Introducing Ruth Reichl and a deeper investment in food writing
Substack has long been home to a shining constellation of great food writers. There are household names on the platform, such as Mark Bittman and Padma Lakshmi. You can find publications that specialize in salad, breadmaking, cocktails, and natural wine. There’s a Substack about cookbooks and one that tracks restaurant-industry news. And there are many wonderful chefs and recipe developers, including Caroline Chambers, David Lebovitz, Jenny Rosenstrach, and Alison Roman.
Today marks an exciting moment for Substack and for food writing in general, as we announce a deeper commitment to hosting and supporting the world’s most interesting and talented food writers. Nine new food publications are debuting on the platform today, a group of writers that demonstrates the range and quality of food writing on Substack:
Former Bon Appétit editor, professional cook, and author of the forthcoming book The Cook You Want to Be, Andy Baraghani brings his singular style to Substack with original recipes, cooking tips, guides, and a space for his community to connect.
Broken Palate (formerly Tasting Table) is a far-reaching newsletter about restaurants, chefs, and food, featuring industry news, engaging profiles, and trusted recipes. Based in NYC, Broken Palate’s writers will also report from Miami, Los Angeles, and bucket-list travel destinations.
Emily Fedner, the daughter of Soviet refugees, reports from the streets of NYC and beyond, uncovering hidden-gem restaurants, specifically ones that are affordable and immigrant-owned. Her Food Lover’s Dispatch also includes culturally diverse recipes and a natural wine column with bottle reviews and recommendations.
Gjournals is the newsletter of The Gjelina Group, based in Venice, CA. Gjournals focuses on farming practices, seasonal eating, thoughtful commerce, and social justice. Their goal is to connect readers to the communities, food, and practices that shape the Gjelina Group.
Nzinga’s Vegan Guide offers “a roadmap for anyone looking to go (or stay) vegan,” with vetted recipes, practical tips, and recommendations for plant-based brands, from a trusted voice in the vegan community.
A James Beard-winning chef who owned Portland’s and NYC's Pok Pok empire, Andy Ricker now lives in Thailand and writes his Substack from there, reporting on Thai cuisine, culture, and daily life.
Andrew Zimmern's Spilled Milk is global in focus but intimate in tone, with fearless opinions, travel and food recommendations, recipes, and stories from his decades spent crisscrossing the planet as an eater, explorer, and host of several TV programs, such as Bizarre Foods.
Finally, we’re over-the-moon excited for Ruth Reichl’s month-long residency on Substack, which kicks off today. Ruth is a beloved best-selling author, critic, and former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. She will be publishing on Substack each day through December—including recipes, letters to her readers, archival menus, a holiday gift guide, and more—and it’s entirely free to sign up. She is introduced below by Bill Buford, author of the memoirs Heat, Dirt, and Among the Thugs.
We can’t wait to follow the journeys of these great food writers, to read their work and cook their recipes.
An introduction by Bill Buford
One morning in April, twenty-six years ago, shortly after I’d moved from England to work at the New Yorker, I was attending what was called an “ideas meeting.” It was where colleagues convened to suggest ideas for an article. At my turn, I made my pitch, a profile of an almost-famous guy, but then got so excited by whoever it was that I was rendered a little inarticulate. This person, I remember, was so unusual—had so much “charisma,” invariably—that I was challenged to find the words to evoke his electricity and magic. Finally, flustered, I figured that my difficulty was the best description—the guy was indescribable.
The meeting stopped. Everyone stared. “Beyond words,” I said by way of clarification. “You know,” I said, taking in the suddenly heavy mood, “words fail me.”
The managing editor spoke. “Here, you never say ‘indescribable.’ It will never appear in the magazine. Here, you find the words.”
I am reminded of this moment as I sit at my desk wondering what word will convey the extraordinary, multitalented, voraciously gourmandizing culinary poet otherwise known as Ruth Reichl. She is, obviously, like no one else. She is, obviously, “indescribable,” which, obviously, I can’t say.
She is, of course, many people, which is a good place to start. When I arrived in New York, in 1995, she was the Times restaurant critic and, to my mind, more powerful than the mayor (then the very confused Rudolph Giuliani). Her reviews were like short stories, written with grace and characterized by perfect word choices, and everyone read them. They made diners of us all. Then, by a happy fluke, I met her husband, Michael, who managed to put in a word on my behalf. Lo and behold, I was invited to be among the eight anonymous diners trying out a restaurant she was reviewing. It was a place off Union Square, and, no, she wasn’t wearing a wig, and, yes, all the staff were aflutter because they knew that she—Ruth Reichl!—was in the house. Our tabletop conversation? Zip. We were too busy. We had been told to order every item on the menu, which we each then had to taste, and describe (ha! that word again!), and rate. But, even with our fulsomely effortful reviews, Ruth was unhappy (and the waiters, sensing her displeasure, seemed to lose inches in height as they stood near her). The withering dismissal that she thereafter published destroyed the establishment. Really, the audacity: bad food that you have to pay for!
Wow. The power.
Her determination to taste everything is lesson in itself, and, for me, calls to mind a trip my wife, Jessica Green, and some friends took with her to Barcelona. This was twenty years later. (And that’s another thing. There is no other firsthand witness to more of the food world and over a more sustained period of time than Ruth. I don’t think there is anyone to rival her—what do you call it?—prowess. Ever. Oh, OK, maybe one of those French gluttons in the 19th century, but there aren’t many others.) My wife, Ruth, and the friends ate at Cal Pep, the famous seafood counter not far from La Boqueria, probably the world’s most famous food market and where, even there, everyone knows “Ruth.” They ordered giant, pinkly flavored prawns just pulled in from the sea. My wife and the friends munched. Ruth stared at their cardboard plates. It was the heads. No one had eaten them. “May I?” she asked impatiently (Ruth’s impatience is spectacular and very uncomfortable-making), and, one by one, sucked them out slurpingly from each carcass.
I am now a committed headsucker.
And this is another one of the Ruth people whom Ruth inhabits: someone who eats with relish. No one has more of it.
So how to describe Ruth? Culinary poet, restaurant reviewer more powerful than the mayor, and headsucker. But there is more.
She became the editor of Gourmet, the world’s greatest food magazine. Yes, it closed, not her doing; she wasn’t to know that it was already tilting irretrievably into trouble (it was owned by Condé Nast, which closed many magazines during those dreary days of struggling print). The marvel is what she did with it. She showed that food writing could be literary. David Foster Wallace (do you remember that lobster piece?), the late, great David Halberstam (that restaurant in Saigon during the war), and Junot Díaz (on eating Dominican in uptown Manhattan). Hers was a profound and unrivalled achievement. If you are lucky enough still to have those issues, don’t throw them away. They are your grandchildren’s college education.
By the way, I was working at Condé Nast at the time. I saw Ruth often, usually at the cafeteria. I tended to show up to work around lunchtime. Ruth? She was there at 6 a.m. Obviously, I don’t know this firsthand. (My witness: David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker.) Hardcore.
OK. Headsucker. Mayor. Poet. Corporate magazine bruiser.
Keeping these many different Ruths in mind, I invite you to consider her books, starting with the iconic Tender at the Bone, and including Delicious! (a novel? Is there nothing she can’t do?) and then Save Me the Plums, her account of those Condé Nast years, and, well, since it is indirectly a variation of the same theme, My Kitchen Year, about the dishes she cooked when getting used to a life that began not with high heels (those Condé Nast elevators were a spectacle) but barefoot and in a bathrobe.
What does Ruth invite us to recognize? It’s a theme running through everything she has done: that writing about food is more than just recipes. We are born needing to eat. But we are not born knowing how to cook. What happens in the kitchen is life. Writing about food, therefore, especially in the hands of the gifted, is deeply literary.
Before I make my pitch that Ruth, obviously the successor to M.F.K. Fisher, is a candidate for the first food writer to be considered by that Stockholm Committee that keeps giving its prize to obscure and tortured novelists, I offer some advice to Substack readers. You are in for a treat. But you also are in a unique position. You have unprecedented access to one of the great human beings of our culture. You have, therefore, a responsibility. Don’t be fooled by her image as a tender poetic soul. Yes, she is that. But she is also scathingly brilliant, full of opinions, and just overflowing with knowledge. Next year marks her fiftieth year of writing about food. No one knows more. Get what you can.
And Ruth herself? How to describe her? A gift.