Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic for the New York Times and editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine for the past 10 years, was raised in a household where food was frequently inedible. Her mother, already familiar to readers of Reichl’s three bestselling memoirs as a larger-than-life serial food poisoner, had no culinary talent. But, as the author recently discovered, her mom was more influential than she had realized.
Q: Your new book, Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along The Way, evolved from a speech you gave that opened, “My mother was a great example of everything I didn’t want to be.” Was it frightening to say that in front of an audience of women?
A: I wrote the speech in a burst of inspiration, then put it away and didn’t think about it. But when I got up in front of 1,500 people—I was one of the last speakers at this event, everyone else was saying, “I want to thank my wonderful mother”—I looked down at the page and thought, “Oh my God, this is not the sort of speech you are supposed to give.”
When I said, “I wake up every morning grateful that I’m not my mother,” there was this audible gasp. But it was too late to change anything, so I just went on. When I ended there was this stunned silence, but I noticed that Diane von Furstenberg, who was sitting next to me, was crying, and Christiane Amanpour came up and said I’d made her think about her mother. Then later, I started getting emails from tons of people I didn’t know, saying, “That was my mother you were talking about.”
Q: Why do you think that feeling of not wanting to be like your mother resonates with so many women?
A: For people of my generation, we all saw that our mothers had very restricted lives. These women were capable and smart, but they literally had nothing to do and were very unhappy. They were handicapped by the fact that women, in the 1950s, essentially weren’t allowed to work. After World War II, all the women who’d been running the factories and really enjoying what they were doing were told to go home and let the boys have the jobs. So they went off to twiddle their thumbs and be miserable. I’m very grateful that my parents didn’t bring me up thinking that some man was going to take care of me. I always knew I’d have to support myself.
Q: But now there’s a reverse phenomenon: the highly educated daughters of working mothers deciding to stay home with their kids. They don’t want to be like their mothers either.
A: I guess it goes with the territory, somehow, not wanting to be like your mom. I think it’s because we’re still trying to figure out how to be a woman, what is possible for women. Women’s emancipation is very recent—and very Western—and we’re very much struggling with the question of how to be fulfilled.
How do you manage to juggle family, mothering, work, self-fulfillment? Many of us answer by simply looking at our mothers and saying, “Well, the way she did it doesn’t work.” And we try to do something completely different.
Q: You write about avoiding your mother, because she was “like a caged tiger with a dangerously twitching tail.”
A: In one of the diaries I found, she wrote that she wasn’t cut out to be a housewife. And she wasn’t: she was a terrible housekeeper, and one reason was that she resented it so much. She felt, “Is this what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life?” I remember walking home from school and just standing in the doorway with the key, praying she wasn’t there. If she was, there was no time for myself. She would just ask questions and ask questions and ask questions. What had happened that day? Who said what? She was very seductive—she would’ve been a great reporter, actually, because she could just pull stuff out of you. I remember saying to myself, “Don’t tell her, you’ll pay for it later.”
A: Whatever secret you revealed, whatever you’d say about what the teacher said or what you did with your friend would be thrown back in your face. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but next week. She would hang on to every little piece of information because her life wasn’t happy. I was her emissary out into the world.
Q: When you got your first book contract, your mother kind of sneered and said, “We didn’t bring you up to write cookbooks.” Did she live long enough to see you become a famous restaurant critic and author?
A: She passed away before I went to the New York Times. But she did live long enough to see me having a career and juggling all the things she hadn’t been able to.
Q: Was she envious? Supportive?
A A little bit of both. But the truth is that by the time my career really took off, she was onto her own thing and had pretty much let go of me. One thing that was remarkable about her is that unlike her own mother and so many other mothers in that time period, she didn’t try to fulfill herself through me. She’d learned that she couldn’t.
Q: You realized, writing this book, that you hadn’t actually known her well.
A: Very early, as children, we decide who our mothers are, and that’s the mother you carry around with you for the rest of your life. It’s a kind of self-defence mechanism; it’s much easier to come to terms with a one-dimensional character. By deciding to read her diaries and letters, to do research, I gave that up, and met my mother as a very complicated person. It was extraordinary. One heartbreaking thing I discovered, which I hadn’t known, was how consciously she tried not to impose her desires on me. My mother was forced to live out my grandmother’s dreams and desires, and in many ways it ruined her life. So my mother very consciously moulded me not to be her, which I had never realized. That was enormously generous, actually allowing me to love her less because it was better for me. I can’t imagine doing that for your child, sacrificing your child’s love for their own good.
Q: Your mother has been an important character—a figure of fun, really—in your previous books. And when you were at the Times, you used to dress up in her clothes and act difficult so you wouldn’t be recognized in restaurants you were reviewing. Is this book an act of contrition?
A: I feel very much that I am making up to my mother for all the fun I have made of her in my other books. I felt I owed it to her to try to write her side of the story. I don’t think of it as an act of contrition, but as me meeting my mother not as a child, but as an adult, and looking at her not as my mother but as a strong and interesting woman who had a very, very sad life.
This was without question the single hardest job of my life. I cried every day writing this book. I felt and still feel bereft that I didn’t know her better while she was alive,and terrible that I wasn’t better to her. I was not a good enough daughter for everything she gave me.
Q: In your earlier books, she comes across as a force of nature: a terrible cook, totally disorganized but entertaining, full of crazy schemes. When did you first have the idea, “I don’t want to be like her”?
A: At about the age of eight, it became clear to me that her behaviour was erratic, she was not like everybody else’s mother. She didn’t even look like them: they were wearing corsets, and she didn’t even wear a bra. But she was bipolar, and she wasn’t telling me she was normal, that I had to be like her.
Q: Your house sounds like an exciting place, though. I’m sure your friends loved to visit.
A: Absolutely. When they saw her at her best, they thought my mother was so interesting. She was the one bringing whole suckling pigs into the house—their mothers certainly didn’t do that—and she was always coming up with some new scheme. She was also, however, waking us up at three in the morning to clean the house, but for them, that was just eccentric, something you had to put up with to get the fun part. For me it was: couldn’t I just have a normal mother who’d make me a normal lunch?
Q: What did she make?
A: At school, the other kids all had nice clean lunch boxes, but my mother would send my lunch in a wrinkled old paper bag, the kind they used to sell fruit in. There’d be two pieces of rye bread, one was huge and one was tiny, with a thick, dry piece of ham stuck in the middle and a mouldy apple. She was a big believer in mould, you should just scrape it off. I’ve written before about this insane party my mother gave for my brother’s engagement, where she turned it into a fundraiser for UNICEF and made everybody pay to come, and then 26 people wound up in the hospital with food poisoning. Every once in a while I think, “Maybe I’m making these stories up,” but the other day a friend of my brother’s called me and said, “I remember your mother making duck in chocolate sauce. And the duck was raw.” Food didn’t matter to her at all.
Q: Do you think she’d value the fact that you’re editor of Gourmet?
A: Well, she would certainly value the fact that I’ve written books much more.
Q: You were estranged from her at the end of her life. Why?
A: She found a way to be happy, but my brother and I were still dealing with her as this crazy, difficult person she had been.She didn’t need that. She didn’t totally cut us off, she just made her own life and didn’t pay a lot of attention to us. She travelled, she made other people’s children her children, she opened her house to students—she found herself, she revelled in it, and she didn’t need us.
Q: Your mom’s real catalyst for happiness was the death of your father. Yet, he adored her, thought she was wonderful.
A: I think they had a really good marriage, but in some ways, the very fact that my father loved her so much and was supportive robbed her of her ability to believe in herself. When he died, she took to her bed, literally, for four years. She did nothing. When she finally gets up, it’s like, “I’m going to have to do this for myself”—and the knowledge that she could be the architect of her own happiness fed her. The thing I learned from finding out more about her was that in the end, you’re really the only person who can make yourself happy, and it’s never too late to do it.
Q: Do you ever go to restaurants disguised as your mother anymore?
A: No. Now I usually get recognized, people are lovely to me, and I sort of feel I’ve earned it after 30-some years of writing about food. It’s nice to have people be happy you’re there and try to encourage you to eat their best dishes. But you know, I just did this video for Gourmet.com of me going back into disguise, and it’s very funny. I went to a restaurant dressed as Gene Simmons from Kiss, in full regalia.
Q: Did you pass?
A: No! They saw right through me, and said, “Oh hello, nice to see you.”