Ruth Reichl on the 'Politics of Food'

It’d be hard to find anyone who knows more about eating, cooking and buying food than Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl.

A former restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times and a pioneer chef in the culinary revolution in early 1970s California, she’s written three best-selling memoirs about her career in food journalism. Since 1999, as Gourmet’s editor in chief, she’s boosted monthly circulation to nearly 1 million and has been supplementing Gourmet’s traditional mix of food articles, menus and travel pieces with serious stories about things like harmful government food policies and the problems of fish farming.

Reichl, who identifies herself as a political liberal and with whom I worked in Los Angeles, was in Pittsburgh Thursday night to address a convention of the National Conference of Editorial Writers on “The Politics of Food.”

Are some foods or meals inherently liberal or conservative?

Ruth Reichl: No. I don’t think you can say that a meal has politics. But part of the way we define ourselves to the world is that we eat in certain ways. And what we eat, we expect to say something about us. If you are a person who eats fast food all the time, you are announcing a certain state of being. There is the classic Red State fast-food, Blue State organic-food stereotype. Certainly, people who do their shopping at Wal-Mart is more of a Red State thing, as opposed to the people who are shopping at Whole Foods. For many of the people who shop at Whole Foods, they see it as a kind of act of virtue. There’s a sense that “Because I’m shopping here, I care about the Earth and animals.” If you want to ascribe a liberal point of view to that particular mindset, then you could say there is probably a conservative way to shop and a liberal way to shop.

If you had to choose the main course for a Bush fund-raising dinner, would it differ from an Al Gore fund-raising dinner?

Reichl: Oh, absolutely. For an Al Gore fund-raising dinner, you would make sure everything was sustainable. You would make sure that you’re really thought about global warming and what the effects of agribusiness have been on global warming. You certainly would not put grain-fed beef on the menu. If you were going to serve beef, it would be grass-fed beef that had been pastured. You’d be thinking about local foods because you’d be thinking about the cost of the transportation. You’d be thinking about not using food that had been grown with petroleum products with added nitrates. Whereas, if you were doing a meal for George Bush, you could serve just about anything. That is not what he is thinking about. He is not thinking about sustainability. His food policies show that what he cares most about is pleasing those big contributors – agribusinesses – who are putting money into his coffers.

When you talk about “The Politics of Food,” what are you talking about?

Reichl: Some people say that all politics are personal. What I would say is “All food is political.” One reason I wanted to talk to this particular group of editorial writers is that people who write editorials are usually fulminating about things that the people who are reading what they write can’t do a whole lot about. If you don’t like the war, you can write your congressman and so forth. But you don’t have a whole lot you can do about it. We all have an enormous impact on food policy in this country, just by going to the grocery store. You vote every time you shop for vote. You’re voting with your dollars.

So I think it’s very important for the influencers in this country to try and persuade their audience to think about the implications of what they are eating. Our food in this country is very much determined by our government food policies. If we have a crisis about obesity, which we do, it has to do with government policy. If we have a diabetes crisis, which we do, it has a lot to do with the fact that we have been subsidizing the wrong foods. Those are things you really can affect. If everybody in America decided they weren’t going to buy soda tomorrow, it would have an enormous effect on what you could buy in the store.

Is that your main message – that this is something that individual people can change through their market activity?

Reichl: Yes. Most of us don’t realize how tied the food we eat is to government policy. There are two main bills coming up in Congress that don’t get a lot of attention and I think should get a lot attention from ordinary people. The farm bill is coming up in 2007 and it is going to affect everything you put in your mouth. We tend to think, “Oh, well that farm bill has to do with farmers.” Wrong. It has to do with us. There’s also a nation Food Uniformity Act that is coming up. Right now states have a lot of regulations for foods – how much arsenic can be in water, what has to be on labels, that kind of thing. These things vary now from state to state. Something just passed the House and is going to the Senate which will in effect say that none of those state regulations count anymore and only the federal regulations count.

Meanwhile, at the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), the department which regulates all the testing has had its budget cut in half in the last four years. So what you are essentially looking at is essentially getting rid of thousands and thousands of the kinds of state regulations which in fact protect us. Does the food industry want this? You bet. How much arsenic do you want in your water?

How would characterize your editorial position?

Reichl: I think you would probably say it was a liberal perspective. I really believe in sustainability. I believe global warming is a problem. I think food is both a big part of both the problem and the solution to global warming. There are a lot of things we at the magazine don’t have a position on. For instance, we did a lot of things about the genetic modification of food — from both sides. I don’t have an answer. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I thought people should make up their own minds about it.

Are these problems that you see with food problems that can be fixed by government, by markets, or both?

Reichl: By both. You’re seeing these changes. One of the exciting things for someone like me is the growth of farmers markets. Just in the last 15 years, it’s been phenomenal. The fact that people in New York City there are farmers markets all around the city all year has meant that family farms that would have gone out of business have stayed in business. But a lot of these problems are set by the government. The fact that we subsidize people not to grow things, or to grow things, and what we’re subsidizing has a huge impact on what Americans eat. Another issue is school food. Everybody is talking about how school food is supposed to be better. Well, there would be an easy government fix for some of this, which is get school food out of the hands of the USDA, where it’s basically thought of as a way of using surplus foods, and put it into the hands of people who care about health. Just move it. You would have a huge change.

Aren’t Americans eating much better today than they did 30 or 40 years ago?

Some Americans are eating better. And that’s one of the things I want to talk to the editorial writers about. I think, to our shame, food has become a class issue. If you are a rich American, you can eat enormously better than you’ve ever eaten before. You can eat free-range chickens that have real flavor and have never seen anything that wasn’t organic. You can eat wonderful eggs that were just laid, vegetables that have no pesticides and you can eat spices from all over the world. At the same time, we have a whole generation of children who we’ve actually done this horrible experiment on, who are eating nothing but processed foods laden with fat and salt and ersatz ingredients. Some of the stuff is cheaper than food. We have a real dividing line. Some people eat very well and some people don’t. Eating badly, oddly, is not about hunger anymore. It’s about too many calories.

Is it more about income or more about class, culture, education?

Reichl: It’s a little of both, because if you are going to eat foods that are organic or locally farm raised, etc., it’s expensive. You can eat well, but you need to know how to cook if you want to eat well and cheaply. We also now increasingly have people who don’t know how to cook.

What’s the single most important thing you know about food that you wish everyone knew?

Reichl: I guess the single thing is about families. I think cooking for your family is probably the most important thing you can do for your kids. It keeps families together. Sitting down together is way more important than we really understand. And, I’m going to give you a second thing: cooking is easy. People think it’s hard, but it’s very easy.

The idea of sitting down at a family dinner is a very conservative family value.

Reichl: It is. But it is an important family value. The single best thing I have done as a mother is give up being a restaurant critic and decide that I was going to go home and cook for my family. We have breakfast and dinner together almost every day. When you sit down to dinner, you start talking. It’s when you connect with each other. It is so incredibly important. I am conservative in that sense. Nothing’s more important for any of us than raising our kids and making sure they have good values and that you pass on who you are to them so that they turn into people you are proud of. The dinner table is where a lot of that happens.