Julia Gets Wise with Ruth Reichl
On this episode of Wiser Than Me™, Julia gets enlightened by 75-year-old food writer, magazine editor, and author Ruth Reichl. From her infamous New York Times review of Le Cirque to greenlighting a controversial David Foster Wallace article in Gourmet, Ruth is as gutsy as they come. Ruth talks to Julia about living with a mom who has bipolar disorder, processing grief through food, and why you should always do things that scare you. Plus, Julia asks her mom Judith what to cook when Ruth accepts an invitation for dinner.
Follow Julia on Instagram and Twitter @officialjld. Keep up with Ruth Reichl @ruth.reichl on Instagram and Twitter @ruthreichl. You can find out more about our show @lemonadamedia on all social platforms.
Joining Lemonada Premium is a great way to support our show and get bonus content. Subscribe today at bit.ly/lemonadapremium.
Wiser Than Me is brought to you by Hairstory. Use code WISER at checkout for 20% off your purchase, and Hairstory will donate 10% of proceeds from this code to water preservation efforts.
Wiser Than Me is brought to you by Evereve. Check out Evereve’s latest curated styles and get 20% off your first online order when you use code WISER.
Click this link for a list of all Wiser Than Me™ sponsors and discount codes: https://lemonadamedia.com/sponsors/.
For additional resources, information, and a transcript of the episode, visit lemonadamedia.com.
Ruth Reichl, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Judith Bowles
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 00:00
When I was about 28, I got pregnant for the first time and I was crazy happy. I got pregnant easily. I felt very fertile, very womanly. And then, quite late in the pregnancy, my husband Brad, and I discovered that this little fetus was not going to live. So that was emotionally devastating, as you can imagine, but it got worse because I developed an infection that landed me in the hospital. And I mean, this whole thing was just a complete nightmare. Of course, my mom flew out to be with me, and before she left, she told her best friend Ellie that she was coming out to be with me. And naturally, the first thing that Ellie said to her was, so what are you going to cook? After a couple of days, I finally got out of the hospital and I came home to recuperate, but I wasn’t allowed to get up out of bed yet. I was, as they say, bedridden. But my mom cooked, she made this incredible, cozy chili in a cast iron skillet, with cornbread on top in the pan. And she and my husband, Brad set up a little card table at the foot of the bed. And the smell of that cornbread and the chili was so wonderful. It just filled the room and the whole house and my heart really, because here’s the thing I couldn’t eat. I wasn’t yet allowed to have solid food. But it didn’t matter. It was the best meal ever. And I didn’t even eat it. The making of it was so comforting. It was so embracing. Food is central to the traditions of my family. I would think that to most families, that’s the case. I relate food, especially to my mom. She’s a great cook. This is one of my greatest memories around food, even though it has sort of an odd kicker. Really, like my sweet niece FIA says before a meal. We’d like to give thanks to everyone who had a hand in bringing this nutritious delicious food to our table. Isn’t that a lovely prayer? I am so thankful to have food God knows, plenty of people don’t. And I’m also so thankful that today I’m talking with food writer, Ruth Reichl. Hi, I’m Julia Louis-Dreyfus and this is WISER THAN ME, a show where I get schooled by women who are wiser than me.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 03:05
Oh man, we in for tasty treat. Today I am talking to Ruth Reichl who does so much that’s impossible to describe her as any one thing. She is an actual fucking polymath, a celebrated chef a restauranteur an early mover and shaker in what I guess you’d call the farm to table kind of food movement. She can correct me on that when we get going. She reinvented the role of food critic at the LA Times and The New York Times and as editor she reinvented Gourmet magazine, which is where I first fell in love with her deeply in love with her. I was obsessed with gourmet. That’s where she published actual food literature by people like David Foster Wallace, which is no surprise because she’s also a fancy ass writer herself, writing nearly a dozen books, amazing cookbooks, revelatory memoirs like tender at the bone and a novel. She’s won seven James Beard Awards, which is like the Oscars for food. And she’s earned a reputation as a totally subversive, democratizing force an activist in the world of food. She’s also a daughter, a wife and a mother. And she’s obviously wiser than me. Holy shit, Ruth.
Ruth Reichl 04:16
The idea of being wise does that it? It’s daunting.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 04:22
it is daunting. So pretend we’re just having a conversation. So, first of all, are you comfortable saying your age?
Ruth Reichl 04:32
Yes. You can’t think of yourself as young anymore when you’re 75. And that’s a that’s a very strange idea to me, because I don’t feel like an old person.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 04:46
Yeah, you don’t look like one either. If you don’t mind me saying.
Ruth Reichl 04:49
Well, thank you. My biggest problem with getting older is, you know, there were things that you think of like when my cats die. Will I get more cats, because they would outlive me.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 05:03
It’s funny. I’ve had the same thought about my dog, George, because I figure he’ll live like 14 years. And then I’ll be into my 70s. Or I’ll be 75. Let’s say he kicks it then. Do we get another animal?
Ruth Reichl 05:19
Yeah. So you think about things like that. I mean, you actually think, will I be around when x happens, right? I mean, that’s the big thing I mind because I hate the idea of not being here. You know, I never want to miss a party. You know, I’m having so much fun in this life. I just, I’m not ready to give it up.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 05:38
Yeah, I hear that there’s a lot of joy to be had. I mean, it’s funny, because not I don’t want to get morbid, but you know, I had breast cancer a few years back. And when I got the diagnosis, which was so fucking terrifying. But one of my first thoughts was, I don’t want to go, I don’t wanna leave. I do not want to leave. And it’s sort of what you’re talking about. I am not ready for an exit in any sense, you know?
Ruth Reichl 06:09
Exactly. But you’ve survived it, right?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 06:15
Yeah, I’m five years out now. So that’s a good thing. First of all, the way you write about food and your food memories, and I was talking about this with my husband, Brad, whom, you know, and he was saying that it reminded him of writing about music. What is your process, to write about food in such a way so that people feel it? Taste it? Experience it? What is that process for you? If you can break it down? I don’t know if you can?
Ruth Reichl 06:45
Well, I can try. I mean, in many ways, food is my music. You know, I mean, the kind of pleasure that other people get out of music, I get out of food, and it just gives me endless joy. And I have always wanted other people to understand that here’s this simple pleasure. You know, it’s there, it’s available to all of us. All of the time. And I really believe that it’s important to be open to the little pleasures of life. I mean, I think that’s probably the secret to living is to be aware, when you taste a strawberry, that, you know, it’s a moment of grace, that you’re in the world, I mean, or if you’re out walking in the rain, and just that feel, I mean, all of those things are a way that we can experience joy. And I grew up in an America that didn’t care about food, didn’t appreciate food. You know, American food was a joke in the 50s. And, you know, I lived in New York, and I was surrounded by all this really wonderful food. And I kept sort of like wanting to say to people here it is, right? So I spent a lot of time thinking about how do you describe the intangible? And, you know, the more you think about it, the more you understand that. I have no idea if you taste what I taste.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 08:27
Of course, yeah.
Ruth Reichl 08:29
Personal you know, it’s going on in your mouth. And who knows if anybody else in the whole world tastes what you taste. So I always tried to write about food in ways that transcended flavor. I mean, saying that something tastes like lemon isn’t very useful. If you hate lemon, or lemon doesn’t taste. I mean, I love lemon. But if lemon doesn’t taste the same way to you, as it does to me, how is that useful? But if you say, when I have fresh lemonade, it feels to me like walking in the rain beneath the lilac bush. Or it’s as good as that shower you take when you come in from a run. And then you’re sort of telling people what the experience of it is, rather than the flavor, right? I spent a lot of time trying to think about how would I describe this flavor in a way that would make sense to someone who had, who basically didn’t, wasn’t able to taste.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 09:41
So you’re sort of connecting it to experience and to memory? And you’re getting in the inside of it? In a way in that sense?
Ruth Reichl 09:52
Yes. And you’re trying to take experiences that we all know, what is it like on the first day But it snows and you go outside and you haven’t seen snow for a year. Yeah, yeah. What is it like to catch a snowflake on your tongue? That’s a useful way of describing eating a souffle. You know the way it just evaporates.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 10:20
Oh, you’re so right. That’s amazing. Have your tastebuds changed as you’ve gotten older?
Ruth Reichl 10:26
Probably but I’m not aware of it. It’s like being the frog in the pot of boiling water. It happen so gradually that you haven’t noticed it got hot.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 10:36
But like when you were younger, were there foods that you loved or hated that you feel differently about now? Or is it sort of remain?
Ruth Reichl 10:43
Well, I you know, I’ve only really ever hated one food. And the truth is that I don’t hate it as much as I used to. I have always loathed honey.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 10:56
What in the living fuck are you talking about?
Ruth Reichl 11:00
I can’t stand honey. I just hate. It makes my whole body quiver. I just can’t stand that taste, but I can tolerate it now. And I you know, when I was a kid, I really couldn’t.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 11:16
I used to hate honey when I was little. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to like it a lot.
Ruth Reichl 11:20
Incomprehensible to me that someone could like it. I know most people do.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 11:25
God. I mean, like if you could describe, honey, your experience with honey, how would you describe it?
Ruth Reichl 11:33
I would describe it as like, leaping into a mud puddle, which turns out to be deeper than you thought it was.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 11:46
Oh, the bees now hate you.
Ruth Reichl 11:48
I know they’re happy because I’m not stealing their honey. They don’t want you to steal their honey. They like me a lot.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 11:58
That’s amazing. God. So what’s the best since we’re dancing around the ideas of experience and wisdom and so on? What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
Ruth Reichl 12:12
Well, let me see, when I was, I had been a freelance writer, I was living in Berkeley and a commune. And I was asked to become the restaurant critic of the LA Times, right. And I was very reluctant to move to Los Angeles to take a job. I mean, I was 35. And I’d never had a real job, I’d always been freelance. I had become very good friends with MFK Fisher. And I told her that I had gotten this job offer and I was going to turn it down. And she said, you take that job, you are polishing every word you write, as if it were a gem. And you need the experience of going to a newspaper where an editor says to you, I need 15 inches and I need it an hour. And you do it and it’s not the best thing you ever wrote. But it’s good enough. And tomorrow, it’s going to be lining someone’s birdcage. And you just need, you need that experience. You need to learn to write fast and to not have it be perfect.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 13:26
Not to be precious about it.
Ruth Reichl 13:30
I took the job. And I think it was a piece of advice that transcended you know, take that job. It was about perfection in some way. I think, you know, as an editor, I have known so many writers who can’t turn the work in, because it’s not perfect yet. And you can waste your whole life looking for perfection. Because nothing will ever be perfect. No book has ever really finished. You know, you could keep making those sentences better. So I mean, the advice that she gave me essentially was don’t ever think that perfection is your goal, because it’s not. It can’t be.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 14:15
There’s more with Ruth Rachel and just a few moments. So complicated women, so your mother was a very complicated person.
Ruth Reichl 14:40
Yes. Yes. Yeah. She really was. And she was bipolar. Yeah. You know, as one of her shrinks said to me about the worst bipolar case he had ever encountered. I mean, she was really I mean, the highs were really high, where she didn’t sleep for weeks and the lows were she would go to bed for six months and read the same book over and over and over again for six months. But, you know, if you have a really crazy parent, one of two things happens, they either destroy you, or they make you strong. And, you know, I literally still I wake up every morning grateful that I’m not my mother, you know, and I’m very aware of my good fortune in being sane. And that’s a piece of great good fortune. And if you recognize your fortune, early in your life, and I knew it, from the time that I was about eight or nine that my mother was deeply unhappy, and I wasn’t, there’s a real measure of happiness. I mean, I feel like I am basically a happy person. And that that happiness comes from knowing that I don’t have the same burdens that my mother did.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 15:54
Was your dad a happy man?
Ruth Reichl 15:55
He wasn’t unhappy. My dad was a sort of classic European intellectual. And I don’t think happiness even figured into his idea of what life is.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 16:11
I didn’t and don’t have parents with as bad a mental health issue as your mother. But my father, who has since passed is oh, God, he was a true narcissist and the clinical sense. So I can understand what you’re talking about is sort of recognizing it. And I’ve spent a lot of time in my own life, trying to somehow fix that with him. But there was something nice when I realized that’s him. And that’s not me. And away from that is where I live, you know, separate.
Ruth Reichl 16:48
Yeah, yes. And that’s a very big step. And I think there was a point in my life where my mother was inside my head. And I can’t even tell you, I wish if I knew how I exercised her, you know, I could change the world. I don’t know how it happened. But there was a point when suddenly, she just didn’t have that power over me anymore. And I was an adult at, you know, at the time that that happened, where she and I were just truly separate.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 17:19
So does that mean, you didn’t talk to her? As you got older?
Ruth Reichl 17:22
No, not at all. It just meant that when I did talk to her, she didn’t have that power over me anymore. I mean, my first husband and I moved back to New York. Yeah, after college, and my parents were so in our lot me my mother was so in our life, that we finally just realized we had to leave. I knew I couldn’t live in the same city, as she did. But my feeling my sense, when I would go home, I would go home to New York. And as I was knocking on the door, I would have this feeling that when the door opened, I would turn back into an eight year old little Ruthie again, you know, and that I would be right back where I was, and it’s what I had to keep her out of my life, right. And then there was a time when I could open that door and walk in as me and stay me and be the competent grown up person that I was.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 18:22
And when did your mom pass?
Ruth Reichl 18:25
I was in my mid-40s.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 18:29
And then your dad after that?
Ruth Reichl 18:31
Oh, no, he died earlier.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 18:33
Were you in charge of taking care of her?
Ruth Reichl 18:35
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. When I was at the LA Times, my mother would call me like 12 times a day. Okay. And she would say things like, there’s no food in the house. You have to come to New York and go buy me food. And I think Mom, the Jefferson Market delivers call them up.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 18:53
She was battling her mental health illness even to the very end, right? Or was she more stable?
Ruth Reichl 18:59
No, she, she had a period of stability. And I could tell you how that ended. But it’s so tragic. I won’t, but she did have a few wonderful years as an old person, really wonderful years where she was, you know where we would all like to be, which is like, halfway into the first Martini. She was just a little bit high. And she could stay right there. She stayed right there.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 19:25
Oh, wow. It’s since I’ve been somebody who’s been on the receiving end of criticism, negative and pot. Yeah. And how did you reconcile your power as a critic, how do you come to terms with that yourself?
Ruth Reichl 19:45
I kept a photograph of a young couple on my bulletin board, which I you know, looked at it every day when I was writing reviews. And I imagined that they were people who did didn’t have very much money, and they saved up all year to go out for one great meal on their anniversary. And I imagine every time I was tempted to hedge my bets and say something nicer than I really felt a bad restaurant, I would look at them and think they’re gonna go there, because you said that, and they kept me on.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 20:26
So you felt an obligation to the consumers out there?
Ruth Reichl 20:31
I did. I mean, I felt like, you know, that’s who I’m writing for. That’s who’s paying me. And, you know, I’m sorry. If, you know, my reviews hurt people. On the other hand, you know, most restaurants want to be reviewed. Yeah. And I have to tell the truth. And if I can’t do that, I shouldn’t be doing this job. Those reviews, really, they have an impact. And, you know, I mean, it’s unfortunate, because people love bad reviews. I mean, people really, the consumers love to read those, you know, those are actually nasty reviews. And it’s easier to write nasty reviews than it is good ones. You know, I mean, you can be very funny writing mean reviews. But, you know, the real obligation is to the consumer. And the other obligation is to the people who are really talented, and who run restaurants and work really hard. And it’s not fair to them. If you’re saying that someone who’s only doing a mediocre job is better than they really are. Right? You know, I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 21:41
That’s a lot of, that’s a different hat, isn’t it?
Ruth Reichl 21:44
It’s a different hat. And it’s I don’t think a particularly fun one. And I should say that, you know, when I started writing reviews, it was a very different time. You know, I mean, chefs didn’t have PR people.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 22:01
They weren’t celebrities, for the most part.
Ruth Reichl 22:03
They weren’t celebrities. And it was a it was a much easier time. And then, sort of halfway through my career that all shifted. And then I started wearing the disguises. And you know, I mean, when I got to New York, I really was the enemy.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 22:18
Did you wear a wig?
Ruth Reichl 22:20
I wore many wigs.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 22:22
Oh, my God, did you take pictures of yourself?
Ruth Reichl 22:26
There are a few pictures. I mean, mostly I didn’t because I didn’t want them floating around out there. The best disguise I ever had was as my mother. Yeah, because I had her clothes. And I had all her jewelry. And I got this. My mother had short gray hair. And I got this short gray wig. And I took a picture and sent it to my brother. And I had never thought I looked like my mother. But Bob’s response was, I’ve never seen that picture of mom, and I really looked like her. And then I behaved like her. And it was weird. It was very, I mean, my mother was I mean, like, I am a person who in my real life, I have never sent anything back in my life. I mean, I just don’t do that.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 23:14
Wait a minute. You mean you don’t send food back. If it comes in, there’s like, I don’t lots of hair and things?
Ruth Reichl 23:22
I’ve never gotten lots of hair.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 23:24
I’m trying to think of the worst case scenario, you know, or bugs or something. You just won’t.
Ruth Reichl 23:29
I don’t I you know, I am not a squeaky wheel in real life. I’m just not. My mother, on the other hand, sent everything back. The drink wasn’t cold enough. The soup wasn’t hot enough. Whatever it was, it went back. And I was dying. My father and I were both dying while mom was sending this stuff back. And so there I was being my mother and you know, imperiously sending everything back was kind of fun.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 24:00
You’re very direct, though, Ruth. You may not be a squeaky wheel. But what impresses me about you is how direct you are.
Ruth Reichl 24:08
I know I it’s odd. I mean, I don’t think of myself as direct but I know I am.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 24:12
No, you are. In a way I like very much.
Ruth Reichl 24:16
I am not a complainer. I say I’m just, you know, someone says to me, how was it? I will say not really wasn’t very good.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 24:24
Yeah, there was a lot of hair and bugs in it.
Ruth Reichl 24:29
What about this big piece of glass?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 24:35
I had to go to the ER afterwards. In your business. I mean, you’ve worked in a world where people can be incredibly misbehave and entitled, How have you managed to navigate these douchebags? And by the way, I work in a world that’s similar to that too. And I’m wondering, how do you think you’ve done that?
Ruth Reichl 24:59
I don’t know. You know, me being at Conde Nast was really something because you when I talk about titled people, oh my god, I mean, the stories that the drivers would tell you about, you know, what happened in their cars what people did to their cars. I think I was probably the only editor at Conde Nast who took the subway. And I went had the great joy of making my publisher come on this. His nephew’s wife was my first publisher. We were somewhere in there was like traffic and I said, Oh, come on, let’s just take the subway. It she was like, Oh my God, you expect me to take the subway. And I made her do it. I said, you know, okay, you know, we can take this I’ve waited, it’ll take 10 minutes. Or we can like wait for your stupid car to come. And it’ll be an hour right? I don’t want to waste an hour. So she very reluctantly came down into the subway with me. They were just to be a real object. Because when I got to Conde Nast, one I thought, this is not the rest of my life. At some point, I’m gonna get fired. Everybody at Conde Nast gets fired eventually. And so I better not get used to being a prince of fancy. I’m not going to be a princess my whole life. So well, why do it now let wave and get used to it? Uh huh. And so I was very aware of the fact that this was not real life. It was not my life. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to be that person. I didn’t want to be any of those people. They made me sick. They really did.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 26:41
So that’s how you navigated them. You paid no attention to them. I like that.
Ruth Reichl 26:55
You know, I mean, one of my favorite moments that gourmet was I sent two of my people off to do a story about this Halal butcher, where you chose your own goat. And then they bless the goat and killed it in front of you. And they come back to the magazine and carry this warm goat in a big plastic bag. And they run into the office and there’s an elevator door that’s just closing and they rush in with this bag of freaking goat. And they said she was just so horrified. She backed into the corner. You know, nobody was supposed to even get in the elevator with her if she was in the elevator. You were supposed to wait for the next one.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 27:44
That’s hilarious, but nobody said anything about a goat carcass coming in. They said other people but not a goat carcass. That is a great story. I love that. God dammit. I wish we had a like my dad used to say I wish he had an oil painting. Oh shit. We’ll get more wisdom from Ruth Reichl, after this super quick break. Stay tuned. You wrote that piece for I think it was for Allure about your body and being heavy as a kid and or you called yourself fat. And that getting fat took up a lot of energy in your life? How do you push past that voice in your head? To seize the opportunities of being a food critic or whatever? How did you relax? Have you been able to relax about your body? And the idea of gaining or losing weight? Or is that still very present in your life?
Ruth Reichl 29:01
I would say a little bit of both. You know I did have this remarkable experience of meeting a man who I then married who like likes big women. And so for the first time in my life, that little voice that said don’t eat that don’t eat that. And that little voice, it seems to me makes you just eat more, you know, the more you look at something and think I shouldn’t eat that. We started living together and that voice went away. And my experience of this I don’t know if it’s true, but my experience of it was that I woke up one morning and I had lost 35 pounds. And it was just because I had stopped obsessing about it.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 29:41
The relationship between food and women in particular is so fraught and in a way that is completely unjust and I certainly battled my weight when I was younger. And I always felt sort of like this dumpy person, as a youth, I felt kind of, you know, once I became a teenager, and I was uncomfortable with weight, and I and I over ate, I was an overeater to a certain extent, but as I’ve gotten older, and maybe there’s something about having kids too, I don’t know, the relationship that I have had with food has changed dramatically in a way that I’m relieved by, you know, really relieved.
Ruth Reichl 30:27
Yeah. I mean, the thing about whey is, it’s, it’s also about are you pretty, which is so important when you’re young, and you know, I just kept hearing over and over again, you just be so pretty if you just lose some weight, right? And my mother, you know, got me to smoke when I was 12. Because, you know, if you smoke, you won’t eat.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 30:49
Oh, Lord Jesus.
Ruth Reichl 30:57
You know, for me, the big lesson was, don’t say no. And, you know, if, if I feel like I can always eat anything, that the know, isn’t there, then I don’t have a problem.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 31:14
Oh, my God. Do I agree with that? That’s why, in this very drawer of the desk that I’m talking to you on I, it’s my chocolate drawer. I love chocolate. And I have a piece of chocolate every single day. And that’s a game changer. Let’s talk about that transition for you becoming the editor at gourmet. You had never edited a magazine before and a pretty, I don’t know, what can we say it was at the time, Tony?
Ruth Reichl 31:48
It was a bible it was like, like the American food Bible.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 31:52
How did you make that kind of leap? Because I think you were a little fearful of it. Yeah?
Ruth Reichl 31:57
No, I was very fearful of it. I mean, because I didn’t think I knew how to do it. How I made the leap was two ways. One was an older woman friend of mine. And I said, you know, Paul, I would love to do this, but I’m not quite ready yet. You know, maybe in a year or so it would be the right job. And Paul has said, Ruth, it’s never the right time, you have to take the opportunities when they come along. If you don’t take it, it won’t come again. So just do it. The other piece of it was and this is probably the best advice I have to give anyone. It’s the things that frighten you. That are the things that you have to do. When something really scares you, you know, you have to do it. And you know, it’s like, every every scary thing. I mean, running the David Foster Wallace piece was terrifying. Which was why I knew that there was no way I could walk away from it. The first major review, the review I’m known for, which is the one of listserv where I wrote it in two takes one is myself, and one is a person in disguise. I thought I was gonna get fired for writing that piece. I mean, I didn’t sleep for two nights before that piece was printed. Really. I was so frightened that I was convinced that I hadn’t ever been to the restaurant. I mean, I made myself so crazy that I thought I had made the whole thing up.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 33:25
But wait a minute, for those who are listening. Can you describe, so it was two different pieces?
Ruth Reichl 33:31
It was one piece but I said, Let’s circus two different restaurants depending on who you are. So I went many times in disguise, and they treated me like dirt. And then the last time that I went I didn’t go into I didn’t make the reservation in my own name. But I didn’t go in disguise. And I knew he had a picture of me. And sure enough, the owner sees me and I went with my nephew who was working on Wall Street and I got him to make the reservation and he said, well, I could only get a 930. And I said okay, let’s go at eight and see what happens. And we walk in at 8. And there’s this huge group of people waiting for a table. And the owner Sirio sees me, and he parts that like the Red Sea, takes my hand pulls me forward and says, The King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 34:26
Oh my god. Oh my god.
Ruth Reichl 34:32
And I said to my nephew, oh, yeah, the king of Spain is waiting in the bar and he turns around he goes, he is waiting in the bar. I saw him on TV last night.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 34:44
Oh my god, I can’t get over this.
Ruth Reichl 34:47
Then he says, you know, can we make you a menu and there’s, you know, white truffles and black truffles and champagne and you know, they give us a table for the two of us. And so I write this is what happens if you’re the restaurant critic of the New York Times. But if you’re just an ordinary person going there, don’t think they’re going to be very nice to you because they aren’t.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 35:07
You’re looking at that picture of the couple. So go ahead. So nobody had ever done anything like that.
Ruth Reichl 35:15
Nobody at the New York Times had ever done anything like that. And I knew that my editors were really nervous. And I wasn’t quite sure why they were so nervous, but I could feel it. And I knew that it had gone all the way up that the editor in chief had read and […] they vetted it with him. And the next day, I found out that it was the publisher of punch souls burgers favorite restaurant, and that they really were terrified. My editor later called me and I was so nervous, I couldn’t even pick up my messages the next day, I waited like until like four o’clock in the afternoon to actually listen to my messages because I knew, yeah, I didn’t go into the office, I was just, and the first message of the day was from my editor who said, Well, everything is fine, because the first phone call that punch got this morning was from Walter Annenberg, a very big deal. Walter Annenberg, you said, who called punch and said, that’s the best review the Times has ever run, because apparently, he had once gone there and not been recognized anything treated.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 36:27
So what did this experience teach you.
Ruth Reichl 36:29
Well, again, when something frightens you, you have to do it, it’s worth doing. And you know, that you always have to push the envelope that it’s really important to have new experiences. And, and the other part of that is, and this is, the other big piece of advice I have to give people is, the only thing that really keeps you young, is constantly doing things you don’t know how to do. If you spend your whole life doing things you already know how to do. You get old fast.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 37:02
The one thing that I’ve realized, you know, doing this crazy ass podcast, talking to older women, is the subject of endings. That subject comes up a lot in conversation, and how do you deal with endings in your life? You know, be it jobs, which I know you’ve had multiple endings on and marriage and losing people that are close to you? I mean, I think I know the answer to this, but I’d be curious to hear your take on it. How have you gotten through big shifting endings? If you have. well,
Ruth Reichl 37:37
Well, you know, I go into the kitchen. I mean, that’s sort of where, when I’m really in a bad place, I just start cooking. And it focuses me, it’s a meditation. And, you know, it reminds me that I’m lucky to still be alive. And I think the only way to honor the memory of the people you love is to just live your life to the fullest. You know, and going into the kitchen sort of reminds me of that. It’s like being around all the aromas and you know, the wonderful tactile sense of slicing, and it sort of brings me back to into the world.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 38:28
Can I ask you a really selfish question? Because when I was reading your, my kitchen, you know, your recipe for pancake? So I’m gonna make that one as soon as I get home. But I was thinking I might add orange to it. And so would you add like a tablespoon of orange that I was thinking maybe like a tablespoon of orange zest and maybe half a cup of orange juice because we have orange trees so I could use our oranges.
Ruth Reichl 38:55
Well, I would certainly add, you know, the zest of one large orange. I’m not I have to look at that recipe because I’m not sure what orange juice would do to it. The acid may change the balance. I would start by just using zest. And not juice.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 39:15
Okay, I’m pulling out the book for those who are listening because I know you have to make those eggs in the potato of Jesus. You’re making me hungry woman. This is so much fun. I can’t tell you how much fun I’m having talking to you.
Ruth Reichl 39:33
And I’m going to be in LA for three months this year.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 39:36
So speaking of which, so I was hoping maybe I could get you guys to come up to Santa Barbara. You could come up and just say I’ll cook for you. But maybe well, we could cook together, hey, can I ask you something? Do you remember when we were at our mutual friend’s house, having dinner, and I brought a key lime pie. Did you hate it?
Ruth Reichl 40:07
No, I love key lime pie. And it was a great key lime pie. Why would I hate it?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 40:12
I don’t know. I was worried. I wasn’t sure.
Ruth Reichl 40:16
I’m not a big sweets person. That may be it. So I don’t I mean, I never eat a lot of sweet things. Although I have to say I’ve pretty much devoured you’re really wonderful marmalade.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 40:28
Oh, well, guess what? You are getting so much more of it.
Ruth Reichl 40:31
It is so delicious.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 40:33
We can make it when you come if we’ve got oranges and season. That will be fun to do too.
Ruth Reichl 40:38
That would be great. But can I just, I am not a chef. I mean, I’m not a trench. I’m just a person who likes to cook. Okay. I mean, you know, are you and I did you know, I was part, I had a restaurant, but it was a collective. We all did everything. So sometimes I was the chef and sometimes I was the dishwasher.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 41:00
Okay, got it. So you’re a dishwasher. I could use a dishwasher.
Ruth Reichl 41:04
I’m a good dishwasher. And I even liked washing dishes.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 41:09
Well, if you’re good at it, okay, so now, they’re just I’m gonna ask you a couple more little really quick questions. Tell me something that you would go back and tell yourself at the age of 21? If you could.
Ruth Reichl 41:27
You will be happy.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 41:28
Oh, that’s a good one. Is there something you go back and say yes to?
Ruth Reichl 41:34
I don’t think I’ve ever turned down anything that I wish I hadn’t?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 41:41
Is there something that you wish you’d spent less time on?
Ruth Reichl 41:45
Not really. I mean, I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t have a lot of regrets.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 41:50
I was just gonna say you’re not a regretful person. And so what are you learning now?
Ruth Reichl 41:54
What am I learning now? I have actually been trying to do a whole bunch of new things now. You know, I mean, right. After I left […], I wrote a novel, mostly because I thought, I don’t know how to do this. So let me see if I can. Yeah, and I’ve just turned in a new one. And let me say it, it gets easier the second time and much more fun. I mean, one of the things I’ve learned with that is I find writing very difficult. It is difficult. I like having written. But waiting itself is often awful. I did not find writing this novel. Difficult. I found it. pure pleasure. Just a joy.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 42:37
What do you attribute that to?
Ruth Reichl 42:39
I don’t know. But my agent said, You’re never allowed to write anything you that isn’t fun, again. I have been writing professionally for what? 50 some years and suddenly find out that even the act of writing can be fun. Wow. Amazing.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 42:59
Thank you, Ruth.
Ruth Reichl 43:00
This was so much fun. I feel like you know, I could just sit here all afternoon.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 43:04
I know I feel the same. I feel like this is a conversation to be continued, which you and I can do between us. But this has been very kind of you to be so honest and open and you’re just an inspiration and on so many different levels to me, and I know to others of course.
Ruth Reichl 43:21
Thanks. Really fun for me, and I’ll see you in LA.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 43:26
Yeah, please love it. Oh my god. I just agreed to cook for Ruth Reichl. Why the fuck did I do that? Oh my god. I need to ask my mom what to make. I gotta call my mom.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 43:53
Hi, Mommy, how are you?
Judith Bowles 43:55
All is well, and how about you?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 43:58
Everything is great. I mean, tons to catch up on. I want to tell you about my call with Ruth Reichl. Because, Mom, I wish you could have been in the conversation with us. You would have been so delighted to talk to her. You’re cut from the same cloth in many ways. It was incredible.
Judith Bowles 44:18
Well, first of all, I’m glad you know how to pronounce her name, because I’ve always called her Ruth Reichl. The same cloth it made. Can you put that on my tombstone? That makes me feel better about how I boil eggs and everything. Every time I boil an egg now I’m gonna say this is exactly what the way that Ruth would have done it.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 44:45
God, there’s so much I have so much to tell you. So first of all, she was talking about growing up in the 50s and she said American food was a complete joke in the 50s, so I was remembering what you said about Didi, my grandma Didi and her mom, because great grandma, Bessie grew her food and canned her food. And your mom’s reaction to that. She thought that was appalling.
Judith Bowles 45:19
It was true. It also, I think it’s a reaction against, you know, in other words, I think my mom’s reaction was, she saw her mother in the kitchen all the time doing all this stuff, all about meals, and mother’s generation, that who was there were more flappers, and they wanted to have some fun. So frozen foods, and canned foods and, and dresses that weren’t homemade. And I do think that the generation that my mother, there was my mother’s thing of the frozen foods, and the canned foods, was terrible food. And my mother used to make baked beans. But what she did was just she opened the can and dumped it. And then it was just she put a lot of brown sugar in it. And that was our baked beans. And then there were our gelatin molds. Also, which, by the way, had been underrated, right? Because I have to say, it’s a great thing to make.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 46:10
Perhaps, when you come to visit, next we’ll, we’ll make it I will say I find the notion of it repulsive, but I’m happy to try it. So this is another thing that she was talking about. She talks about food and the making of food as a meditation. When she is sort of at her lowest she goes into the kitchen. And that’s been a sort of a savior to her. And it’s an interesting thing, because certainly in our lives together, when there have been challenges, and we’ve had a few, we often talk about what we’re going to make.
Judith Bowles 46:49
Absolutely. And I remember at 9/11 that we sat watching that picture over and over again. And I remember feeling, get the bottom and dropped out of everything. And then I thought, oh my gosh, it’s […] birthday. And so I called Ellie, and I said, What are you doing for […] birthday? And she said, Well, we were going to go grab for dinner. But of course we’re not now. I said, oh Ellie please, please come over here. And she said, great. So I made a meatloaf and mashed potatoes and green beans and applesauce and angel food cake. I mean, I was there cooking. And I was like there is a tomorrow there is something to live for.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 47:28
Very important. Well, speaking of that, Mom, so she and her husband, Michael are coming to LA they’re going to be there for a couple of months. And so I said, Oh my god, I have to have you up to Santa Barbara. And I said, we can and then immediately and think oh shit, when am I going to cook? And I said, Well, we can. I said I can cook and she said we can cook together. So you have to start thinking, Mom, what can I make? put your thinking cap on and report back to me. We have to think about that.
Judith Bowles 48:06
That is going to be priceless. That’s going to be absolutely priceless.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 48:09
Yeah, no, I’m excited. And she I did give her orange marmalade last year because we had dinner with Jim and Carlene and I gave her an orange marmalade and she remembered and was saying how much she loved it. So needless to say, she’s gonna get a case that fucking marmalade.
Judith Bowles 48:28
Half a case. Oh, yeah, that by the way, making the marmalade out but that that is such a precious thing to do. You have the oranges right there and they grow out of your actual soil. Yeah. And then you get them and then you do them and it’s the best marmalade in the world.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 48:49
It’s pretty good. But you know, Grandma Didi would not approve, but that’s fine. We’ve we brought it back around to the real thing.
Judith Bowles 48:58
That’s right. That’s right. It wasn’t frozen. It wasn’t birdseye
Julia Louis-Dreyfus 49:08
Oh shit. Okay, love you mommy.
Judith Bowles 49:10
I love you. Talk to you later. Okay, bye, bye
There’s more WISER THAN ME with Lemonada Premium, subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts. WISER THAN ME is a production of Lemonada Media created and hosted by me Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The show is produced by Kryssy Pease , Alex McOwen and Hoja Lopez. Brad Hall as a consulting producer. Our senior editor is Tracy Clayton. Rachel Neil is our senior director of new content and our VP of weekly production is Steve Nelson. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, Paula Kaplan and me. The show is mixed by Kat Yore and Johnny Vince Evans and music by Henry Hall. Special thanks to Charlotte Chrisman Cohen, Ivan Kuraev, and Kegan Zema. And, of course, my mother Judith Bowles. Follow wiser than me wherever you get your podcasts and hey, if there’s an old lady in your life, listen up.