May 10, 2016 Ruth Reichl's journey began as a restaurant critic in the mid 1970s in the period of "new journalism" for the Los Angeles Times, then the New York Times, and, up until 2009, as Editor-in-Chief of the shuttered Gourmet magazine.
Sponsored by the Friends of the North Castle Library on May 4, Reichl spoke to a full house at the Armonk Library about how she uses words to describe her relationship with food. Sometimes she dressed in elaborate disguises, managing to eat for 35 years on someone else’s tab as a food critic. Her words continue to bridge food with her audiences as a culinary icon-author.
Ruth Reichl is a recipient of six James Beard Awards, Adweek's Editor of the Year, Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, and Matrix Award for Magazines from New York Women in Communications.
She started her journalism career writing about art as she and her husband were broke and living in a commune in Berkeley, CA. She was a cook in her own restaurant, when an editor was eating at one of her tables. He said, "You know, you are a much better writer than a restaurant cook. Have you ever thought about writing restaurant reviews?”
Her first thought was not about a new career, but about free food. For the next 35 years, she was a food critic for some of the most highly regarded publications in the industry. "Stretch the form," she was told after her second critique of a fancy San Francisco restaurant. For the next six years she did just that. "I wrote what are assuredly the weirdest restaurant reviews: things set on Mars, westerns, love stories, and diary entries." A lesson learned well for the rest of her life: "When in doubt, take a chance."
Then at the Los Angeles Times she could no longer write these non-classic restaurant reviews with the restaurant’s information woven through it as a little short story. "You can't make stuff up," said the editor of the LA Times during the golden years when they had a circulation of 1.5 million readers. About 1,000 people went to the fancy restaurants she was to review. She said, "I wanted to write reviews for the rest of the readers. I want to write reviews that take people along with me. The best thing I can do for the reader is give them the experience of being in the restaurant."
Fast forward ten years, and Reichl went on to become the restaurant reviewer for the New York Times "where the eyes of the world were on me." She was on the "wanted list" of every New York restaurant when she started wearing incredible disguises, turning herself into made-up characters such as sexy Chloe, wild Brenda, blond and curvy Stella, and sad Betty: all who she wrote about in her book Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.
When the public goes out to restaurants, you have a contract with them, she says. "We agree to pay a lot of money and in return they agree to not only give you beautiful food, but to make you feel, if only for a few hours, that you are a privileged person. It doesn't matter who you are; if you are the POTUS or Stella from Coney Island, you deserve to be treated with respect in a restaurant."
Paring away from restaurant reviews , Reichl is writing about what she is doing in the kitchen. "I started my career by taking a chance and doing something that was out of the box." The reviews of her recent cookbook, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes the Saved My Life, have said it’s part cookbook, part memoir. "Once again I took a risk and stretched the form," she says. “The things that scare you the most are always worth doing." What she hopes people will take from her books is that the world is a mess and probably always has been, and therefore there are so many reasons to be in despair. But it behoves us to find reasons to be happy and to find joy in the little things. She finds great joy in the kitchen, and says there's joy somewhere for everyone.
During the audience Q & A, which was moderated by Chef Eric Gabrynowicz of Restaurant North, a question was asked about the digital revolution for cookbook authors. Reichl says there are so many great food blogs out there, but we use online recipes in a different way than in cookbooks where you read and dream about food. If you want to be inspired, "you need words, and you need inspired cookbook writers." At Gourmet, they scripted dreams of centerfolds which were big pictures of gourmet menus that actually created parties on the page.
Sibling Authors Sign Books in New York City
February 3, 2016 Armonk literary fans rejoice. Local author Carol Weston has several book signings in the next two months. Weston's novel Ava XOX, aimed at readers grades 3 to 5, came out yesterday. She has a book signing tonight, Wednesday February 3, at Barnes & Noble at Broadway and West 82nd Street in Manhattan, at 7:00 p.m.
Later this week, Weston will be at the Book Court at 163 Court Street in Brooklyn with Ava, her second book of the continued Ava and Pip series. That's on Saturday February 6 at 2:00 p.m.
Then on Wednesday March 30, there is a truly special event at Book Culture at 450 Columbus Avenue at 82nd Street in Manhattan. It’s a joint "Sibling Signing" with Weston and her brother, Mark Weston. This signing will begin at 7:00 p.m.
Mark Weston's book, The Runner-Up Presidency, is a historical look at the American electoral voting system, and is expected to be released in March. “A must read for those truly interested in our democracy," says Bill Bradley, former basketball star and New Jersey senator.
Carol Weston: An Armonk Gem By Amanda Boyle
January 20, 2016 Carol Weston grew up in Armonk in the sixties and seventies, graduated from Byram Hills High School in 1974, and has since become a published writer with novels, advice books, and magazine columns. Most of her work deals with, and is aimed at, young girls. Weston herself has two daughters, who are now in their twenties. She and her husband, playwright Rob Ackermann, split their time between two homes: an apartment in Manhattan--where we met to talk about her upcoming books--and her childhood house in Armonk. Her upcoming book is Ava XOX, the third book in a series following precocious protagonist Ava. We talked about her books, her writing process in general, female protagonists versus male protagonists, and how growing up in Armonk still stays with her.
AAA: Are you planning a long-term series? Do you have in mind multiple books, or do you just see where you go with the story and the characters?
CW: I'm excited that a third Ava Wren book, Ava XOX, is coming out in February 2016. But I don't know if there'll be a fourth or a fifth. I have a contract with my publisher but he said, 'It's up to you, Carol, if you want to write a fourth Ava Wren book, do it; if you want to write a different book for middle school, ten-year-old kids...' I might try a book with a boy protagonist, because I've never done that and librarians are always looking for more books with boy protagonists. I grew up with brothers, so I might try that. But I'm not sure yet.
AAA: I've read a few articles, essays, lately by female writers who write books for a younger audience with female protagonists. They're actually disappointed that sometimes when they go to schools only the girls are taken out of class to hear the talk because there's a female protagonist and boys are discouraged to read it. Is that disappointing to you?
CW: That would be disappointing to me but I just gave a talk last week where they said, 'Come to the Girls Club and give a talk' and then it was a rainy day, so the counselor of the Boys Club said, 'Do you mind if the boys come too?' I said, 'No, that would be even better!' So I guess I've had the opposite experience: sometimes where I'm going single sex, and hooray it's co-ed. I speak at girls’ schools, but I speak at a lot of co-ed schools. Girls buy more books about Ava than boys do, but when I talk at a school it's for everybody.
When I wrote Girl Talk, I wanted to talk with the sixth-grade girls, because it was an opportunity to talk with them without the boys snickering and giggling. Middle school can be uncomfortable if you're talking about sex ed, or your changing body. But when I write fiction, like The Diary of Melanie Martin or Ava and Pip, I am hoping boys will also read the books.
AAA: When you write a new story versus writing a sequel, what's the process of choosing? Is that something that comes to you as I have a new idea, or, I have more to write about Ava, or I have more to write about Melanie?
CW: If I suddenly get a great idea for a fourth Ava, I hope I will run with that ball because I like Ava and Pip, and Misty Oaks. But I have been opening myself up to writing a possible stand-alone book with a boy protagonist. I've been toying with an idea about a young boy and a grandmother. Although, there's a comfort for readers as well as writers if you sink back into a series, because you know all the characters, and you know their personalities. One of the beautiful things when you write for kids is that if they love your work they love your work. They read your book once and they'll read it again. Kids will read a book a bunch of times. If they become an Ava fan or a Melanie fan, that's great. But I'm hoping that I will be ready to invent a whole new family and a whole new town. Maybe he'll have a cat, maybe he'll have a dog, or maybe he'll have a rabbit.
AAA: Family always plays a big role in your work. Could you speak to that a little bit? Is that a conscious decision that you made?
CW: It's not really a conscious decision, as a person in the world, and as Dear Carol of Girls' Life I am aware that family does play a big part in everybody's life, even the young people striking it out on their own. Figuring out your own place is a really important part of growing up. The mom in Melanie is really a great lady; the mom in the Ava Wren books isn't that good a mom.
AAA: Let's talk about locations. You make up a new town but you also write stories that take place in the real world, whether New York City or Armonk, where Speed of Life partially takes place. How do you decide on locations?
CW: People say write what you know about. It would be a mistake to try and set a scene in Hawaii if you've never been to Hawaii. But I lived in Spain for two years so I wrote With Love from Spain, Melanie Martin set in Spain. I knew I could give Spain to my American readers. With Ava Wren, that's set in Misty Oaks, and to be perfectly honest, I am not sure which state Misty Oaks is in. It's a state of mind. Having grown up in Westchester, Misty Oaks is maybe less affluent but it's definitely a small town with a public school where neighbors come running over.
The Speed of Life is set in three places I know very well. It is set in New York City and in Armonk, where I'm lucky enough to still have the house that I moved to when I was eleven. Poor Sofia has to scatter her mother's ashes in Spain, in Segovia, but I was glad to have some chapters set in Spain. So I guess for locale, it's something that speaks to your heart. I am half Texan, but I'm not sure I would ever set a book in Texas, because I just wouldn't trust myself to get it right. And you really have to get it right. Somebody writes a book about Armonk and you're thinking, this is not poetic license, this is nonsense, you know, you're not happy with the book.
AAA: You have two books coming out in 2016. Do you usually work on multiple projects at the same time?
CW: In a perfect world, it's one and then another. Right now, Ava XOX came back in copy- edited form so today and tomorrow I need to read it again even though I've read it a zillion times. In Ava XOX, on the very first page, she finds out that this boy, Chuck, her best guy friend, who's been in the first two books, suddenly gets asked out by this new girl. He's sort of flustered and he doesn't want to hurt her feelings, so he says okay. Then suddenly Ava on page one is like what just happened? So she's dealing with a crush, but I also introduce a character who is quite overweight and she's sort of an unhappy twelve year old so I'm trying to...talk about the weighty subject of childhood obesity but with a light novelist touch. And I guess in a lot of my books I do try to dig a little deeper. With Speed of Life, that'll probably come out in fall of 2016, it's about a sad 15-year-old girl on the Upper West Side whose mother died eight months earlier and she's not over it yet. The novel starts on New Year's Day when she and her dad are putting away the Christmas tree. I don't know if we want to use the word sucked, but Christmas sucked! By the time the novel is over, it's exactly one year later and everything about Sofia's life is different. I like this book so I'm happy that it found a home, as we say.
AAA: Do you ever think you'll set another book in Armonk, or Westchester?
CW: The book that I was mentioning with the boy protagonist, I don't where I would set that. When I write about kids, it's always going back in my own mind to my own childhood so a lot of that does play in Westchester, but it's also my kids’ childhood, which is New York City. It worked well to be an Armonk and a Westchester girl before I hit the wide world. I think for writers, you have to find your voice, and the world is noisy, noisier than ever.
Living in Armonk for me made it easier to hear my own voice. Now, when I walk in Windmill I always think wow, I spent so many hours in that house. It's so fun to be a grown-up in a neighborhood where I was a kid because I had a crush on that boy, and she was my best friend, and I took care of their kids and it's so alive…
I liked Mr. Wollenberg, Byram Hills High School English teacher, may he rest in peace, and Mrs. Goodmen, and there were other teachers who were helpful in Armonk. I got an English prize in eighth grade from Byram Hills and that was gratifying, validating and encouraging. I was lucky to have a pretty darn happy childhood.
When my dad died when I was twenty-five, life took a couple of turns, but I feel lucky that I was a child in Westchester, and a preteen and teen in Armonk. I feel lucky that I'm able to keep the house I grew up in for our family.
Keep your eyes out for Ava XOX and Speed of Life this year. Go along with Ava and her crazy antics, and hang on for Sofia's life-changing year. I predict you'll enjoy Carol Weston's sparkling wit and depth of emotion.