Keep Doing Things You Don't Know How to Do, says Ruth Reichl
The veteran food writer and editor says it's the best way to stay "young and alive."
As one of our nation’s greatest and most prolific food writers, Ruth Reichl’s name is probably one you know. You should, as I’ve quoted her in all four editions of Will Write for Food! But this is the first time she’s consented to an interview with me, and I’m absolutely thrilled to bring our talk to paid subscribers.
Over Ruth’s long writing career, she has been a feature writer, a restaurant critic, a national magazine editor, a cookbook author and editor, a memoir writer, a novelist, and now a Substack newsletter writer.
Here’s what Ruth Reichl says about what she’s writing next, how food writing has changed and how she keeps reinventing herself:
Q. Which of your jobs did you love the most?
A. I really loved Gourmet. I was working with wonderful people, including Zanne Stewart, who ran the Gourmet test kitchen for more than 30 years; Jane Daniels Lear, another longtime Gourmet editor who now edits Feed Me for Long Island Newsday; Jonathan Gold; Laurie Ochoa, his widow: and John Willoughby. I got to ask writers we loved to write for us, like Ann Patchett, Bud (Calvin) Trillin, and David Foster Wallace. I could say, ‘We want to give you 12 pages. Do whatever you want.’
That job will never come again. I was so lucky to have that moment. They said, ‘Dream up the best food magazine you possibly can and we’ll give you the resources and staff to do it.’ In every way it was a dream.
Q. Were there any jobs you never want to do again?
A. No. I have loved every job I’ve had.
Q. How would you like to be described now?
A. Now I’m just a writer.
Q. You just finished a novel about Paris.
A. It’s done! I’m not one of those people who loves to write. I really find writing difficult, but I loved writing that book.
It was a revelation to find that writing could be fun. I’m 75 years old and I could not wait to sit down at my computer and see what was going to happen next. I miss the characters so much I think I’m going to write a sequel.
Q. Are there any other kinds of food writing jobs left that you would like to do now?
A. While working on a documentary, I pretty much Zoomed all day every day. I have hundreds of hours of Zooms with really interesting people. Hardly any of it made it into the film. I learned so much about the food system that I think I should write a serious book about it.
Also, I wrote my first cookbook when I was 22 years old. It’s like a mad hippie book that my friends put together as a group. I’ve been thinking about doing an annotated version. I could talk about 50 years of what happened in food. That book came out in 1972. It would give me a chance to go through everything that’s in there and how it developed in the last 50 years. I would love to put out a color version. I’d like to put all that interior art in color.
Q. It sounds like you’re not going to be retiring anytime soon.
A. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.