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Ruth Reichl: Dining In Disguise And Going 'Gourmet'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's All You Can Eat Week on FRESH AIR with
interviews all about food. Ruth Reichl is one of America's best known food
writers. She was the restaurant critic for the New York Times and went on in
1999 to become the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, where she stayed until
the magazine folded in 2009, just two years shy of what would have been its
A little later, we'll hear an excerpt of our 2009 interview, but we're going to
start with a conversation we had in 1998, after the publication of Reichl's
memoir, "Tender at the Bone: Growing Up At the Table."
You might think that Ruth Reichl's love of food dates back to her mother's
wonderful home cooking, but you'd be wrong. Her mother was a terrible cook, so
bad Reichl describes her as taste-blind. Here's how Reichl described her
mother's approach to preparing food.
Ms. RUTH REICHL (Author, "Tender at the Bone: Growing Up At the Table"): Well,
she literally couldn't taste whether things were spoiled or not spoiled, good
or - her taste was extremely limited.
The first story in the book is about her waking my father up early in the
morning and putting something into his mouth and having him taste it. And he
said it was the single most disgusting thing he had ever encountered. And he
really couldn't swallow it, and he spit it out, at which point my mother said:
Mm-hmm, just as I thought, spoiled.
I mean, she didn't really know whether it was spoiled. She really needed him to
taste it to figure out whether it was good or not. Of course, the fact that it
had mold on the top might have given her a clue, but it didn't.
GROSS: Do you have any memories of a particularly bad dish that she served you?
Ms. REICHL: Well, I mean, I think that my whole interest in food came really
early because my mother - I mean, at the age of three, she would put things on
the table that - like butter that she had left uncovered in the refrigerator
for a week, which was nauseating. And I would say: Mom, I can't eat this. And
she would taste it and said mmm, tastes fine to me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: And, you know, when you're a child, you see that, and you think,
you know there's something wrong in the world. But I think the worst thing -
and this isn't in the book because it's so simple - but she would take the
dregs of ice cream cartons and pour them into an ice tray and put them into the
freezer and then serve them so they would be freezer-burned, mushy and just
really revolting. And then she would bring it out for a party and serve it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Now, this is the kind of thing that might have ruined somebody when it
comes to food. How did it get you to become a restaurant critic? I mean, how
did it get you to become a food professional?
Ms. REICHL: Well, you know, I mean, I really felt that I was sort of shaped by
my mother's handicap. You know, I mean, it's the way the children of deaf
people are probably more aware of sound. I became very aware of taste because I
was so fascinated by the fact that my mother couldn't taste these things.
And then in self-defense, I started cooking, and my mother really would make
these dreadful concoctions. I mean, she really prided herself on something
called Everything Stew, where she would take everything in the refrigerator,
all the leftovers, and put them all together.
And one day I was watching her put in leftover turkey and broccoli and a little
can of mushroom soup. And she's throwing things in. And half an apple pie goes
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: And she says - you know, I'd sort of look at her and say mom. And
she's like: Oh, it'll be fine. And then she starts throwing everything in. And,
you know, in defense, it just - I started cooking because I didn't want to eat
GROSS: Now, I know your first experiences in the food world as a professional
was working in restaurants. One of the restaurants you worked in was
L'Escargot. Would you describe the restaurant?
Ms. REICHL: Well, this was in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was going to school at the
University of Michigan, and it was a very, very fancy French restaurant for the
mid-'60s and certainly for Ann Arbor, Michigan, and certainly for a college
And it was somebody's dream. You know, I had the great privilege, really, of
participating in this mad, passionate dream of the owner, who did everything
beautifully, which you can't do in a restaurant. I mean, he bought Baccarat
crystal, which is insane. I mean, it all breaks in the first month. And Limoges
china and wonderful chandeliers.
And he brought a chef from the Four Seasons in New York, and he got the best
grill man as a sous chef and wonderful, wonderful waiters and waitresses, real
professionals, I mean, the kind of people that you don't see very much anymore
who were very proud of their profession and very good at it.
And I've always thought that a really good restaurant, when it runs well, is
like being on a movie set. The - you become a family. It becomes a whole life
of its own, and this restaurant was like that. We became very tight.
And as we watched this restaurant go down...
GROSS: Go down?
Ms. REICHL: Well, I mean, it was a dream. Ann Arbor was not a place that could
support that kind of a restaurant in those days. I mean, it was very high-end
French food at very high-end prices, and people would come once for the
curiosity but never come again.
And as business really faded, we all pulled together. We really rooted for it.
I mean, what happened was the first chef was a real thief, and I learned a lot
about how - you know, most restaurants go under because of employee theft, or
many of them do. And this guy was a real pro.
I mean, he would take whole sides of meat, wrap them in aluminum foil, bury
them in the garbage and then go out after the garbage had been taken out, and
he would come back in the middle of the night and take these pieces of meat and
And we all really started rooting for the owner. I mean, nobody wanted to see
this going on, and it was no good. I mean, ultimately, it closed.
GROSS: There was a waiter at this restaurant who kind of initiated you in the
ways of restaurants, and he told you that the restaurant was a war zone. What
did he mean by that?
Ms. REICHL: Well, it's a common thing that waiters say. I mean, what he said
was that the kitchen was at war with the customers, and we were the go-betweens
and that our job was to make sure that the customers never knew that the
kitchen was at war with them. And this entailed a lot of subterfuge.
For instance, if a customer wanted to send a steak back because it was cooked
too much, he said, now, you can go back, and you can tell the chef that the
customer says it's overcooked. And he's going to scream and yell because he's
at war with the customer.
On the other hand, if you go back and you're very humble and you say: I made a
terrible mistake. He said that he wanted it rare, but I wrote down well done.
He'll scream at you, but he'll give you a new steak because he's not at war
GROSS: Yeah, but he might be at war with you if that happens too much.
Ms. REICHL: Well, it doesn't happen that often. But it was just a matter of us
sort of always taking the blame so that we would get big tips. He also, you
know, really felt that it was our responsibility to come up with a good story
for the customers.
He said, you know, they should go home with more than a good meal. You have to
provide an experience for them that is - you know, that they can talk about. So
he encouraged me to pretend that I was a foreign student who was here and had
not had enough money and that I needed to work to support myself.
And I developed a great story. I mean, my customers would be crying and giving
me big tips at the end of it, but he said that this was a good thing because I
was really giving them value for their money.
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with food writer Ruth Reich, the
former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and former restaurant critic for the
New York Times. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: It's All You Can Eat Week on FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview
I recorded with Ruth Reichl, the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.
This first interview I did with her was in 1998, when she was still the
restaurant critic for the New York Times, a very powerful position in the food
Now, at the New York Times, you're kind of famous for using disguises when
you're reviewing a restaurant so that you can't be spotted, so you can eat
anonymously. What do you use, wigs?
Ms. REICHL: I - not only wigs, I keep buying the wigs. I've now got 11. And I
do use those. I also have a lot of glasses. I have fake fingernails. I have
whole outfits in different sizes. I mean, I'll sometimes put on, like, three
pairs of pants, one over the other or, you know, three skirts so I look much
larger than I am.
I have learned - I'm not normally a makeup person, but I've learned about
makeup, and you can really do amazing things with - you can change the shape of
your lips and, you know, change the color of your eyebrows, and I do all that
GROSS: Now, do you pay cash or use fake credit cards?
Ms. REICHL: I use fake credit cards.
GROSS: Does The Times help you get them?
Ms. REICHL: No, I have figured out my own strategies for getting them. They
don't want to know about how I do this.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: I also often ask the people I'm with to pay, and then I just write
them a check.
GROSS: Now, not every restaurant critic goes to such extremes to make sure
they're not noticed. Why is it so important to you that you're not identified
by the staff at the restaurant you're reviewing?
Ms. REICHL: well, I have a really strong belief that I am there to be your eyes
and ears when you're at the restaurant. And I'm supposed to tell you what's
going to happen to you, not what happens to the restaurant critic of The New
York Times, who is getting the best table, and the chef is, you know, cooking
the food specially, and the portions are getting bigger and so forth.
I think it's really important for you to know what's going to happen to you.
And you can't do that if you're sort of, you know, sashaying in as someone
who's going to have a big economic impact on the restaurant.
GROSS: Something you did that was pretty controversial, I think - I don't
remember when this was exactly, but you took a star away from the restaurant Le
Cirque, which I guess had been, what, four stars, and you demoted it to three.
Do I have that right?
Ms. REICHL: Yes, you have it right.
GROSS: I don't even know how the star rating works and who determines what
makes a restaurant four or three stars or whatever. So why don't we start with
an explanation of that.
Ms. REICHL: Well, the star system is very much up to whoever the critic is at
the time. And four stars is the most that you can get, and it's a very exalted
- it's a very big deal for restaurants to be...
GROSS: So when you say four-star restaurant, this is like a New York Times
Ms. REICHL: Yes, yes.
Ms. REICHL: And it has a lot of weight to the restaurants. When they get a
four-star rating, it's a very big deal for them, and it brings them lots and
lots and lots of business. To demote a restaurant from three stars to two stars
is not such a big deal, but to demote it from four stars to three stars is -
This was right after I had arrived in New York five years ago. I had not had a
star rating system at the L.A. Times, where I'd been for 10 years. I wasn't
that impressed with the star system at the time. I mean, I've since come to see
how, if nothing else, how economically powerful it is for the restaurants.
But I started going to Le Cirque, and they didn't know me, and I was not
treated well. And everybody had always, you know, jumped up and down about what
a great restaurant it was, and, you know, I kept - I had some really terrible
You know, I went once with another woman, and we were made to wait 45 minutes
at the bar for, you know, a supposedly non-smoking table, and we were still
stuck in the smoking section, and when I asked for a wine list, a maitre'd came
over and snatched it out of my hands after a minute and said I need that list,
and he took it off to some man nearby, and I couldn't get it back.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: After I'd been there a few times, I thought, well, I wonder what
will happen if - not if I make a reservation in my own name but just if I go in
undisguised. By then, I knew he knew who I was. Sure enough, I go, and I have
made a - the only reservation I could get was like 9:45, but I said I think
I'll go at 9 o'clock and just see what happens.
And we get to the door, and there's a huge crowd waiting for tables and the
owner comes. He parts this crowd. It's like the Red Sea parting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: And he comes through to me, and he pulls me forward and says: The
king of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready. And leads me to a
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: And I thought, you know, this is too wonderful. I've just got to
write about, you know, what happened to me as just me, an ordinary person, and
then what happened to me as the restaurant critic of the New York Times and
write about the two experiences.
GROSS: Now, I could see a restaurant easily explaining this by saying well, of
course we treat our regulars with special care. That's why people become
regular, because they know they're treated as like part of the family. We know
what they like to eat. We know what their preferences are. We know whether they
smoke or not.
And it's lovely, like, at a neighborhood restaurant, when you come in all the
time, they say hello, they bring you the salad when you sit down, they know
what you want. Everybody likes to be treated like a regular.
Ms. REICHL: Absolutely, and regulars deserve to be treated - I mean, they've
paid their dues, and they deserve to be treated better. On the other hand, that
doesn't mean that ordinary people shouldn't be treated well.
Ms. REICHL: For instance, not every restaurant can have your table ready when
you arrive. I mean, there's just - they can't always calculate how long people
are going to stay at a table. An apology goes a long way. If they come up to
you and say, I'm so sorry that - can I give you a glass of wine, can I somehow
make this up to you, you don't feel badly. You don't feel as if you've been
On the other hand, if it's just, you know, oh go wait over there, we'll let you
know when your table is ready - it's a matter of attitude. And Le Cirque at
that time was really known for not being particularly nice to ordinary people.
I have to say that their attitude has changed dramatically.
GROSS: Have you changed their star rating?
Ms. REICHL: I have. I mean, they re-opened. They closed for a while, and
they've re-opened in a new location, and I went in many times in many
disguises, and they were wonderful. They were just wonderful. And I really felt
that they had sort of seen that there was no point in not trying to be good to
GROSS: That was an excerpt of my first interview with Ruth Reichl, recorded in
1998. She left the New York Times in 1999 and became editor-in-chief of Gourmet
magazine. I spoke with her again in 2009, shortly after Gourmet folded. She had
just edited a book of recipes from the magazine called "Gourmet Today." Earlier
that year, she'd written another memoir.
GROSS: Ruth, you have a memoir that you published recently. It's really about
your mother's life, not your own, although you figure into it, and it's called
"Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way." And for
people who've been following your writing over the years, they know that your
mother was bipolar, that your mother was what you call food-blind, that she
would serve the most horrible combinations of food, like chocolate over meat,
with the meat gone bad. And she couldn't tell the difference between, you know,
tasty food and horrible food or food that was good and food that was moldy.
But your new book is a real change in direction. Your new book is really your
mother's story from papers that she wrote, you know, letters, journals. So I
just want to start with this question. The title is "Not Becoming My Mother."
Now, your mother had bipolar, so, obviously, you wouldn't want to become that
aspect of her, but that title resonates. I think there are so many women who,
if they were writing a memoir, could have used this title, "Not Becoming My
Mother." Why do you think that that is an expression that so many people will
Ms. REICHL: Well, I think that there are so many of us whose mothers had very
sad lives. And, you know, what I discovered with my mother was that she was
thwarted in every possible way, and her - what she wanted for me was not to
become her. She wanted more for me, and I think that there are many, many women
whose mothers dreamt that their daughters would have better lives and pushed
them towards that.
And, you know, this book came out of a speech that I gave, and when I looked
up, there were people all over the room crying and saying that's my mother you
talked about. You know, my mother was smart, educated and bored to death,
GROSS: You write in your book that you're grateful not to be any of the women
of your mother's generation, who were unlucky enough to have been born in what
seems to me to have been the worst possible time to have been a middle-class
woman. When was your mother born, so we can get a sense of what her generation
Ms. REICHL: She was born in 1908.
GROSS: And why do you think that was the worst possible time to have been a
Ms. REICHL: Well, you have to remember what happened during my mother's
lifetime. Women got the vote. Women were supposedly emancipated, but there was
nobody to tell them what that meant or how to do it. I mean, it was a very fast
transition from women being essentially the chattel of their husbands to being
independent creatures, and so many of them were educated for the first time. It
was, you know, really the first generation of women who became doctors and
lawyers, or at least had the promise of becoming doctors and lawyers.
But the changes were very slow in coming, and so I just can't imagine anything
more frustrating than sort of having this dangling out there, this promise of
you can fulfill yourself, you can go out there and do great things, and then
being held back.
And on top of that, you had what happened after World War II, where, you know,
women went into the workforce and proved to be really competent and then were
told to go home and tie on their aprons and give the jobs back to the guys.
GROSS: We'll hear more from our 2009 interview with Ruth Reichl in the second
half of the show. The book we've been talking about is called "Not Becoming My
Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along The Way." I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I
recorded with Ruth Reichl in 2009. She's a former New York Times restaurant
critic and former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. We spoke shortly after
Gourmet folded. Earlier that year she had written a memoir about her mother.
The book was based in part on letters and journals her mother wrote, which
helped Reichl understand her mother in a way.
I think one of the things that I find most interesting about your book âNot
Becoming My Motherâ is that you had always assumed, understandably, that your
mother's sadness - and there were months when she'd hardly get out of bed - had
to do with the fact that she had bipolar disorder, and her depressions were
extreme and disabling. But you found a lot of sadness that had to do with life
experiences and with the confined roles of women, as opposed to just, you know,
as opposed to being about mental illness. So it seems to me that that must have
been a real revelation to you.
Ms. REICHL: It was a huge revelation, and she was - I mean, what I discovered
was this young girl who was vibrant and, you know, who was extraordinarily
intelligent and was not unhappy, and this bipolar illness happened much later.
GROSS: You found something your mother wrote, in which she said: I hope Ruthie
- meaning you - I hope Ruthie won't rush into marriage the way I did that first
time. Your mother was married twice. I felt so desperate, and I wanted someone
to lean on. My parents thought that I needed to be married, but was that really
true? What if I had never married? Would my life have been better?
Did you have any idea before you read this that your mother had thought that
maybe she shouldn't have married?
Ms. REICHL: None. None. I mean, my parents actually had a very good marriage,
and I know she loved my father, and I was shocked when I found that. But I
understood that she really thought that if she hadn't been married, she
would've had to support herself, and she would have fulfilled herself in some
way that she never could.
GROSS: I think with a lot of daughters it's impossible to see your mother cry
without becoming overwhelmed by sadness yourself or maybe crying yourself,
because even during periods when you're not getting along with your mother,
there's this kind of connection, this like emotional connection that I think a
lot of us have felt, where you just - like if your mother's crying - like you
can't - you are too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: It's like impossible not to. Did you go through that? And reading, like
reading this book, did it make you like so sad to see how sad your mother
sometimes was - because of social things, because of her confined roles,
because of her insecurities about who she was?
Ms. REICHL: Writing this book was the hardest thing I've ever done. And there's
always that feeling as a child that somehow you ought to be able to fix your
mother, that if you did the right thing she wouldn't be so sad. And, of course,
what I'm reading, as I'm going through her papers, is how generous she was to
me, how protective she was of me, how much she didn't want me to go through
what she went through.
GROSS: Let me just read an example of what you're talking about. Your mother
had been told as a teenager that she was too homely to be successful and then
she writes: How could I feel good about myself when the self-image my mother
gave me was that I was sloppy, inefficient, homely, ungraceful, and ungracious?
I carried that person around for so many years. I want to protect Ruthie -
that's you - I want to protect Ruthie from that. It's so hard to watch Ruthie
going through this because I know exactly what she's feeling. I wish I could
send her to the hairdresser, have her nose fixed, or buy a dress that will make
her graceful. I know that none of that will work. All I can offer her is hope.
It's one thing my parents didn't do for me.
Did she offer you hope?
Ms. REICHL: She really did. I mean she, she told me that when I found myself, I
would be beautiful. And she gave me this idea of beauty as something that
reflects your self-confidence and your knowledge in yourself, and she just kept
promising me, I know - I mean I was really a horror as a teenager. I think, you
know, probably most of us are. But she just kept assuring me over and over
again, I promise you, you will be beautiful.
And she told me this fairy tale of this time between her marriages, when she
became happy, found herself, and looked in the mirror one day and realized she
wasn't that homely creature her parents had told her she was.
GROSS: Now, I want to read something that really kills me that your mother
wrote, and this is something you referred to a little earlier. In her late 70s
she wrote: My mother is dead. It's time I stop letting her tell me how to live.
Why should I care what she thinks? I have so little time.
It's like your mother was realizing in her own way that she was about not
becoming her mother.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You know? Like the title of - like your mother had gone through
something like what you went through. Was that a revelation?
Ms. REICHL: That was a complete revelation. I mean that's what I saw, was that
she finally realized that her mother had expected her to live out her mother's
dreams, and it was what she tried not to do for me. And I did not know that she
had had this incredible struggle with her mother.
GROSS: I think this is the final thing that she wrote, and this was after your
father died. She wrote: I am not going to lower my sights. I'm going to live up
to the best in myself, even if it means some painful changes. I am no longer
How old was she when she wrote that?
Ms. REICHL: Seventy-eight, I think.
Ms. REICHL: I mean I...
GROSS: How old was she when she died?
Ms. REICHL: Eighty-four, I think.
GROSS: So did she live out that promise to herself?
Ms. REICHL: She really did. She became the most outrageously wonderful old
lady. I mean, she took people in. And after the book came out, I started
hearing from some of these people who she took into her house. I mean she'd go
out in the street and meet, you know, strangers in the park and bring them home
for dinner, and filled her house with young people - nurtured them, took care
of ailing friends, traveled...
GROSS: When you say young people, do you mean young homeless people who she
Ms. REICHL: No. Not - no. You know, she - I grew up in the Village so she was,
you know, near NYU.
Ms. REICHL: And she rented out part of the apartment to students and sort of
became surrogate parent...
GROSS: I see.
Ms. REICHL: ...to these people, but was, you know, was very nurturing. I mean,
you know, someone wrote me and said, you know, your mother made me like myself
for the first time, you know, told me not to listen to any - to anybody else
and that I, you know, needed to listen to myself, and she was the most
wonderful person I ever met in my life. And this is a completely different
vision of my mother than I'd ever had.
GROSS: Right. You didn't think of her as particularly nurturing.
Ms. REICHL: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I remember that when you left The New York Times to take the job as
editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine, one of the reasons why you did it was that
you wanted to be home for dinner with your son. You wanted to be able to
prepare meals for him as opposed to eating out at restaurants every night. So
looking back on that period of his life - he's in college now and doesn't live
at home. Do I have that right?
Ms. REICHL: That's right.
GROSS: So looking back on the period of life when you were able to make dinner
for your son and maybe for your husband too, was that good?
Ms. REICHL: It was the best period of my life, I think. I mean it was - cooking
dinner every night for my family was, oh, it just - it felt so great. And you
know, I realized that I should have done it earlier, that family dinner was
hugely important for all three of us.
GROSS: How were you able to get home in time for dinner as editor-in-chief of
Gourmet? I mean, that's a pretty demanding job.
Ms. REICHL: It is. But, you know, I walked out the door, you know, not - I
didn't come home to make big fancy dinners. I often didn't get home till 7:00
or 7:30 but I still, you know, got dinner on the table very quickly. You know,
the thing about cooking, the big misapprehension that people have is that
cooking is time consuming. The shopping part is the time consuming. I mean, the
part where you're sitting around saying what are we going to have for dinner
tonight is very time consuming. I mean, if it's 4 o'clock and you're in your
office and you haven't figured out what you're having for dinner tonight, the
battle's half lost. So, what I would do was on the weekends I would take, you
know, a couple of hours on Sunday, to figure out what we were going to eat that
week and I'd shop for it. So, when I got home I knew what I was going to cook
and everything that I needed cook was there.
GROSS: Give us an example or two of a dish that both your husband and your son
would want to eat, and that you'd want to eat, too, that was easy to prepare
and quick to prepare after coming home from work at 7:00 or 7:30.
Ms. REICHL: Okay. Actually, there's a recipe in âGourmet Todayâ that's called
spiced chicken and it's - you basically take chicken pieces, you can use
breasts if you want. I tend to use legs and thighs. And you make a mixture of,
I call it the four Cs - it's chili, cumin, cardamom and cinnamon. And you mix
it with a little oil and you put it on and pat it all over the chicken and you
pan sear it. And then you put half a cup of water and you throw it in the oven
for 20 minutes or so. And, I mean, so this takes maybe eight minutes of active
time. It's really delicious. It's nutritious. It's low fat. You make that. You
make a little bit of rice. You make a salad. You've got dinner on the table in
under half an hour. And it's delicious.
GROSS: Give us like one more example of a good, easy-to-cook family dinner when
you get home late.
Ms. REICHL: Well, this is actually not in âGourmet Today.â This is my favorite
go-to meal and I actually have the recipe in âGarlic and Sapphires,â spaghetti
carbonara, you know, it's just in the time that the spaghetti is cooking it's
done. I mean, it's basically, bacon, eggs, parmesan cheese and spaghetti. And
it's wonderful, satisfying, delicious. I had a little girl come up to me at a
book signing recently and ask me to sign that page. She was eight years old and
she said, this is my favorite dish on the planet.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So how do you prepare the bacon and the cheese, you know, while the
spaghetti is cooking?
Ms. REICHL: You just - you cut up the bacon, you chop it up into little pieces.
You put it in a pan till it gets crisp. I put a garlic clove in there just to
flavor it a little, take that out. When the spaghetti is cooked, you, depending
on how much pasta there is, you break an egg or two into it, the egg cooks on
the - when it hits the hot pasta, you throw the bacon on top of it. You grate
some parmesan cheese on - bingo.
GROSS: It sounds really good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHL: It's really good. It's really good. It's basically, you know, bacon
and eggs, Italian style.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Ruth Reichl, it's been great just to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Ms. REICHL: Thank you. It's always great to talk to you.
GROSS: Ruth Reichl recorded in 2009. The book we were talking about is called
âNot Becoming My Mother: And Other Things My Mother Taught Me Along the Way.â
Coming up, insights about onions and frying from Russ Parsons. He's food editor
and a columnist at the LA Times. He says it was Reichl who hired him there and
he describes her as a truly inspirational boss.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Kitchen Science': The Dinner Is In The Details
TERRY GROSS, host:
Eating out has taught many Americans to be knowledgeable about ordering subtle
and complex dishes from around the world, but it has left many of us less
knowledgeable about how to cook our own food. That's one reason Russ Parsons
has written about the science of cooking. He says the more you know about why
meats brown, why sauces emulsify and how frying is different from roasting, the
more likely you are to be able to follow a recipe or improvise in the kitchen.
I spoke with Parsons in 2001 after the publication of his book âHow to Read a
French Fry: And Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science.â He's a food
editor and columnist at the LA Times. He started getting interested in kitchen
science when his editor assigned him to write a piece about onions. But his
response at the time was...
Mr. RUSS PARSONS (LA Times): Onions? What do you write about onions? So I
decided I'd do a piece about all of the kind of folklore about how onions make
you cry. And so I rounded up the usual suspects and talked to chefs and things.
And what I realized was that nobody really knew, nobody that I talked to really
knew why onions made you cry. And so I thought, well, I'll just kind of dabble
into this food science thing and see if I can find somebody who can address
that question. And it opened up this incredible array of knowledge that I
didn't even know was out there. And the people were so anxious to talk.
You know, the first guy I talked to, you know, he's a guy who'd been studying
onion chemistry for like 20 years. And what he told me was really interesting.
You know, when you have an onion of whatever kind and you smell it before it's
been cut, it smells different than an onion that's been cut.
GROSS: Yeah, why is that?
Mr. PARSONS: Well, essentially an onion, essentially most foods, are big bags
of water. In the water in the onion there are these little â these little
vacuoles. They're little pockets of different chemicals. When you cut an onion,
all those vacuoles are disrupted, the chemicals empty out, and they begin to
combine with each other. You get these chemical reactions. And then those
chemicals - the resulting chemicals combine again.
And this guy, I'll never forget when he said this, because it was kind of like
key that unlocked this whole thing. He said it was a cascade of chemical
reactions that occurred in a blink of an eye. I was just fascinated by that.
And so then I started pursuing the whole onion thing further. And it turned
GROSS: Well, let me stop you.
Mr. PARSONS: Yeah.
GROSS: So those chemicals are what makes us tear?
Mr. PARSONS: Eventually. You know, the raw chemicals don't but after the fifth
or sixth generation of combining and recombining, the result is a kind of a
sulfur gas, and actually, it's not clear at this point whether the sulfuric gas
goes up your nose or goes directly to the eye. But either way, it irritates you
and it makes your eyes tear as a result of that. And the great thing is that
the chemical name for those chemicals are lacrimators from the Latin word for
GROSS: Well, let's get to the taste. How does the taste of an onion change when
it's cut and when it's cooked?
Mr. PARSONS: Now, what happens is that in - you know, you've got the sweet
onions that you pay, you know, four or five dollars a pound for. Those onions
aren't really any higher in sugar then the brown storage onions that you buy in
a big bag for, you know, 95 cents for five pounds. The difference between the
two is that the sweet onions are actually lower in the chemicals that produce
the tearing effect.
Now, the interesting thing is that those chemicals are heat volatile, which
means that as soon as they are heated they evaporate. They go and they, you
know, they go off into the air, which is also why you might start tearing when
you're frying onions. So when you cook a brown onion, when you cook one of
those regular old cheap storage onions, the chemical compounds go away. Those
sulfuric compounds, the ones that make you cry, the ones that make the onions
taste hot and unpleasant when they're raw, they go away. And what's left is an
onion that's sweeter than the so-called sweet onions.
What's also left behind is more onion flavor. If you've ever tried to do, I
think when those sweet onions first came out the first thing everybody wanted
to do with them, of course, was make onion soup. Well, the result almost
universally was an onion soup that didn't really taste like very much, because
part of that really delicious oniony flavor is that little bit of the acidity
that's left behind, that little bit of those chemicals.
So you're much better - if you're going to even onion raw, like on a sandwich
or something like that, well, the sweet onions are wonderful. But if you're
going to cook them, you're absolutely wasting your money. Somebody described it
- I was talking to a scientist and a lot of those onions, the first of the
really popular sweet onions came from Vidalia, Georgia. And I was talking to
one of the guys who was raising them, and he was a real good ol' boy. And he
said, he said that cooking a Vidalia onion was like mud-bogging in a Rolls-
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Do you have a favorite onion soup recipe?
Mr. PARSONS: Probably the classic. You know, that kind of French onion soup
that - where you cook the onions very long. You shred them fairly thick,
actually. I cook them that way. And you cook them real low, real slow, so that
they brown, they come to a very deep brown. And then you add some cognac and
you add some beef stock. Cook it for a little bit longer. Then you put it in
the big soup plate and cover it with a crouton with some good cheese on it.
GROSS: How long does it take to make...
Mr. PARSONS: That's delicious.
Mr. PARSONS: Oh, an hour maybe.
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with Russ Parsons, food editor and
a columnist at the LA Times. This interview was recorded after the publication
of his book âHow to Read a French Fry.â
We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Russ Parsons, food editor and
columnist at the LA Times. This interview was recorded after the publication of
his book about kitchen science called "How to Read a French Fry."
Let's talk about the principles of frying. Now, we think of frying as being
like a really hot form of cooking.
Mr. PARSONS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: But compare oven heat to frying heat and how it affects the foods that
are being cooked.
Mr. PARSONS: Well, that's one of those really great paradoxes. Why can you
stick your hand in a 500 degree oven but you can't stick your hand in 200
degree water or in 200 degree oil? It's because the way we measure heat is very
imperfect. Temperature is what we usually refer to when we're talking about
heat. But temperature is a measure of how fast these molecules are moving. You
know, heat is motion, kind of.
What temperature doesn't measure is how quickly the heat is being transmitted.
Now, in an oven for example, you're cooking in air and air is not very dense.
You know, there are very few molecules per square inch. It takes a while for
that heat to transmit itself to whatever is being put in there. With water it's
more dense, and so the water transmits the heat much more quickly.
Now, water has this interesting thing too, though, that it's not as dense as
oil, so that when water gets to a certain point, those molecules begin to break
loose and they go up in the air - you know, there's steam. That point it's 212
degrees. With oil, the magic of oil, is that it's denser than water and so the
molecules stick together better. And so you can get oil up to 400 degrees where
you can't get water any higher than 212.
That's important in cooking because the kinds of browning reactions, the things
that makes food brown, they don't really start happening until you get to about
oh, you know, between 300 and 350 degrees. So there's lesson one right there.
No matter if you cook something when there's any moisture present, no matter
how long you cook it, it's never going to turn brown.
GROSS: Why does frying crisp the outside of whatever you're cooking?
Mr. PARSONS: The special thing about frying is that in most kinds of cooking,
whether you're talking about roasting in an oven or boiling in water, the
cooking medium doesn't change very much. The water stays essentially the same,
the air stays essentially the same. I mean there are fine differences but
essentially they're the same. With frying, both the oil that this food is being
fried in and the food are changing all of the time.
For example, one of the common problems people have when they're deep frying
things is that the first batch never turns out. Well, there's a good reason why
it never turns out. With really fresh oil, again, most of the foods that we
cook are made up primarily of water. Oil and water don't mix. So when you put a
piece of food in really hot oil, all of the moisture comes to the surface and
it forms this - a moisture barrier that the oil can't penetrate so the oil
can't really touch the food that's being fried.
Now, as the frying progresses, as the oil is heated and more things are added
to it, the oil begins to break down. One of the byproducts of this breakdown is
soaps, or chemical soaps. These aren't the same kinds of things that you wash
your hands with, but they're very close. And you know, when you wash your
hands, what soap does is it allows the water to penetrate the grease that's on
your hand. The soaps in frying do exactly the same thing. They allow the
cooking oil to penetrate that water barrier so that the cooking oil comes in
direct contact with the food that's being fried so that it browns it better and
it cooks it through more thoroughly.
GROSS: So the more you use oil, the more efficient it's going to be.
Mr. PARSONS: Up to a point, and then the oil begins to break down to a point
where, you know, you get these kinds of - the chemicals come off of it. You get
these nasty kinds of odors, and it's no longer working as well as it could.
That's kind of where the title "How to Read a French Fry" came from. When I was
talking to one of the scientists who was studying oil chemistry, and he started
explaining all of this stuff to me, I said, no, no, give me an example, give me
an example. He said, well, look at a French fry. You know, the next time you go
to a fast food place, look at a French fry and you can see at what stage the
I mean it's usually - there's usually four stages of oil. There's, you know,
pure oil, then there's oil beginning to break down, then there's oil at the
perfect frying stage, and then there's what they call runaway oil, when it's
broken down to the point where it no longer functions. A French fry fried in
really pure oil, really fresh oil, it won't be as brown. It probably won't be
cooked all the way through. There would probably be a little bit of a raw part
at the center of the French fry.
When it begins to break down, that kind of first stage when it's really good
for frying, the oil â the French fry will be browner and you'll start to see,
it'll be cooked all the way through. When it's really perfect, when the oil is
perfect for frying, the French fry will be really well browned. The corners
will be really crisp. It'll be cooked all the way through so that you have that
kind of - that perfect French fry combination of really crisp exterior and
almost a steamy inside. And you'll have all of these delicious flavors from the
oil because good oil is essentially delicious, which is why we fry so many
foods in it.
Then when it gets into the runaway stage what will happen is you'll see that
it'll be brown very quickly. They'll be really dark spots on it, kind of black
where it started to burn a little bit, and the French fry will have started to
collapse in on itself. It won't be attractive anymore. And you'll also get the
flavor, there's that, there is an old oil flavor that's not very attractive.
GROSS: Everything you're saying sounds very familiar. I don't mean the
information, I mean the descriptions of the French fries.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PARSONS: Well, see, that's one of the really fascinating things about this,
is that this is all stuff that we, that when you cook, that you recognize it
down the road. What this does is kind of explains to you why it's happening in
a way kind of summing up 20 years of making cooking mistakes and explaining,
oh, here's what went wrong, so that it's a little bit like it's kind of a
GROSS: Well, Russ Parsons, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. PARSONS: Wonderful to be here. Thank you.
GROSS: Russ Parsons is the food editor and a columnist at the LA Times. Our
interview was recorded in 2001 after the publication of his book "How to Read a
French Fry: And Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science." Our All You Can
Eat Week continues tomorrow.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.