The power of storytelling in a post-truth society
Photo courtesy of Ruth Reichl
Author and chef Ruth Reichl—former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and restaurant critic for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times—is coming to the Monterey Peninsula. She will speak at a fundraiser for the Carmel Public Library Foundation on May 17 at the Sunset Center along with two pals: award-winning Los Angeles chef Nancy Silverton, and cookbook author Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s Good Food radio show. Reichl, who is currently working on her second novel, recently spoke with EMB reporter Rosie Parker about the upcoming event and why she writes.
EMB: I’ve always thought of you first and foremost as a storyteller. Do you feel like that’s been your approach to the different positions you’ve held in your life?
RR: Yes, absolutely. I think the two most important things in life are food and stories. I really believe that. In fact, I’m about to go to Spain in a couple of months for a conference called Diálogos de Cocina, put on by the Basque Culinary Center, where I’ll be lecturing on how you deal with food issues in a post-truth society. One of the things I want to say is that for some food justice issues we really need to get beyond just facts and need to become better storytellers. I think it’s wonderful that we have people like Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and that we have movies like Food, Inc., but I think if we’re really going to move it forward, we need to see fiction as a tool.
When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, he said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” And that was the direct cause of the first Pure Food and Drug Act in the United States because people read about the conditions of these packing plants and it horrified them, and they demanded that laws be enacted to make sure that our meat was safer. It speaks to the power of storytelling! We have to go beyond people’s minds and really try and make readers experience, for example, what it’s like to be an undocumented worker who is picking produce for slave wages.
EMB: That’s so interesting that you believe fiction to be the right outlet for these issues.
RR: I think fiction—books, TV, film—has an ability to really affect people emotionally. You can present something in a way that it’s never been presented before. And we need to be doing the same thing with food stories. We need to be looking at the evildoers and the victims in ways that we haven’t before. And fiction is one of the best ways to get inside someone else’s head, which in turn allows us to tap into our common humanity.
EMB: The hyper-local food movement has become so important to our food culture, and the Edible Publications are an extension of that. Do you think that this is the future of food journalism?
RR: I love the Edible Publications. I tried to get Si Newhouse (owner of Condé Nast) to buy them when they were still really young because I saw a strong future for them and I really admired the concept. When I was growing up we didn’t even have that notion that food is part of what shapes a community. And what we’re looking at now is the fact that a lot of American public policy in the ’70s and ’80s was specifically to destroy family farms. Earl Butz (secretary of agriculture under Nixon and Ford) said to farmers, “Get big or get out.” That’s why we are now seeing rural rage, that’s how we got Donald Trump—we destroyed thousands and thousands of rural communities.
Our food system was a big part of what held those food communities together, so, yes, I think that local food is really important. But on the other hand, when it comes to journalism, we have so many systemic problems in our food systems. There is so much wrong on a bigger level, and we really need journalists who have the time and money to investigate the real problems like justice for farmworkers and food safety.
“The real changes that have come in food
have not come through government
regulation but through people saying, ‘We
don’t want to buy tortured animals anymore.
We don’t want antibiotics in our meat.’ If
everyone in America decided tomorrow that
they didn’t want to eat pigs that had been raised
in confinement facilities, they would go away!”
EMB: The trend of recent years, especially in food writing, seems to favor small, niche publications.
RR: One of the things that makes me sad about the current state of journalism altogether is that I really think that we now spend way too much time preaching to the converted. People only buy the publications that they know think like they do, and there’s something remarkable about a general interest publication that has people of all political persuasions reading it. I think that part of the joy of great journalism is to read something that you didn’t know you wanted to read.
I remember my father, who is from Berlin, would talk about his father who used to read eight newspapers a day, all across the political spectrum because he wanted to know everything that was going on. I wish we still did that. People watch and read things that will tell them things that they want to hear. But we all need to hear things that we don’t want to hear.
EMB: Given the importance, especially in recent years, of strong journalism on food justice, where do you think the voice of the critic fits in?
RR: You essentially have a platform as a critic to inform people about what’s going on in that world. One of the things that’s so exciting to me about food is that it’s an area where consumers have enormous power. The real changes that have come in food have not come through government regulation but through people saying, “We don’t want to buy tortured animals anymore. We don’t want antibiotics in our meat.” If everyone in America decided tomorrow that they didn’t want to eat pigs that had been raised in confinement facilities, they would go away! So I really think that one of the things that good critics can do is bring up these issues.
EMB: Something I think a lot about for myself—living in a community-driven place and working for a local food publication— is if and where there is room for a critical voice in these smaller communities. At Edible Monterey Bay we are here to tell the food stories of our community, but I also believe in holding my community accountable for the mission statements they are putting out there. I wonder how you think that balance can be achieved.
RR: When I took over Gourmet in 1999 my publisher said, “Just give us recipes and happy stories.” But we started doing serious stories— we did the first major piece in the country on the problems with salmon farming, we did tomato slaves, we did all kinds of stuff— and it was clear that readers liked it and wanted it. I think that we consistently underestimate our readers, and I think there’s a much bigger hunger for knowledge out there than we give people credit for.
EMB: Yeah, I’d like to think so.
RR: There’s a real balance between the pleasure of food and the seriousness of it. Food is something that we need to sustain life, and we’re increasingly learning the enormous impact it has on the environment. And within a small community, I think a thoughtful, critical voice is important because it helps communities raise the bar of what’s being produced and hopefully helps them see the bigger picture.
EMB: What do you think your role/responsibility, if any, is at this point?
RR: I don’t know what my role is, to be honest. I feel like to the extent that I can make my voice heard, I need to do it for the things that I think are important. I honestly believe that there’s a lot to fix in food and that if I can help that in any way, I should be doing that. One of the ways I’m trying to reach potential game changers is through speaking at some fascinating conferences, like the upcoming one in Spain or at Mesa Redonda—a conference for young journalists that took place in Mexico last year.\
I’m obviously really worried about what’s going to happen with this incoming administration. I think that we all need to be concerned about our environment and climate change, and agriculture has a huge impact on that. To the extent that I can move the dial at all, it’s my responsibility to do that.
TICKETS: Find information and tickets for The Foodie Edition with Reichl, Silverton and Kleiman on May 17 at: carmelpubliclibraryfoundation.org/events/featured.