Last Friday evening, on May 23, 2014, I met Ruth Reichl, an event that left me with lifelong memories, a signed copy of her new book Delicious! and a poorly lit iPhone photograph of me with my shero. Some women dream of meeting Brad Pitt or winning a backstage pass to meet singer Adam Levine, but the person I most wanted to meet during the last fifteen years of my life was Ruth, who inspired me to become a food writer with her books, particularly the groundbreaking memoir and New York Times bestseller Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table.
Ruth’s bio is impressive. She has been a restaurant critic for both the LA and NY Times, editor-in-chief at the iconic food magazine Gourmet, has written and edited numerous bestselling books, won six James Beard awards, and appears as a judge and critic on Top Chef Masters. When I received the invitation from Random House publishers and the Food Bloggers of Canada association to a private reception for Ruth on her book tour, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Or my luck.
I discovered Ruth’s books many years ago, when I was trapped in an unhappy marriage and struggling to find work, unsure of what I wanted to do with my life—and not for the first time. Some people cope with life’s pain and disappointments by binge drinking or doing lines of blow. I hole up in my room and read. A lot. I tend to binge on authors or subject matter, and during that lonely and confusing part of my life, the topic was all food, all the time. I could barely wait each month for magazines like Gourmet and Bon Appetit to come out, and couldn’t believe my good fortune when I found several years of back issues at a garage sale for a couple of bucks. I read everything I could get my hands on written by M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and of course, Ruth Reichl. Until I discovered Tender at the Bone, I’d had no idea that one could write about food the way one would write a novel. I wanted to take my own training in creative writing and do the same, but didn’t know to make it work. Bills needed to be paid.
I ended up going into teaching but found myself in the same place, seven years later, unemployed and uncertain about my future. This time around, food blogs were storming the Internet, giving me a way to use my voice in a way I could not have fathomed a decade previous.
I thought about all of this as I drove over to the venue, Barbara Jo’s Books to Cooks, a fantastic bookshop on the West Side that sells nothing but cookery and food-related books. I struggled with what I might say to Ruth, fearful of descending into sychophantic burbling and looking like an idiot. I wondered if I would have a chance to say much at all, or would I simply line up to have her autograph my book?
The reception turned out to be very small, consisting mostly of a handful of local bloggers. I immediately noticed how slender Ruth was, and how she was even prettier than her picture. In typical New York fashion, she was dressed chicly in head-to-toe black, and the long, thick hair that tumbled down her back proved that the old adage about women needing to cut their hair short after forty was passé and made me vow never to cut mine.
I sipped at a glass of Prosecco and nibbled on Marcona almonds as I waited to speak with her. I eavesdropped as she talked about Top Chef Masters, which I admittedly don’t watch, since I don’t have cable. When it was finally my turn, I told her the truth; that I had read all her books and that they had made me want to become a food writer. She smiled and told me that she had read my blog, which surprised me. I quickly surmised that she had been given a list of the food blogs of the attendees. She went on, complimenting me on the quality of my writing and photography. I can’t remember exactly what she said—my mind was racing, trying to absorb her words—but I do remember her commenting that the “production values are really high”. I was stunned.
For years, I have been toiling away at my blog, more for myself than anyone else. My blog has helped me learn to cook, has slowly but surely put me on track to a writing and photography career, and has always been my little space to show up in any way that seems true to me. My following is small compared to a lot of bloggers, perhaps because a post takes me so long to create that I don’t have time to post more than once a week at best. It never occurred to me that there were people out there who really liked it. Or that someone like Ruth Reichl would find it worthy and bother to say so. We chatted for several minutes. I asked her about her novel and her writing process. She told me about the reviews of her book. I found her immensely personable and likeable. Her eyes and her smile radiated kindness.
I reluctantly took back my signed book and helped myself to several back issues of Gourmet magazine that she brought to share with us. The evening was soon over. All in all, it reminded me of the type of gathering I might have at my place; some wine and cheese, a few close friends and a few laughs. I was the last to leave, along with Melissa Hartfiel, one of the founding members of the FBC and responsible for my invite.
“I can’t believe I just met Rutch Reichl,” I said. She smiled in a way that told me she knew how I felt. “I know,” she laughed. “This is big.”
There is a line in Ruth’s new book Delicious, where one of the characters, Sammy, a 62-year-old travel writer says, “I have been persuaded that someday, when I grow up, I am destined for great things. And then I wonder when, exactly, I expect that will be.”
For most of my life, I have felt this way. Maybe everybody has. Often the most common vehicle for greatness is found in the arts, and the terrain artists ride is often more rocky than it is smooth. As someone who has read Buddhist philosophy throughout my life, I am aware of the ways in which our ego leads to our suffering and the danger of seeking approval in the external world.
But sometimes we need a bit of validation from higher up to help us realize that we are on the right track, that when you work with passion and purpose, your efforts will be reflected back to you, sooner or later. I went home and celebrated by getting into the kitchen, where all good celebrations should take place.
I pulled out an old back issue of Gourmet and made this pecan arugula pesto, which I ate on spinach spaghetti and tossed with freshly squeezed lemon, a handful of almonds, a few more pecans and Parmesan. I thought Ruth would approve. Pecan Arugula Pesto
from the November 2002 issue of Gourmet
3/4 cup pecans
1 large garlic clove
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 ounces arugula, coarse stems removed *
1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1.5 ounces)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon black pepper Directions:
1) Finely chop 1/4 cup pecans, preferably with a knife. Mash garlic to a paste with a mortar and pestle–or mince and mash with a heavy knife.
2) Blend remaining 1/2 cup pecans, arugula, cheese, oil, pepper and garlic paste in a food processor until smooth, about one minute. * you can substitute flat-leaf parsley for the arugula, but then you should only use 1/3 cup of olive oil