Sunday, April 10, 2005

Citizen Ruth: A measured defense of Ruth Reichl

Gourmet editor and former New York Times chief restaurant critic Ruth Reichl has had such a meteoric career that some sort of backlash is inevitable.

Her latest memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, has thus far drawn lukewarm reviews from the
the Times and the New York Observer.(Adam Gopnik has some typically glib and forgettable things to say about it in a recent New Yorker.)

Bitter Greens Journal has just two things to add to this discussion.

• Reichl wrote an excellent review. I didn't live in New York during her tenure at the Times, but I read her religiously from the hinterlands of Austin, Texas. She was my stylistic model during my stint as a restaurant critic at the Austin Chronicle. She wrote tight, pungently argued reviews that attempted to place the restaurant under discussion in a broader context. Her catholicity of tastes contrasted brightly against the dull Francophile obsessions of her predecessors. She used the first-person voice as a tool of expression without making the reviews about herself. And she usually managed to write vividly about food without overwriting and lapsing overtly into food porn--a difficult task. Her model may have been the film critic Pauline Kael--personal, yes, but intensely devoted to the subject at hand, not herself.

• Alone (as far as I can tell) among the made members of the food-media mafia, Reichl cares about sustainability and the brutal economics of farming. When she took over Gourmet a few years ago, it focused on European travel and high-end NY and California restaurants. While it certainly retains those foci, Gourmet since Reichl's arrival has published articles on: a land-trust scheme that helps "land rich, cash poor" small farmers keep land under cultivation while freeing up cash for retirement, etc; Ronnybrook Dairy, a small, popular-but-struggling family-owned dairy in the Hudson Valley; the pioneering Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, who has taken the raising of animals for meat to new levels of sustainability; the food industry's long, successful, but ultimately doomed campaign to hide the health-ruining qualities of hydrogenated oil; and the sudden ubiquity of genetically modified food on supermarket shelves. These are just the examples I can remember off the top of my head (Gourmet has no online archive of features.) Not one of them is imaginable in any other high-circulation food magazine (Food and Wine, Bon Apetit, Savuer, etc.); or in pre-Reichl Gourmet.

Educating the well-heeled readers of glossy food magazines about sustainability and the plight of small farmers is certainly not sufficient for sparking fundamental change; but it sure is necessary. And Citizen Ruth (as I've taken to calling her, a nod to her social consciousness, which towers over that of her peers) is doing her part.

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