FEATURES | By Ilona Saari
Books of Ruth
I love to eat. Cooking? Not so much. But I do love to read cookbooks. Well, not really “read,” as I barely scan the recipes, it’s the pictures of food that tantalize my tongue… how that food is plated, the dishes used – you know, “food porn.” Of course, I then show these pictures to my husband, who does love to cook, and ask him to work some culinary mojo.
I first met six-time James Beard Award winner Ruth Reichl (virtually) when my husband brought home “The Gourmet Cookbook,” her massive tome with the heft and weight of a family bible. The comparison is apt, since it became his cooking bible. There are no pictures, but I’ve salivated over every meal he’s made from that book and took my own pictures. In the past, I had often thought of writing about food, but I was a political satirist and wrote comedic essays and scripts for TV. Food writers seemed to take their craft quite seriously … that is until I discovered the Books of Ruth.
My second virtual introduction to Ruth took place when my book group chose her 2001 memoir, “Comfort Me with Apples.” I fell in love with her conversational writing flare that recounted how she became a food critic. Her travel adventures that focused on the world’s cuisines were funny and informative. I was so inspired by her stories that I started a food blog. Ruth showed me that writing about food can be fun, often “tongue-in-cheek,” even tongue-in-cheeky. I saw how it was possible to pen a mini-memoir about a homecooked meal or a restaurant dinner that made readers relate.
So, when I read that Ruth was going to do a book signing at a luncheon at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa’s Farmhouse, I begged and pleaded with my publisher/editor (strategic tears in my eyes) that the Quarterly send me to cover the event. OK, no tears (poetic license), but he agreed. That was all that mattered.
The Farmhouse is a $20 million food event venue with a huge barn-like structure that houses a large “open to the room” working kitchen and space for many tables, plus lovely grounds that can host all sorts of parties, from weddings to masked balls (that is, if anyone still does masked balls).
Inside the barn, folks were mingling while sipping fine wine and nibbling on pink deviled eggs, buckwheat blinis with salmon roe, and tomato gazpacho passed on trays by Farmhouse servers.
Internationally known chef and author Nancy Silverton, an old acquaintance of mine from my Los Angeles days, is one of the Farmhouse’s culinary ambassadors, so I was excited to see her at the luncheon to introduce her old friend, Ruth, and to mingle with the guests. Ruth briefly talked about her time at Gourmet Magazine and why writing “Save Me The Plums” about that era of her life, was important to her … how the owner, Conde Nast’s Si Newhouse, supported her vision and never micro-managed, giving her carte blanche to push the food magazine envelope — a freedom given an editor that few, if any, publisher allows today. She rewarded that trust by straddling the fence, continuing to give old subscribers what they wanted while bringing a new approach to the magazine that would garner new subscribers. It was also important to her that this new book clearly demonstrate that women can be mothers while having a challenging career.
During the Q&A after her brief talk, Ruth was asked, “If given the choice, what would be your last meal?”
“A meal that never ends,” she replied with a smile.
We then started our family-style meal. Bowls and plates of hummus, a Moroccan salad, broccoli rabe bruschetta, and borscht salad almost magically appeared on the table, along with bottles of 2017 Dampt “Cote de Lechet” Chablis Premier Cru.
While I wandered through the barn taking pictures, serving plates with new dishes arrived, filled with Pollo alla Diavola (Devil’s Chicken, an intensely seasoned burst of flavor), grilled sea bass with salsa verde, spicy Tuscan kale, and corn pudding. Bottles of 2017 Domaine Marc Roy Gevrey-Chambertin Pinot Noir also arrived. But, by the time I returned to my table, the sea bass was gone. I made up for it by having two helpings of the Devil’s Chicken.
Of course, no luncheon is complete without dessert and we had two choices, luscious strawberry shortcake or a totally tarty “tart lemon tart.”
It was time for the book signing. I wanted to tell Ruth how much she has meant to me as a food writer. How she influenced my approach to food writing. How she makes me laugh (and hungry) when I read her books, but the book line was too long, so I just said that I was a fan and thanked her for coming to Ojai.
As the holiday season is upon us, I had planned to leave you with a favorite Ruth Reichl holiday recipe from “The Gourmet Cookbook,” but as I was reading “Save Me The Plums,” what could be more perfect than her Thanksgiving turkey chili, a dish she and her staff made as a thank you for rescue workers at Ground Zero? ≈OQ≈