The Dysfunctional Dinner Table: A Q&A With Ruth Reichl, by Julia Reed

Ruth Reichl © Brigitte Lacombe

The bestselling author and editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine talks to wOw’s Julia Reed about her bipolar mother, her new book, where she’s eating lately and more.

Editor’s Note: Bestselling author Ruth Reichl is the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and the author of the bestsellers Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples. She has been the restaurant critic at The New York Times and the food editor at the Los Angeles Times. She recently spoke with wOw’s Julia Reed about her new book, Not Becoming My Mother; why she’s grateful in spite of her dysfunctional upbringing; where she loves to eat these days and more.

JULIA REED:
I really loved your book. And I had no idea what to expect. Since the title is Not Becoming My Mother, I was thinking it might be one long complaint, in which you bitch about every slight you’ve ever received — the book we could all write.

RUTH REICHL: Well, I sort of feel like I have done a little bit of that in that past.

JULIA: Well this, I thought, was an extraordinarily generous, loving and ultimately useful book.

RUTH: I hope so. One of the things that has been really heartening is getting notes from people saying, you know, “I read your book and then I called my mother.”

JULIA: I was going to get to that but let’s talk about it now. There are a lot of bittersweet moments in this book, but one of the most bittersweet is that you came to discover all these things about your mother after she was dead, on what would have been her 100th birthday, when you finally opened the box with all her papers and letters. You must have regrets about the fact that you didn’t get to pick up the phone and call your own mother.

RUTH: Oh, it feels awful to discover that she was so giving, so generous to me, and that I didn’t know all of these things. And now, not to be able to thank her just breaks my heart.

JULIA: I would imagine it must have been at least a little cathartic to be able to thank her in this way.

RUTH: Yes, it feels good. I think we all want to be seen, and I think my mother would have loved that not only did I see her, but that I showed her to the world. And the fact that I know that this would have given her pleasure gives me pleasure. Still, it would give me a lot more pleasure if she were still alive and here to actually bask in the glory of being her.

JULIA: Let’s go back a little for the benefit of those folks who are going to be reading this and have not yet read the book. In your previous books you have shared what you call the Mim Tales, which is also the title of the first chapter here. They are stories from your childhood featuring your increasingly desperate and unhappy mom as an almost comic character. An example is the party your parents gave where you had to run around trying to keep the guests from being literally poisoned by your mother’s culinary efforts. As funny and wacky as they are in the telling, they must also have been extraordinarily stressful for you. But in this book you are able to get to the roots of the Mim Tales, by reading your mother’s own scribbled notes, all these scribbled pieces of paper that you found of hers, including the one you felt was a sign that you should keep going with the project, a note reading: “Who am I? What do I want? Why do I stand in my own way so often?” You write that she was an example of everything you didn’t want to be – and if you took that out of context it would be like, “Oh, my mother was so horrid I didn’t want to be her.” Explain what you mean by that, because it’s a much more generous and broader statement than it sounds.

RUTH: Well, I do wake up just grateful every morning that I’m not her. And what I found in going through her diaries and letters is that is exactly what she wanted me to feel – she did everything she could to propel me forward. She had a vision for what life for a woman could be. Here’s my mother. You know, she’s from the first generation of emancipated women. Women got the vote when she was 12. And it didn’t mean what —

JULIA: Yes, it didn’t mean what we think it meant when we read the history books.

RUTH: Yeah. You think, “Oh, my God. There it is, women’s suffrage,” but what I discovered in doing some research is that in 1928 big newspaper headlines read “Women’s Suffrage Declared a Failure.”

JULIA: It really was wonderful the way you informed the book with snippets of that kind of research.

RUTH: Well, I feel like my mother’s story is the story of so many other women. These women had no models; they had no way to know how to live this emancipated life. And they kept getting tripped up. They were educated; my mother was enormously educated. And then nothing happened. They were just bored to death, and they weren’t allowed to work. And my mother very consciously says in her notes to herself, and in letters to other people, “I am going to make sure that life for my daughter is better than mine was.” I mean, the generosity of that sort of stuns me because so many unhappy people want everybody else to be unhappy too. And here was my mother, whose life was really blighted by her inability to work and by so many things – by her having been told she had to get married, by having been told that she wasn’t pretty.

JULIA: You’ve really given us the portrait of a whole generation. I was so struck because my own grandmother would be 102 right now. And she was the same thing you described – extraordinarily well educated, very well bred, smart, but had nothing to do. So she did crossword puzzles and drank gin all day. But in addition to the portrait of a generation you’re giving us, yet again, more proof that Philip Larkin was right: They really do fuck you up, your mom and dad. For example, I wanted to wring your grandparents’ necks for what they did to your mother. When her father writes that letter …

RUTH: That letter was the cruelest thing.

JULIA: Just to clarify it for our readers, he tells her that she is “dear” and has a “fine mind,” but adds that she’ll have to resign herself to the fact that she is “homely” and that finding a husband won’t be easy. I can’t imagine …

RUTH: As I said in the book, if I had gotten a letter like that from my father when I was 16 years old, I would have burned it on the spot.

JULIA: I’m not sure I could recover from it – burned or not burned, it had been said. And for a woman, especially, you want your father to give you validation. You don’t talk much here about your relationship with your father, but you must have felt some validation from him.

RUTH: Oh, I think my father thought I was the most wonderful person in the entire world.

JULIA: And don’t you think that’s so important as far as a woman’s self-image goes?

RUTH: Absolutely. And my mother at 77 is still writing notes saying, “Why can’t I get this image of myself as homely out of my head? Why have I been carrying this around with me?” And I think she was doomed to carry it around with her. I think if you’re told that by your father at 16 it never goes away.

JULIA: No. And the other part of the ill treatment at the hands of her parents was years’ worth of letters saying, “It’s the full moon tonight and I’m praying that you’ll find Mr. Right” – any occasion to pray for the fact that she might be saved by a man. So I loved the fact that when you got married she was in a bad mood.

RUTH: Yes, it was like she was jumping up and down saying, “Didn’t I tell you that you didn’t have to get married? Why are you getting married at 21?” But the other thing that explained so much to me about my feelings about my grandparents was that my mother, only in middle age, discovers that she has been the world’s most dutiful daughter and that what she has been doing her entire life is living her mother’s dream.

JULIA: Wasn’t your mother 45 the first time she writes a letter to her mother saying, “You’ve got to ease up on me”?

RUTH: Yes. She’s 45 years old and she’s saying, “Stop treating me like a child.” She said, “Everybody’s always said how close we were. But back off.” But even then you can see that she doesn’t really understand that everything she’s done in her life up and to this point – getting a PhD in music, when she had no musical talent at all – was for her mother.

JULIA: Yes, she was in Europe by herself, alone and lonely and practicing the violin for six hours a day.

RUTH: Right. And she did this because that was what her mother had wanted to do. And her mother didn’t get to do it, so Mom did it for her mother. And then she marries a man that my grandparents think is suitable. And just from reading these letters from him, you can tell that it’s going to be a disaster – you can see it coming.

JULIA: Those letters were heartbreaking.

RUTH: He was clearly the wrong man. But she does it … and only later does she admit to herself that her first husband was really in love with her mother, not her.

JULIA: At least she did have some positive reinforcement from men early on. I loved the unnamed man who comes to your grandparents’ parties and writes to her that that she is “carved out of life,” so she should jump into it whole hog. And Bertrand Russell wrote her love letters!

RUTH: He became a lifelong friend. I have stacks of letters from Bertie Russell. I think one of the things that sustained her was, you know, the idea that Bertrand Russell actually wanted to marry her. In her lowest point … it was one of the things she could hold onto: “I must have been someone at some point, because the best mind of our century saw something in me.”

JULIA: There are really sweet moments in the book when she understands how gawky you felt in adolescence, when she tries to tell you that you’ll grow into your beauty, when she encourages you and wants to protect you. But there are other times when you have to work hard to find the generosity in her actions, as in when she has worked so hard to tell you that you don’t have to get married, so that she’s very cross when you do get married. I’m sure you would have preferred it if she’d just been gracious and supportive on that one.

RUTH: Yes, yes, I would have. It would have been much nicer.

JULIA: I guess I’m trying to say that in another writer’s hands, there might have been a lot of, “Goddamn it, my selfish mother is driving me crazy.” But instead, you’re saying, “Oh, but underneath it all this was really a generous act,” which is actually extraordinarily generous of you.

RUTH: Thank you.

JULIA: You open the book with being late to the Brownie meeting —

RUTH: Oh, she was always late to everything.

JULIA: Are you on time?

RUTH: I am, I am. But, you know, it’s hard to be a restaurant critic and not be on time. I mean, the one thing you don’t want people saying when you’re a restaurant critic is, “Oh, she’s always late.”

JULIA: So you can’t attribute that to a direct reaction to your mother …

RUTH: Well, when you’re around someone who’s always late, you come to realize that as a kind of profound selfishness – I’m more important than you; you’ll wait for me. And I always thought it was just rude.

JULIA: In this opening scene involving the Brownie meeting, I’m sure you would have been much happier if your mom had not only been on time, but if she had managed to make something like brownies or cookies or something for refreshments, instead of the ghastly last-minute mix of moldy chocolate pudding and canned peaches and pretzels that you describe. That must have been just horrible for you as a youngster.

RUTH: It was so humiliating. It was so humiliating.

JULIA: And it sounds like it happened a lot – her wild culinary experiments or the time when she replaced all the beds in the house with fold-out sofas so she could entertain in every room.

RUTH: Yeah, it was embarrassing. It was, “Oh, my God, our house is weird, or her food is inedible” – a friend recently told me that she once, in the ‘50s, served him duck with Hershey’s chocolate sauce, which she thought was original. But the other side of it was that she could be enormous fun. When she wasn’t embarrassing you, she was thinking of interesting schemes for you and your friends. So it was a two-sided thing.

JULIA: She did seem interesting – and brave. What I got from all the notes she scribbled was that she was striving constantly to improve herself and that she wanted a more interesting life of the mind and deeper connections with people than the one she had with her first husband. And after they divorced she went off to New York. Most women of that generation wouldn’t have done that. So she was not June Cleaver sitting around, which might have been, in some ways, worse.

RUTH: Oh, there’s no question. She was a woman of strong ambitions and the very fact that she was constantly thwarted in what she was doing didn’t mean that she wasn’t always still trying. Even at the end, I found this amazing letter. She’s 77. She’s writing it to an editor at a magazine, trying at this point in her life to turn herself into a writer. She was always convinced that she could be more than she was. She was definitely not June Cleaver.

JULIA: No. And in the end there’s some real redemption.

RUTH: It made me really happy, that here’s this woman who wanted to be a doctor. There are all these notes saying, “If only I’d become a doctor. Why did I listen to my parents?”

RUTH: And then at the end, I think the thing that pulled her out of this terrible depression after my father died is the fact that she has a sick friend and she decides to take her in and take care of her. And suddenly she has this purpose in life and this idea. She suddenly says to herself, “You know, my mother’s been dead for 25 years. Why am I still trying to please her? Why am I listening to her? For once I am going to do exactly what I want.” And to me one of the really interesting things is that, although my parents, I think, had a very loving marriage, the only times in my mother’s life when she’s truly happy are the times when she’s independent. It’s when she has her bookstore; it’s between her two marriages; and it’s at the end of her life, after my father has died. And in all of these times she’s dependent on her own resources and suddenly she lets herself be herself. And at the very end she just turns into this unconventional woman who takes in students … I got a note just a couple days ago from someone who said, “I was one of those people who your mother embraced.” And she said, “I’d never met an older person like her. She wore these red dresses and red bangles and she’d take me to museums and show me how to look at art. And she took me out to eat and said, ‘Anything you want.’ And once I ordered three sundaes and she said, ‘That’s fine.’” And she found a way of sort of being the kind of mother I think she really wanted to be and never permitted herself. And she found real happiness.

JULIA: Do you think if she’d become a doctor she would have been happy then?

RUTH: I think she probably would have. One of the really interesting things to me was watching her become more and more unhappy over time — watching this spirit dwindle. And I have a very strong feeling about that. My mother was finally diagnosed as bipolar and medicated. But I really think what happened was that her unhappiness changed her chemistry. There’s no question she was bipolar — she did the mania where she didn’t sleep for weeks and the depression where she went to bed and put the covers over her head. She’d read the same book over and over and over again for six months. But I really think that it was her ambition and her intelligence turned inward, into this kind of frustration that changed her chemistry and made her that way. I don’t think she was born that way. And when you read my father’s letters to her before they’re married, they’re these gorgeous letters with all of these hopes and this vision of who she is. I mean, it’s not the woman I knew. Clearly he didn’t fall in love with some woman who was bipolar. And she became it.

JULIA: Have you talked to doctors about it?

RUTH: I have not. I have to tell you though, one of the things, reading these letters that she wrote to her psychiatrist —

JULIA: Oh, he sounds like a monster.

RUTH: A monster. But a monster that apparently was fairly classic for that time, where women were infantilized so that when they went to psychiatrists, the kind of thing that’s now considered absolutely privileged information — they’re calling up and telling the husbands. And the way this doctor man talks to her – there was no question he wouldn’t have talked to her like that if she were a man. He kept saying to her, “You’re so boring. You could get better if you really tried.”

JULIA: It was really cruel. What also was fascinating to me – and you reinforce it by citing some of the advertisements – was how incredibly medicated women of that generation were. Your mother was taking Dexedrine, which was a drug I used recreationally in the ‘70s when I was acting bad. And the ads say things like, “Dirty dishes stacked up? Take some Dexedrine and feel good about washing them.” That’s unbelievable.

RUTH: Yes. And it’s all aimed at women. I mean, I don’t think they gave those drugs to men in any kind of quantity. I talk about my first mother-in-law whose husband tragically died in front of her eyes – drowned at a family reunion, leaving her with two babies. And she was just casually medicated for the rest of her life. My mother was taking lithium long before it was approved as a drug. But what’s interesting to me is that at the very end of her life, when she’s really happy, she is drug free. After having taken all of this stuff for years, one day she just says, “Enough. I’m not doing it anymore.” And she finally manages to live a happy and productive life.

JULIA: So you don’t think, toward the end of her life when she was happy, it was mania? You think it was real?

RUTH: I think it was real. I think she was slightly high, but we would all like to be slightly high.

JULIA: Yes, if I could achieve that I would love it!

RUTH: Nobody would take drugs if you could get to that point that she naturally got to.

JULIA: I know. One thing your mother wrote was that serving people is what we’re made for. Well, here you are this amazing writer and editor, a hugely productive person, and it sounds like she really instilled in you the desire to achieve what you’ve done.

RUTH: She really believed that work was important, and certainly my father got enormous pleasure from his work, and was a model for me of how – if you get the right work – it makes you happy. I mean, there was no question that he just loved, loved, loved what he did. But on top of that, one of the things that I’m most grateful to both of my parents for is that unlike so many women of my generation, I was brought up to support myself. I was never given the notion that I would marry and some man would take care of me. It never was in my worldview that I wasn’t going to have to support myself. And I think that was maybe my parents’ greatest gift to me, because I think that most women my age were brought up to believe that they could go to college but that really in the end it was going to be their husbands who were going to take care of them. And I don’t think you ever quite get over that — the notion that your work isn’t the important work. And that wasn’t a message that I got. The message I got was, “You will have a career. We don’t know what it’ll be, but you will.”

JULIA: Starkly different than, “I pray you find Mr. Right.”

RUTH: Yes.

JULIA: One of the lessons here to me, and it’s one we all live with, is the awesome power and influence that our mothers have over us – positive, negative, in between. And you’ve chosen to take a woman who’s a difficult mother in a lot of ways and turn your experience with her into a generous gift.

RUTH: Well, that for me was the big difficulty of this book. I think we decide sometime in our late teens who our parents are, and we set them in stone. And those are the people we carry with us for the rest of our lives, and who we come to terms with. So for me, giving up that person, [who was] my own invention, and meeting, as an adult, another adult — meeting my mother as not my mother, but as another woman — was terrifying.

JULIA: Has it freed you up in any way?

RUTH: I felt like I had pretty much come to some accommodation in the past. And then I had to sort of do it all over again with this book. This is without any question the hardest thing I’ve ever written. There was a point where I called my agent and said, “I can’t do this, let’s just cancel it.”

JULIA: I’m just so struck by the balance that you struck. It’s a totally honest portrait, but also incredibly loving and without anger. As a writer I know how hard it must have been to strike that balance. But it was a lovely one.

RUTH: Thank you. I mean, in the end, what I realized was that I could just let my mother tell the story. It was all there – her story was more important than any shaping of it I could do.

JULIA: How do you think of yourself as a mother?

RUTH: My son is 20 and I just think he’s the greatest guy. He really has just seemed like the greatest gift, and he has been pretty much pure pleasure from the time that he was born.

JULIA: Were you conscious of things you didn’t want to do, like being late, embarrassing him, all of those things? Or did that just come naturally?

RUTH: I think when push comes to shove you just are the parent that you are. I mean, you may want to be a better parent than you are naturally, but I don’t know that it’s all that possible. I would say, “I will never embarrass my child,” but that’s impossible too. Every parent is going to embarrass their kid one way or another.

JULIA: Fortunately for him you’re not going to poison anybody!

RUTH: No, that I am not going to do. And I was certainly very conscious of trying to never embarrass his friends with my food, to never give them anything too weird. I tried very hard to be calm and ordinary for his friends, because my mother had been so much the other way.

JULIA: I’m sure that I’m not the first person to point out the irony that you’re a food critic and a food writer and a great cook, while your mother was busy dumping Hershey’s syrup on a duck.

RUTH: Well, I think it’s no accident. When you have a mother who poisons people, you start paying real attention to everything you put in your mouth. “Is this going to kill me? Can I eat this?” You become very flavor focused.

JULIA: Well, there’s another gift your mom gave you.

RUTH: Yes she did. She gave me food – unwittingly, God knows.

JULIA: What are you going to do on Mother’s Day?

RUTH: I normally do this kind of brunch thing, but I will be on book tour this year.

JULIA: What city will you be in?

RUTH: I’m going to be in Berkeley.

JULIA: Well — inquiring minds want to know, where do you want to eat in Berkeley?

RUTH: I always want to eat at Chez Panisse. It’s just sort of home to me. It would be a perfect place to be on Mother’s Day, in fact, because I did take my mother there. And she ended up having a sort of argument with Alice [Waters, the proprietor of Chez Panisse], before I knew Alice.

JULIA: Both of them are pretty strong personalities.

RUTH: Yes. Exactly. So it would be a great place to celebrate Mother’s Day.

JULIA: I have to ask, and I know our readers will want to know — what are your favorite places to eat right now?

RUTH: Well, I am a huge fan of Momofuku Ssam Bar, and I eat there as often as I can. I also love Pearl Oyster Bar – actually it’s another place that sort of reminds me my mom, in that it’s in Greenwich Village and my mother could cook a lobster and it’s a good place for lobster. I love L’Ami Jean in Paris. I love St. John in London and Alinea and Topolobampo in Chicago. Chicago is a great place to eat now.

JULIA: So is New Orleans — you have to come visit! In the meantime, thank you so much for taking the time to do this and great luck with the book tour.

RUTH: Thank you. This really has been fun.

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