Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl talks about her mother, her serotonin and the brown bananas in her freezer

Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl talks about her mother, her serotonin and the brown bananas in her freezer

The prolific Ruth Reichl (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

“I’ve always thought that privacy is overrated,” says avant-garde epicure and Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl. She is talking to the Globe and Mail‘s restaurant critic, Joanne Kates, about her most recent book (Not Becoming My Mother and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way), but we start to wonder if she’s actually referring to Kates, who is wearing a plumed mask to preserve her critical anonymity. Reichl, who long ago shed her comical critic-incognito getups, is boldly baring all.

The mother in question has been a subject of amusement and introspection since Reichl’s first book, Tender at the Bone, described the taste bud–deficient homemaker as the “Queen of Mould” because she tended to serve spoiled concoctions. But this fourth memoir mines a box of her late mother’s letters and diaries to uncover the sensitive side of a woman whose chronic unhappiness (i.e., manic depression) Reichl had long misunderstood.

Ruth Reichl may be the opposite of a food snob, but she has most certainly not become her mother. She explains with some wistfulness how her career (which includes a visionary emphasis on feminism, the democratization of fine dining and a desire to bring political issues to the fore of the largely peaches-and-cream Gourmet) owes much to her mother’s antics. It was from gag-inducing gastronomies, for instance, that the former New York Times restaurant critic learned to taste carefully (more out of fear of hospitalization than for cardamom detection) and to cook. “Cooking is what makes us human,” she tells Kates. “When I’m cooking, everyone I’ve ever cooked with is with me.”

When we sit down for our own chat with Reichl—who has been up since 4 a.m. for her whirlwind tour stop in Toronto—she is warm, cheery and thoughtful. “My husband says that I have too much serotonin.” It’s no surprise, then, that she has found a silver lining in the economic downturn. “The recession has made me a better cook,” she says. The chef once known for dumpster diving throws nothing away: “If I boil vegetables, I use the water for stock.” But she’s not taking a page out of her mother’s expiration date–defiant book: “I find myself, always, with an old jar of salsa, asking, ‘Can I serve this?’ Then I think of my mother, and I throw it away.” Of course, she adds, “We all have those brown bananas in the freezer.” (Yes we do.)

While in Toronto—what she calls an “incredible food city”—the no-fuss Reichl enjoyed “awesome smoked meat and the single most decadent knish ever made” at Caplansky’s, and tweeted euphorically about chèvre noir shortbread from LPK’s Culinary Groove. An advocate of street food, she’s excited that Toronto is getting ethnic roadside eats, which she feels offer a local flavour that is sometimes lacking in homogenized haute cuisine. But she doesn’t discriminate against the basics. “I still like a hot dog,” she says humbly. Hear hear.