As I waited for a friend, I watched several hundred people flow into the Crest Theater in downtown Sacramento last night to hear Ruth Reichl’s talk. They were My People — white foodies, babyboomers, aging Californians. I don’t know why it surprised me to see so few people who looked under the age of 45. It certainly didn’t knock me back on my heels to find practically no people of color in the crowd. But standing amid lines of gray-haired people dressed in Land’s End comfortable knit pants, cardigans and mock turtlenecks made me feel a trifle old.
A photographer walking backwards down the sidewalk led my eye beyond him to Ruth Reichl herself, in the company of a minder, sauntering toward the theater door fifteen minutes before she was due on stage. She was dressed in low-key New York chic, black skin-tight pants, black boots, midthigh aquamarine tunic blouse, a black wool angular poncho, and a mane of long black hair. She did not exude an air of celebrity. If the photographer hadn’t been walking backwards, I might not have noticed her.
The crowd was made to love her. They wanted badly to laugh at her witty remarks. People all around me muttered, “uh-huh,” “yeah,” and “that’s right,” like congregants calling and responding. The crowd had come there to measure their tastes and knowledge against the standard Reichl has set in print and, tonight, in person.
And I went right along with them, although at the same time I felt alienated from the entire purpose of the evening. Her forty-five minute talk delivered what the audience wanted, which was a flavor of her. It was a bit disjointed, but entertaining. Every woman present who at some point in her life fled to the other side of the continent to escape her mother felt a special kinship with Ruth. They relished her rejoinder when asked by an New York Times editor why she would want to give up her job in Los Angeles to come work in Manhattan. “Well, my mother died a year ago and now I feel I can come home.”
I enjoyed her readings from Garlic and Sapphires, her latest memoir. She told entertaining anecdotes, none of which pandered to celebrity. I appreciated her belief that the best, most expensive restaurants have a responsibility to every one of their guests to make them feel welcome and special. Reichl’s place on my list of public people I do not want ever to meet for fear of being disappointed has been secured.
The last portion of her talk covered her involvement in bringing Garlic and Sapphires to the screen. She told a funny story about cooperating with a producer in the seduction by food of HBO executives. They pitched the adaptation of her career as the NYT’s restaurant critic as a successor to Sex and the City. Food, the pitch went, has replaced sex in the popular imagination. Like dry kindling, the idea caught fire in the minds of the TV executives. And then quickly died. Finally, Reichl announced, Fox has bought the rights and a script has been written.
By the time she finished taking and taking a few questions (all of them loving; none of them probing), I was uncomfortable. The feeling that I did not want to be part of this feast settled in me. Food has replaced sex as the latest public obsession? Hasn’t there always been a friendly simile between the two? I hope she recognized how glib the comparison was.
To judge by what she described, the HBO executives think good food and popular food culture have turned into sexual fetishes. A commodity fetish, maybe, but not a sexual fetish. Ruth Reichl and Gourmet Magazine are partially responsible for the fetishization of food in this country. But I think our fascination with the esoterica of food and food preparation is standing in for something else we are missing: a vibrant intellectual culture. Once, to be a snob meant displaying a certain level of cultural and intellectual literacy. Now, ingredients and restaurants are the components of a person’s sophistication. We focus on food and its lore instead of politics, ideas, books, and art. Look at the European culture with the strongest culinary culture, France. Take Italy, even. They have few food magazines, few cookbooks, no Williams-Sonoma, JB Prince, and no fixations on finding the most archane ingredient or appliance. Admittedly, their food cultures are changing and absorbing some of our avid interest in gastronomica, but on the whole they are detached from the fray. In contrast, we devote as much energy, thought, and obsessiveness to food preparation, food TV, food movies, and food books not because we have switched from an interest in sex in all its manifestations and permutations, but rather because it’s the closest thing we have to an intellectual specialty in this country. We are a nation of culinary dilettantes because we are not a nation of dilettantes in politics, literature, ideas, or art.
So, what’s the problem with that? Everyone needs a hobby, you will say. My answer would be the one Candide recommended to Dr. Pangloss: we must cultivate our garden. We must do it in the fullest sense with the clear recognition that today cultivating a garden is not a right but a privilege. The culture of food in this country grows increasingly distasteful to me. Slow-Food events that cost $100 a person for meals prepared with local food serve piety on a plate. I would have liked to ask Ruth about this tonight. But my question would not have suited the mood of the house and I was not in the mood to play party-pooper. She must, I feel, have an opinion about the fascination with food stuffs she’s done a lot to create and promote. At least, I hope so.