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Author Ruth Reichl sees cooking as 'most natural activity,' and encourages family to still sit at dinner table and eat together

COURTESY: NOAH FECKS - Author Ruth Reichl will speak about food and her time as a food writer at the Voices Lectures series Feb. 6 at Tiffany Center.
Ruth Reichl has been editor-in-chief for Gourmet magazine, a judge on "Top Chef Masters" and a multibook food author.

Her fifth memoir, "Save Me the Plums," comes out in April.

She'll appear as part of the Voices Lectures series, a women's empowerment program, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6, at the Tiffany Center, 1410 S.W. Morrison St. Her topic is "Bouncing Back: How to Make the Next Course Your Best." For tickets:

The Tribune caught up with Reichl for some food-related questions before her Portland appearance:

Tribune: On "Top Chef Masters," you deal with the best of the best — what would be your advice for people who are timid about experimenting with cooking? What would you recommend to someone wanting to start cooking?

Reichl: It's only a meal — and there's another one coming along in a few hours. So what is there to be afraid of?  You learn from your failures — and each time you cook you become better at it.

For someone who has never cooked before, I'd recommend Marion Cunningham's book, "Learning to Cook." Before Marion wrote it she put up signs all over her neighborhood offering free cooking lessons for people who were afraid to cook. She taught those lessons for two years and she learned so much.

Tribune: Food TV shows are popular. Why do you suppose that is? Does it point to people being more domesticated these days?

Reichl: Sadly, I don't think so. I think cooking is man's most natural activity: We cook, animals don't. It is literally what made us human, by allowing us to ingest more calories and develop our big brains. And we need to see cooking; it's a visceral thing. I think cooking shows are popular because in the absence of home cooks, we turn to our televisions.

Tribune: What are the current trends in the food industry?

Reichl: After decades of ignoring food and food issues, Americans are starting to understand how important food is to the future of not only our bodies, but the entire planet. So, we're seeing a huge growth in concern about ethical issues. People are going to farmers markets because they understand that not only is the food better, but it's a way of supporting farmers, and to keep money in the local economy.

People are worrying about waste. And the people who cook — especially young people — are increasingly advent-urous. And I'm encouraged by the fact that cooking, once considered "women's work," is now very much being shared by the men.

Tribune: In your memoir "Save Me the Plums" you talk about the bond developed from preparing and sharing a meal. Can you elaborate? Is it still important for families to be together for meals?

Reichl: I can't emphasize too strongly how important this is. There's good research on this: Children who eat with their families do better in school and are happier people.

I'm pretty sure if you asked my son, Nick, what was one of the most important changes in his childhood, he'd tell you that it was when I stopped being a restaurant critic and started coming home to cook dinner. 

Tribune: Share some thoughts about writing your memoir. Was it easy?

Reichl: This was the hardest book I've ever written. Every other book I've written I started by selling an outline. With this one I just said, "The Gourmet memoir," and every publisher said, "Yes, please."

But as I sat down to write it, it suddenly hit me that I had no idea what the book was supposed to be about. And as I worked, the book changed from being a kind of Cinderella story — about landing in this place of enormous privilege and excess — to a very personal story of learning how to be a good leader and making a happy workplace.

Tribune: What are the virtues of learning how to cook?

Reichl: When you pay attention to all the sensory aspects of cooking — the sights, the sounds, the textures and aromas — it grounds you in the moment. And it's such an easy way to make other people happy. A good meal lubricates conversation, brings people together.

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