Ruth Reichl sees ‘pivotal moment’ ahead for women

Ruth Reichl has been an influential writer and editor for four decades, including dining critic for The New York Times and editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine. She edited the 2018 edition of The Best American Food Writing, which includes several essays about harassment and sexism in the restaurant industry, following a string of her own bestselling books.

We chatted with Ruth in advance of her appearance at the FERN Talks & Eats event in Brooklyn on Oct. 1. She will be appearing on a panel to discuss the #MeToo movement, and issues of inclusion and equity in the restaurant industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You’ve written and edited stories about some of the most important issues facing women in the restaurant industry. What are you reflecting on in the lead-up to next week’s event?

[In the 1970s and ‘80s,] we all really thought that everything was going to change. I did endless articles about women chefs. And none of us really talked about the underlying issue which is what was happening to other woman working in restaurants [besides the chef]. We didn’t think enough about what it was like for people who weren’t trying to crawl their way to the top, but to just have jobs in restaurants.

I also always felt like it was my job to somehow keep men away from me while making them feel they were attractive. It was just part of the job. I never want any woman to ever feel like she has to put up with anything. And I don’t want her to feel like it’s her problem. This is a social problem. We’ve put up with it throughout human history and it is just time it stops. And it’s wonderful that there’s a generation of women now who don’t think it’s their problem [to change men’s behavior].

For those of us who have the wherewithal, it is especially our job to protect vulnerable women. The entire American food system runs on the back of very vulnerable undocumented workers. I don’t think there’s anything more important than protecting them.

What signs do you see that we’re on the right path towards protecting vulnerable workers, and making change for women?

It’s being played out on a national stage right now, we’re watching it. I don’t know if [Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett] Kavanaugh is going to be derailed or not, but if you look at the difference between what happened with Clarence Thomas and what’s happening now, it’s clear that there’s a serious change in the power that women have. They are scared out of their minds that women are going to seize this moment and come out in droves to vote. We have to make sure that we just keep pushing it and pushing it.

What is your personal stake or investment in discussing #MeToo and other social justice issues?

Oddly, my own vulnerability came much more as a writer than as someone working in restaurants. As a young freelance writer, there was just so much shit I put up with. I can’t believe it. And I really feel that we’re in a moment when we can actually make change. And it’s exciting. It really feels to me like a pivotal moment.

I have to say, when I was editing The Best American Food Writing, and I read Amanda [Cohen’s] piece, what I felt was mostly shame that I hadn’t done a better job as an editor. Why didn’t we showcase more women? We tried to, it was in the back of our mind. But I didn’t push hard enough on the gender stuff, and I’m sorry about that.

I’m proud of [what] we did at Gourmet. But we should have done more, we just should have. And we were mostly women. I want women in positions of power to be aware of their responsibilities.