Monday, October 18, 2010

Menus and Memories: An Interview with Ruth Reichl

The sense of taste and our memory are, say scientists, inexorably linked, so perhaps it’s natural that one of the country’s preeminent food writers has made a career out of penning memoirs. Ruth Reichl, author and the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine and New York Times restaurant critic, will be in Hudson Oct. 9 for a day that incorporates both food and memory.

Since her background is in art history it seems Reichl became a food writer almost by chance.

“I fell into it,” she said, “like most people fall into things.”

She said after graduate school at Michigan State University she moved back to New York City.

“I thought I would just waltz into MOMA and they’d need a new curator,” she laughed. “To my horror they didn’t.”

She was living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and having large dinner parties for friends. At the time, she said, the neighborhood was still an ethnic enclave with Little Italy still vibrant and Chinatown close by. She began “cooking all these foods and collecting recipes.”

A friend suggested she write a cookbook and the 21-year-old took her friend’s advice.

“In those days you could do that. No one asked me what my credentials were,” she said. “Everyone thought I was a food writer and it went from there.”

Two years after her cookbook “Mmmmm: A Feastiary,” was published in 1972, Reichl was living in California and was the co-owner and cook of the collective restaurant The Swallow. She was part of what would become known as the “culinary revolution,” centered around Berkeley, which focused on using fresh, seasonal and local ingredients in cooking. From this small epicurean epicenter began a mass movement that changed the way many Americans eat.

Reichl said she has happily watched “the great evolution of American food culture and how it has become part of the popular culture. I’m thrilled, but not surprised. My whole career I’ve been waiting for Americans to wake up to food.”

Food has seemingly always played an important part in Reichl’s life as evinced by three of her four memoirs in which food looms large, the overarching theme that ties her life together.

Writing about the people in her life Reichl’s descriptions can often seem unflattering, but, according to the author, she always writes the truth.

“If you’re writing a memoir what’s the point if you’re not going to tell the truth,” she said. “If not, you might as well write fiction.”

Reichl admitted that she probably couldn’t have written her first memoir, “Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table,” had her parents still been alive.

Her latest memoir is “For You Mom, Finally,” which explores her mother’s life and how that generation of women were mostly relegated to being housewives.

In a way, she said, it was an atonement for how she presented her mother in the first memoir.

While her earlier descriptions are all true, she said, so are those in the latest book. “It’s just the other side of the coin,” she said. “She was a very difficult and exceedingly generous woman.”

The change in her perception of her mother came about gradually as she read through a box of old letters and diaries her mother had been writing for a better part of her life.

“I didn’t know,” she said of this other side of her mother. “It was a side she kept to herself.”

The impetus for the book began with a speech Reichl had written for what would have been her mother’s 100th birthday.

“I knew from my speech that ... I had empathy for my mother and her whole generation of women,” she said. “I did not expect to find self-awareness. It was a real surprise.”

Reichl said that through writing the book she discovered just how much her mother had sacrificed for her daughter.

“It was a really difficult experience,” she said. “I cried practically every day while writing that book.”

Writing the book, she said, finally allowed her to “grow up fully” and see her parents not just as her parents, but as people. “You let go of them,” she said.

According to Reichl, another big surprise for her was how some of her readers reacted to the book.

She said she discovered that there was a generation of young women in America who seemingly don’t want to have the kind of life her mother’s generation yearned for, that is, a meaningful existence outside of the home in a job that they loved.

In the book’s afterward, Reichl recalls a young woman in her late teens in the audience on one of her book tour stops who told her that she didn’t want to “be Superwoman” and hadn’t yet decided between career and family, apparently believing doing both wasn’t an option.

“I couldn’t believe that this still existed in this country,” said Reichl.

The book went through a name change when it came out in paperback. It was originally titled “Not Becoming My Mother.”

The title was chosen by her editor, but Reichl felt it sounded harsh. When the paperback version was released it had the title that the author had originally pushed for.

Reichl’s next memoir will be exploring her time at Gourmet Magazine, where she was editor-in-chief for a decade before the publication was shuttered in October 2009.

She recently signed a book deal with Random House for the memoir, along with a new cookbook and her first novel, “Delicious.”

When she spoke to the Register-Star, she had just returned from a month-long stint at the MacArthur Colony in New Hampshire where she was working on her novel.

“It’s about halfway done,” she said.

She has also accepted a position at Random House as an editor-at-large where she will be working on her books and looking for new titles, among other duties.

When asked if there were more memoirs on the horizon, Reichl answered that with the next one she’ll be caught up, so “it depends on how long I live.”

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Death of Sanford Gifford

Editor's Note: This story by Andrew Amelinckx originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2010 weekend edition of the register-Star Newspaper. It has been altered from its original form.

The sun shone through the trees in the Hudson Cemetery and a light breeze carried the smells of summer, on this, the last day of August. Several of the men who bore the remains of their friend were more inclined towards wielding brushes than bodies and represented, along with a number of those in the large crowd, some of the best known painters of America’s first great art movement, the Hudson River School. They were there to bury one of their own, Sanford Robinson Gifford.

Many had come by train from New York City where Gifford had spent a good part of his later life and where he had died two days earlier, on Aug. 29, 1880, of malarial fever. While he possibly contracted the disease during a trip to Minnesota, in mid-19th century America malaria was prevalent across the country, including in New York City.

Writing to his mother while he lay in bed, burning with fever, he told her “he was happy, ready to die and had the consciousness of having done his duty as he understood it” and going on to say that his “faith in immortality was strong and settled.”

Among his friends who bore his body to the grave that summer day was Jervis McEntee, a fellow painter who had traveled with Gifford in Europe in 1868 during a trip that would eventually result in the creation of a painting that Gifford considered his crowning achievement—“The Ruins of the Parthenon.” The painting of the famous Greek temple in Athens brilliantly displays Gifford’s ability to paint light and atmosphere, in a style that would come to be called “Luminism.” The artist himself said the work wasn’t a painting of a building, but of a day.

Like most of his fellow Hudson River School artists Gifford created his larger works based on sketches made out in the field, and also like those fellow artists, he traveled extensively both in America and abroad.

Gifford made several trips with Worthington Whittredge, another well-known artist of the Hudson River School, traveling in Europe in the mid-1850s and the western US in 1870. That sad summer day in 1880 Whittredge would be another of Gifford’s pallbearers.

Gifford had met many of the men he would call friends and artistic peers at the Tenth Street Studio Building, located at 51 West 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Manhattan. Built in 1857 it would become the center of the American art world for the next half-century. Among his contemporaries who had a studio there was Frederic Church, one of the best known of the Hudson River School Artists whose stately mansion, Olana, still stands today in Greenport, NY. Church had also been on the European excursion that Gifford had taken with McEntee and McEntee’s wife in the late 1860s.

Church, called “an intimate friend of the deceased” by the Hudson Republican Newspaper, was in attendance at Gifford’s funeral as well.

The day began with a 3 p.m. service held at the Gifford Family home at 337 Diamond St. in Hudson. Gifford’s father,Elihu, was a wealthy industrialist who in 1823, the year of Gifford’s birth, bought into an iron foundry in Hudson, which he renamed Starbuck, Gifford and Company. He would go on to organize the Farmers’ Bank and serve as its first president as well as founding the Hudson and Berkshire Railroad. His wife was the first director of the Hudson Orphan Asylum and a professor of religion. According to McEntee, Gifford’s mother had hoped that he would have also followed that pursuit. But it seemed Gifford was destined to become an artist.

Born in Saratoga County,NY., Gifford grew up in Hudson, NY., in the proverbial shadow of Thomas Cole, the man regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School who lived in Catskill.

After attending the Hudson Academy Gifford spent two years at Brown University before moving to Manhattan to study art in 1845. His career followed a straight path to the National Academy, the center of American art at the time, where he first showed work in 1847. His life was devoted to art and he continued to paint even as he served in the Civil War. Gifford was a corporal in the Union Army’s 7th Regiment of the New York Militia from 1861 to 1863.

He was a tall, thin, dark-haired man whose character was, as defined by a friend after the artist’s death, “serene and placid, resting on resources within himself,” but whose placid exterior harbored a “depth…that flowed within, whose floods, and swirls, and eddies often caught him from the light and carried him into cavernous depths of shade."

Perhaps McEntee was thinking only of his friend’s exterior when he wrote, “the face of the dead reflected the whole life and bade all look upon Gifford’s serene and hopeful and contented face.”

The funeral service was officiated by the Rev. W.H. Bellows, a well-known Unitarian minister from New York City, who commented afterwards “it was fitting that the painter of the summer should go to his rest on this last beautiful day of the summer.”

The other pallbearers who helped lay Gifford in the ground included artists R.W. Hubbard and John F. Weir. The final man carrying Gifford’s casket was Richard Butler, who was one of Gifford’s major collectors and through whom Gifford’s work can still be seen thanks to the donation of his paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which held an exhibition that autumn featuring 160 of the artist’s 700 known works.