "We're going to take you out to dinner." My friends and I never had any money, and we never went out to dinner, so it was exciting. At the time, dinner at Chez Panisse was $3.95 for a prix fixe three-course meal, and if you didn't want whatever was being offered that night, you could have a steak instead. My mother decided that the steak would be a better value, and Alice came out of the kitchen to try and dissuade her.
Q: Was she successful?
Reichl: No. (Laughs.)
Waters: We only had steak as insurance. I really believed that the other things we were serving were much, much better.
Q: We often hear people even today say, "I'd like to eat organic food, but it's too expensive."
Waters: To which I always say, "We need to support the farmers who are taking care of the land for the future." Besides, you know, you either pay up front or you pay out back — in terms of our health, in terms of the environment, in terms of the quality of our lives, in terms of everything.
Reichl: You can actually put dollar amounts on this, in terms of the obesity and diabetes crises in this country, and also in terms of the environmental costs, what we've allowed to happen to farms. If we make it national policy that we will support small farmers the way we support agribusiness, we'll suddenly see it change in terms of the cost of organic food.
Q: Since you've both written several books, I'll ask you: Which is harder — cooking well or writing well?
Reichl: To me, cooking is man's natural activity. But I think writing is really hard. Certainly writing fiction is the hardest thing I've ever done. For one thing, when you're writing, you never know when you're done. You can keep refining and polishing it forever. When you're done with a meal, you bring it to the table.
Waters: And it disappears, including from people's memories. If they didn't like it, they didn't like it, but when you write a book, it's there, and it stays there. So I have to agree with Ruth. Writing, for me, is extremely difficult — which is why, in my books, I don't really do the writing myself. I gather together the best people who have the best words, who can discuss the subject the way I would like to have it discussed. So my books are collaborations.
Q: Cookbooks are an interesting genre, and it's surprisingly how often they are unsatisfying. It could be a matter of clarity — the recipes can be hard to follow — but it could also be some other missing element.
Waters: There needs to be a story, yes. And it's not easy to tell somebody how to follow a recipe. It can get so formulaic — too many ingredients, too many details in the description — that you sort of turn it off. So you have to find this balance where they get the idea, and then begin to fill in the pieces.
Q: Ruth, going from journalism and memoirs to a novel like "Delicious!" must have been quite a shift.
Reichl: Well, I'm addicted to fiction. It's my greatest pleasure in life, and I always said that if I didn't have a day job, I would write a novel. And then I didn't have a day job. (Laughs.) I used to have these long talks with M.F.K. Fisher, who also wanted to write a novel, and she said, "I just couldn't do it." And I used to think, "God, if Mary Frances couldn't do it, what makes me think I can do it?" (Laughs.)
So I went in with real trepidation. But I had kind of a magic moment of going into an office library and having this flash. I thought, "What if, hidden in here somewhere, were letters from a little girl to James Beard during World War II?" I'm sure it came about because I had found in a thrift store a stash of Department of Agriculture pamphlets from World War II: how to start a victory garden, recipes for rationing, how to join the Women's Land Army and so on. So I went home and wrote the letters. Everything in the book has been rewritten a few times except for those letters, which I wrote in one big whoosh. Lulu was a gift, and I pretty much built the book around her.
Q: Is it fair to surmise that writing the novel was partly a way for you to heal after the sudden closing of Gourmet magazine?
Reichl: Maybe. What I always do in times of trouble or stress is to try and do something I don't know how to do. I've been a journalist for 40 years, and when your editor says, "Sit down and write 15 inches," you sit down and do it, because you can. Fiction writing, for me, is a process of waiting for the magic to happen. I go to my studio and sit there and sit there and sit there, and on a good day, something happens. I can't even describe how it happens. It's a gift. It's like I go away, and when I come back, there are words on the page.
Q: And when Gourmet closed, some magic needed to happen.
Reichl: Well, yeah. I wanted to do something that would make me feel proud again. It was a very hard thing, losing the magazine. Sixty people were suddenly out of work, on my watch. It wasn't a good feeling.
Q: Tell us about your Edible Schoolyard Project.
Waters: I want to put it in the context of our food culture. We are what we eat, and when we eat fast food, we think that way — fast, cheap and easy. When we eat differently, we think differently. But it's very hard, being up against the drive to make money and train people to consume. That's what's going on in the schools. We have to wake up to it and confront it.
Q: How does Edible Schoolyard work?
Waters: Next year is going to be its 20th year, can you believe it? I started out with a middle school in Berkeley with about 1,000 kids. I just had a passion to bring them into a new relationship to food. I thought the cafeteria should feed every child for free, with food grown organically by local farmers. So we started by creating a garden classroom on the school grounds. It was covered with asphalt, but we dug that up. In my naivete, I thought it was going to be a production garden for the kitchen, but we couldn't have grown enough food for a small family on that much land.
But it turned out to be a wonderful place for kids to discover everything about growing food and cooking it. They didn't feel like it was school. They just liked being in this interactive environment, and it was hugely successful and empowering. Once the kids learned how to grow food, they wanted to eat it. It's not like it was a diet. And so we thought, if we could do it in one school, let's see where else we can go with it.
Q: What's the scope of the program now?
Waters: There are now 3,500 school projects that have either gardens or related curricula around the country. We didn't really push to grow, after a while; the schools just started coming to us, and it's expanded geometrically.
Q: What do you think of Michelle Obama's initiative along similar lines?
Waters: I think it's terribly important, what she's doing. But I think it's time to go all the way. I think it's really immoral just to hope for an upgrade from big food companies. We have to find people who really want to nourish children, and pay them the money they need to do that.
Reichl: You have to think of it beyond nourishing children. I think you have to think of it as an important step for the future, because the truth is, eating is learned behavior. Japanese children don't grow up liking rice and vegetables and fish because they have a different DNA. They like those foods because that's what they grow up eating. And to make changes in the health of our future citizens, we have to start teaching them to eat well early on.
But we have a huge fight on our hands, because we have allowed children to be marketed to in the most shameful way. Kids are sitting ducks for sugar and pop and all the junk that the big food manufacturers make. First they sit in front of the TV and are told to ...
Waters: ... Drink the Coke.
Reichl: Drink the Coke, or basically eat candy for breakfast. And then all that stuff is down at their eye level in the supermarkets. We have to fight back. We have to teach generations of children about food, how to eat well and how to like it, to let them know that they're not doing it just because it's good for them. They're doing it because it's delicious.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
By Ruth Reichl, Random House, 383 pages, $27Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun