Ruth Reichl at Central Library

Food writer Ruth Reichl talked about the point of restaurant reviews, food and politics, and how children eat at a Wisconsin Book Festival event on Tuesday at the Central Library. 

In Ruth Reichl's vision of our national culinary future, restaurants will get a little quieter, and a few more of them could be Scandinavian.

Food, hopefully, will become more sustainable, as we address both hunger and the astonishing amount of food waste in this country.

And kids, like they used to, will eat what their parents do. 

"For all of human history until about 10 years ago, children ate what their parents ate," Reichl said, addressing an attentive Wisconsin Book Festival crowd on the third floor of the Central Library on Tuesday evening. "Eating is a learned behavior.

"There's a reason why Japanese children get up in the morning and eat fish and rice and seaweed, and American children get up in the morning and eat Pop-Tarts. That's what we've trained them to do.

"It is our job to train the next generation to eat in ways that are healthy for them. We have to grow up." 

Reichl's discussion was framed as a remount of her 2014 book tour for "Delicious," her first novel set at a Gourmet-like magazine in New York. Some in the audience, including people who attended the "Meet the Make-Hers" cocktail hour/fundraiser honoring local female food entrepreneurs, got a signed copy of the book. 

But after waking up at 3 a.m. Tuesday morning and traveling on delayed airlines for 12 hours, Reichl seemed more in the mood to talk about what she loves — her past work, her future dreams and of course, food. 

"I thought about, what can a restaurant review do?" Reichl said of her early days as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times. (She later went on to be the New York Times restaurant critic from 1993-99). 

In the case of Los Angeles in the 1980s, only a tiny fraction of the million-and-a-half people who read the paper would be able to eat at the high end places she was reviewing. 

So Reichl decided that, as a writer who "work(s) for the diners," her job was to take them into the restaurant, even if they couldn't physically go themselves. 

"What I could do was put them in the seat, have them try to taste this food," she said.

One of the greatest compliments Reichl ever received, she said, was from a man who wanted her to write more about steak houses. The man had had heart surgery and couldn't go anymore, but Reichl's reviews let him "taste red meat" again.

Reichl has been writing about food for more than 40 years on opposite sides of the country, a history that allows her to take a long view on food trends.

The most influential diners on the food scene now, she said, are the "passionate, knowledgeable" young adults in their 20s and 30s with disposable income.

"Right now they're putting up with these noisy, casual restaurants where you go out and spend a lot of money for fantastic food, but it's kind of thrown at you," Reichl said. "I think they're going to start demanding more of an experience.

"They're going to say, 'If I'm going out and spending $100 a person for a meal, I want it to be gracious.' I'm expecting that in the next few years, you'll see these noisy restaurants become more grown up."

Reichl was also inspired by Blue Hill Stone Barns chef Dan Barber's recent high profile experiment with foods that would otherwise be thrown out.

Structured as a monthlong pop-up with well-known guest chefs, WastED made burgers out of leftover juice bar vegetable pulp and served up carrot tops and fish skins like they were choice cuisine. Even the candles on the tables were made of tallow, fat derived from beef. 

"The whole experience was making you realize how wasteful we are, and how much food gets thrown out," Reichl said. "One in eight Americans goes to bed hungry every night, mostly children, and at the same time we waste at least 40 percent of the food we buy and cook.

"We have to figure that out." 

There are some food trends Reichl misses from the mid- to late-20th century, things like German and Scandinavian restaurants and "theatrical" restaurateurs with fearlessness and imagination. 

Reichl, a well-known memoirist with books like "Tender at the Bone" and "Garlic and Sapphires" to her name, has always had an expansive view of food and what it represents.

As food editor of the LA Times, she said, Reichl embedded a reporter for a month with a family on food stamps. She added an agricultural reporter and sent a team of writers out to walk every block of the "ethnic" sections of the cosmopolitan city. 

Reichl explored, then and now, how food "could reflect a community." 

What she wants most of all is to see fewer food publications constructed like focus groups, a criticism she leveled at Bon Appétit last year in a New York Times Magazine interview.

As she was trying to do with Gourmet in the 10 years she led the beloved, now defunct magazine, Reichl wants to see more food writing that addresses real issues in places where the people who cook and care about food will see it.

At Gourmet, she encouraged writers to "cover food in a way that was meaningful." Today, Wired may be covering the multi-billion dollar food technology industry, but are home cooks reading it? 

"You make a great magazine by giving people not what they want, but what they didn't know they wanted," she said. 

Next up for Reichl is another novel, still in the works; a memoir about her time at "Gourmet"; and "My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life," set to be released by Random House in the fall. 

As the loving descriptions on her Twitter feed often reflect, for Reichl, simple is often best. 

"This cookbook I have coming out in September is mostly comfort food," Reichl said. "Chefs do what they do; they're trained professionals, they have a whole brigade helping them do what they do.

"That's not what we should be cooking at home. Lately I have come to really revere baked potatoes ... with butter. I'm a carbohydrate eater." 


Food editor and arts writer Lindsay Christians has been writing for the Cap Times since 2008. She hosts the food podcast The Corner Table and runs a program for student theater critics. Member @AFJEats and @ATCA. She/ her/ hers.