Mothers, Daughters, and Food
Ruth Reichl, bestselling author and editor in chief of Gourmet, talks about her poignant new memoir about her mother, the Obamas’ garden, and what to cook in a recession.
Mimi Reichl, a famously terrible cook, had always been a great source of outrageous tales for her daughter, Ruth. But on what would have been her mother’s 100th birthday, Ruth Reichl—the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and the author of three best selling memoirs, including Comfort Me with Apples—was scheduled to receive a Matrix award, honoring accomplished women in the communications world. As other recipients dutifully thanked their mothers for their unwavering support, Reichl got up on stage and revealed that she woke up every day profoundly appreciative that she had not become her mother.
Mimi Reichl had desperately wanted to be a doctor, but she was thwarted by her parents, who decreed that, “If you become a doctor, no man will ever marry you.” She did marry but was endlessly frustrated and depressed over her consignment as the eternal housefrau.
Ruth Reichl was soon contacted by an editor who suggested a book about her mother’s generation. However, after some interviews, Reichl came to the conclusion that the book should just focus on her mother in all her kooky and crabby desperation.
“I think the salvation in mother-daughter relationships comes in mothers understanding their daughters don’t have to be them.”
So in her new book, culinary musings take a back seat to the complicated and complex relationship between mother and daughter. Aided by a treasure trove of letters, the result is Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way, a slender yet heartfelt memoir that explores Mimi Reichl’s thwarted ambitions and the author’s own thorny relationship with her mother. Ruth Reichl spoke to The Daily Beast about mothers and daughters, recession-conscious cooking, and the Obamas’ new garden.
Why did you decide to write this book?
When I got up to give this speech [at the Matrix Awards] I just sort of blurted out that I wake up every morning grateful that I’m not my mother. There was sort of an audible gasp in the room. A friend of mine said to me after that she thought, “Oh my God! Where is she going with this?” And then I just started talking about how I felt my mother’s generation was the most unlucky generation of middle class American women ever because they were smart and educated and bored to death. They had nothing to do. I started thinking about my mother and feeling that I had made her into this figure of fun in all my books and that I really ought to try and figure out who she was.
It must have been very difficult reading all her letters.
It was excruciating. Last summer was the worst summer of my life. I took every Friday off. I have a little writing cabin upstate and I would spend three days locked in there with these letters, devastated, just devastated. Meeting your mother, not the one you’ve fantasized, but the real one, is really hard and I felt so bad about how difficult her life was and how little I had understood that.
Don’t you think that what you describe is very much a middle class problem—that a lot of poor or working class women would have loved to have had your mother’s life? No worries about putting food on the table or how to pay the rent.
I think that if they knew it they wouldn’t feel that way. I think that having work, even if it’s not the kind of fulfilling work that we all think that we need, I think having work is really important. It’s interesting because when I was doing interviews with people when I thought I was going to write this book about everybody’s mothers, I realized that the people who came from the first generation of women who really struggled were much better off than women like my mother who drove themselves crazy.
I’m a newish mother and the most contentious issue on the playground is working mothers versus stay at home mothers.
Believe me, when my kid was young, in the school he was in, the non-working mothers were contemptuous of those of us who worked. They tried to guilt trip you about how you weren’t giving your kid everything he needed. I have to say I would have been a miserable mother as a non-working person. I would have been my mother all over again and I would have been better off cleaning toilets than being at home every day trying to make my son be everything in my life.
Did you feel guilty about working?
Of course. Being a working mother means feeling guilty no matter what. You feel guilty when you’re at home and you feel guilty when you’re at work. Whatever you’re doing, you’re not doing it right and that’s a social problem. Also the idea that it’s the woman who’s supposed to be at home. You’d think we’d be beyond that by now. The man is perfectly capable of doing this but that’s not an argument we’re even ready to have, which is pathetic.
Your mother’s relationship with her mother was difficult. Your relationship with your mother was difficult.
I think it’s the most difficult relationship in the world. Do you have a boy or a girl?
(Laughs) That’s an easier one.
Yes, hopefully he’ll just worship me.
Or at least like you. Watching my mother’s relationship with her mother and how much her mother just insisted that my mother replicate her. Whereas the generosity of my mother to say don’t do this. I think the salvation in mother-daughter relationships comes in mothers understanding their daughters don’t have to be them.
Don’t you think that’s not gender specific?
I guess because I like my son so much it hasn’t been a problem. I guess if he turned into a right-wing bureaucrat it would be very difficult for me. I would try hard to swallow it.
You’re doing more budget-conscious recipes at Gourmet?
You have to. One of the great things about magazines is that they’re sort of living creatures and they have to change with the times. Right now, everybody, even people who don’t need to, are thinking about saving money. It would be sort of gross right now to be featuring lots of recipes that used fois gras and caviar. It’s not where people’s heads are. I consider this a real opportunity for us. People like me have been jumping up and down and saying Americans need to get back to their kitchens, we need to cook. It’s happening and it’s wonderful.
Are we going to see ten ways to use gizzards?
I wish we were but I don’t think Americans are totally ready for offal yet. I think it’ll be another couple of years but they will get to that place. I think the nose-to-tail dining which is very trendy right now will lead us to all the previously shunned cuts of meat.
How much do you love the White House vegetable garden?
I’m absolutely thrilled. It was just so stunning. They did it so quickly. One day all of us were jumping up and down saying plant a garden and the next day they were doing it.
Did you ever think food would become such a politicized issue?
Those of us who lived in Berkeley in the early Seventies got to this through politics, so yes. Food is political, it always has been. What’s interesting is everybody’s starting to realize this now. What I didn’t think was it would be so much in people’s eyes. As recently as three years ago I was giving a lecture to the newspaper editorial writers saying, you’ve got to be paying more attention to food and to give that speech today would be ridiculous. It happened remarkably quickly.
My only worry is that it’s a middle class issue. When I go to the Union Square farmers market it’s full of yuppies.
Every revolution starts with the middle class. Fidel was middle class. Che was middle class. It all starts there and that’s fine. As it percolates out there the cost of the food in the farmers market will come down.
So what’s better? Organic or local?
Personally I think eating locally. Food is a way of making communities. Supporting the people who raise your food, not having it travel half way across the world. So much of organic is industrial, so the organic standards mean very little.
Do you cook every night?
Until my son went to college I did. I work late a lot of nights and my husband doesn’t like me to disappear into the kitchen when I get home. I do the majority of my cooking on the weekends.
So does Ruth Reichl order from Ollie’s?
No, there’s lots of ways to make food without cooking. Making a salad is not exactly cooking.
Nicki Gostin interviews celebrities for newsweek.com. She has written for Newsweek, TV Guide, The Age newspaper, and Australian Women's Weekly, and has appeared on Entertainment Tonight. She dates her interest in celebrities and the Royal Family back to when she was five and wrote letters to Sesame Street, the Queen, and Basil Brush (a British puppet fox with his own TV show).