I have loved Ruth Reichl for years. Of course as the editor of Gourmet magazine, but even more so as an author. Her memoirs Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires allowed me to delve into the world of food in a new way. An exciting way— one that would forever leave me wanting more. So when I read about Off The Page, a Random House Books event at which Ruth was the key speaker, I knew I had to attend.
I walked in, and immediately crashed into my friend Todd Rubin. Todd lived down the street from me in Marin, and seeing him across the country was completely unexpected! He is the president of The Republic of Tea, purveyor of premium teas based in Novato, California. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised… food industry influenced event and all. The reason for Todd’s guest appearance? The Republic of Tea’s latest— Apple Crisp Tea inspired by Ruth Reichl! Evidently Ruth’s publisher approached Todd to design a tea, and Todd will accompany Ruth on her book tour this fall to debut the flavor.
A conversation with Ruth and Dana Bowen, Executive Editor of Every Day with Rachael Ray and past Executive Editor of Saveur Magazine, kicked off the day. And the conversation didn’t disappoint. Early on Ruth said, “The food here in the Hudson Valley is better than anything you can get in Provence.” Wow. What an endorsement. Certainly reinforces my choice to live here, in large part because of the amazing food and produce of the region. But the followup was really what peaked my interest. She noted this “strange food time” we’re in, such that people with money have never eaten better (in the Hudson Valley, for example), but people with no money have never eaten worse. That’s a really interesting way to think about it. It’s like the disappearance of the middle class— the disappearance of decent food.
Granted in some places amazing produce isn’t widely available, but in many places money can purchase some amazing ingredients and products. Then on the other end of the spectrum you have the anti-food. This stuff is the cheapest-of-cheap crap that I can’t in my right mind call “food”. A processed product that’s filled with salt, fat, and sugar, as well as chemicals and hormones.
It made me think. And wonder what’s really going to make this situation change. Ruth's words were an inspiration once again, this time spoken at Off The Page instead of written on one.
Last month I listened to a conversation between Alice Waters and Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Blue Hill savory yogurts were served at Off The Page) and Alice said “there’s no such thing as cheap food”. She has a point. One could interpret her statement to mean that the cheap stuff isn’t really food, as I suggested a few moments ago. But I think her intended takeaway is that someone has to pay the price. Say you buy an inexpensive burger at a fast food restaurant. The workers at the restaurant aren’t making a living wage, so they’re paying for it with their extremely limited lifestyle and inability to afford good food or healthcare themselves. And you're eating meat with hormones and other unappetizing things, so you’re paying for it in the form of your health. You eat chemical and hormone laced foods now, and down the line you end up paying the healthcare company for your medical bills. So maybe it’s time that people pay for the cost of good food up front, and skip the costs down the line.
Maybe it’s awareness that we need. An influence by the brains and revolutionaries in the world like Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters. Maybe it’s what Foodstand is doing to democratize good food by reinforcing good habits, educating and inspiring those around us. Maybe it’s a political solution. Or perhaps we need to take back control from the companies that negatively influence our eating habits by shaping our eating environments. Or likely all of the above. (This last point is illustrated perfectly in Michael Pollan’s video and the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s video. Both depict the way brands and supermarkets have some control over our purchases. Watch them both— they're fantastic.)
It's an ongoing conversation. One that started before Off The Page, and one that will continue long after. But I was right— it was an event I had to attend. To see Ruth Reichl and hear her speak about the dichotomy between the two classes of eaters, something I am passionate about and address in my work everyday. And also to see my friend Todd, a reminder that human connection is ultimately one of the most important things. Maybe that's what we need more of.
The next week I received a package in the mail reminding me of the previous weekend’s Off The Page fun— a tasting packet of Apple Crisp Tea, as well as The Republic of Tea’s Matcha and Matchia tea powders from Todd! Ruth’s Apple Crisp Tea is familiar and comforting, and refreshingly not too sweet. Just like Ruth. And as of today is available for order! Just in time for fall, and the public launch of the Foodstand app in early October. Stay tuned- the conversation will continue. Perhaps over a cup of tea.