Ruth Reichl Picks Her Favorite American Food Books

Ruth Reichl talks about her favorite foodie books and how America developed a real food culture.

This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen, and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

Three of the books you’ve chosen are heavily focused on, and influenced by, France. One is by an Italian immigrant. Isn’t our topic American food?I do think of these very much as American food books. American food is the food of immigrants. You go back a couple of hundred years and we were all immigrants, unless we’re going to talk about Native American cuisine. And for much of the early part of the 20th century, Americans were slavishly following French cooking. So it’s not an accident that Alice B. Toklas and A.J. Liebling were focused on France.

Why did people slavishly follow French cuisine?I think it’s because if you go back to the roots of America, we were founded by Puritans, who had no pleasure in food. There is an almost anti-epicurean tradition at the very base of America. For much of the middle part of American history, people who wanted to overcome that went to France. For me, what’s exciting about what is happening today in food is that we’re finally embracing America. We have become a food culture, but we very much were not. So you have someone like [Angelo] Pellegrini. I find him remarkable. His book was actually written the year I was born [1948]. He has what I now consider a modern American aesthetic of food. But people in America weren’t thinking like that in 1948. It was a culture of hamburgers and frozen food. The industrialization of food was just about to start. And here you have this man saying, “Wait a minute! Why are you spending all this time on your lawns? Pull them up! Plant some food!”

Yes, I noticed the references to tinned or canned vegetables in some of the books you chose.In the middle of the 20th century, that what’s American food was! Canned food, frozen food, and then 10 years later you get the “I hate to cook” book. Then the women’s movement came in and there was a whole backlash against cooking. If you’re going to look for people who cared about food at that particular point, you have M.F.K. Fisher going to France and discovering food. She was brought up in a Quaker town.

The Art of Eating

Shall we start with her book then? You’ve chosen a collection of five of her shorter books called The Art of Eating. It’s part memoir, part musings on food.M.F.K. Fisher was a wonder and a huge influence, and someone I got to know pretty well at the end of her life. She had this epiphany when she went as a young bride to France and discovered food—to me, in the best possible way—and brought that back to America. What I love about her is that she’s really a wonderful writer. She’s very thoughtful about the subject of food—it’s a subject that she embraces and takes on. For someone like me, growing up in the 1950s, if you wanted to read this kind of stuff about food, there wasn’t anybody else.

I read the chapter “Consider the Oyster” last night, from 1941. Were Americans generally not eating oysters at that time?If you go back in American history, oysters were the food of poor people. New York was filled with oyster saloons in the 1800s. They were so abundant and so plentiful that we ate them all up—and they went from being the food of the poor to being almost impossible to find.

Although there are recipes in it, it’s not a cookbook is it? No, it’s a book about taking pleasure in food.

Between Meals

Tell me about Between Meals. This is by A.J. Liebling and it’s mainly about him enjoying being a glutton in Paris restaurants before World War II.This is the male version [of M.F.K. Fisher]. To me, they have always walked hand in hand, Mary Frances and A.J. What I love is the contrast to Mary Frances. He is an unabashed glutton. His famous phrase is that the primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite. But what he is not saying is that, really, the primary requisite for writing well about food is the ability to write. He had both. He’s such a beautiful writer that you can pick this book up at any point and there’s something wonderful that you want to quote. It’s an old man’s yearning for the joys of his youth. It’s also about women—that wonderful last chapter, “Passable.” It’s about being able to appreciate the small things in life. For me, all these books, with the exception of Diet for a Small Planet, are really an exhortation to pay attention to the little things in life, to get pleasure out of this thing we all do every day, three times a day. That’s what attracts me to them.

Liebling rues the changing attitudes toward food, doesn’t he? Before, if a businessman wasn’t fat, you’d think he was doing badly. Sport was considered an eccentricity. The fact that by the time he’s writing, people are trying to be thin and are exercising—Liebling finds that pretty upsetting.Yes. He talks about how much he loved Paris in the 1920s, but he later finds out that in fact he missed the golden age, which was before World War I. He laments that he didn’t get to see that. There’s also a wonderful passage in there about how glad he is that he didn’t have a lot of money. When I first read it, I didn’t have any money either. Liebling did not go to Paris as a rich person, eating three-star meals, and he says that helped his appreciation. That’s an important point. This isn’t about eating caviar and truffles. M.F.K. Fisher does a whole passage on eating a tangerine. It’s one of the most beautiful passages in food writing—about taking these sections of tangerine and putting them on the radiator, until they almost crystallise on the outside, and the burst of flavor, the warm juice in your mouth. That’s a very important thing to me. You don’t have to be rich to eat well.

I was also struck by the range of food—he talks about eating tripe and woodcock. It seems that in the past we were much more adventurous about what we ate.The person to go to for that is really Pellegrini, who goes on and on about offal and eating the guts of chickens and is appalled by what Americans don’t eat.

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Yes, I think a promising relationship with a girl ends because he shoots some larks with his slingshot on her parents’ estate and cooks them.Yes, and he trapped rabbits. There’s also a wonderful passage about his father taking the intestines of chickens and washing them very carefully and leaving them to soak overnight. His Sunday-morning ritual was cutting them into little pieces and frying them crisp and then folding them into an omelette. He talks about how Americans won’t eat these things. It’s still one of the really high hurdles for Americans. I happen to love tripe, but getting Americans to eat tripe or kidneys or even sweetbreads... When I was at Gourmet, we once counted how many offal recipes there were in the 1940s. There were lots of them. In our last year [2009], I think we printed just two.

To continue reading the interview with Ruth Reichl about her favourite books on America food, visit The Browser.

Interview by Sophie Roell