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Back to the land

Food writer Ruth Reichl to speak in Mountain View

Ruth Reichl's mother was a terrible cook. It was her childhood quest to find something edible to eat that turned Reichl into the food lover, food writer and nationally respected food advocate she is today.

As a longtime food critic for both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times and editor of Gourmet magazine, Reichl knows her way around haute cuisine and exotic delicacies, wine pairings and other gastronomic delights. Yet for her, the love of food is much more than a hedonistic pursuit. Instead, it's a deep and primal urge, a basic instinct to be well nourished and a passion for ensuring that others can be, too.

Next Monday, Aug. 31, Reichl will appear in Mountain View in conversation with Michael Krasny, host of KQED's popular and wide-ranging discussion program, "Forum." Their talk is presented by the Peninsula Open Space Trust, an organization that since 1977 has protected over 75,000 acres of undeveloped spaces, farms and parkland around the Silicon Valley. POST's annual Wallace Stegner Lectures feature speakers who address issues relating to land use, nature and conservation.

In advance of her Peninsula appearance, Reichl spoke with the Weekly about the changing landscape of American food production, the new generation of foodies and the vital importance of preserving the farmland where our food is grown.

How did you first become interested in land preservation?

When I was the editor of Gourmet, we did a piece on land trusts, and I got really interested in the notion of preserving farmland. It slides under the radar. So much of land preservation is about parks and beauty spots, but I feel strongly that one of the things we really need to do is understand how vital small farms are to us and how much we need to fight to protect them.

How did you go from being a food lover and critic to becoming such an advocate for sustainable farming?

I started as a food person, but if you follow the chain far enough, you get back to the land. You can't not. We have got to make it possible for small farms to survive. That's why land trusts are so important. It's also import for children to meet farmers, to see where their food comes from and to understand the cycle of nature and planting. Yet as we keep pushing farmers farther and farther away from population centers, that becomes harder and harder.

You have written, "Cooking once gave us the concept of the future, but cooking now threatens that future in many ways." Can you explain your reasoning?

What has happened over the course of my lifetime is that we have allowed the industrialization of food. We've gone from a place where it was possible in this country to be a poor person and still eat decently to a place where it's not. We now have children who have never seen a piece of fresh fruit, who don't know that orange juice doesn't grow in boxes. We have jerked up natural flavors so much with artificial flavoring that we have a whole generation that has lost a taste for subtle, natural flavors. We literally live in a world now where half the population is undernourished and half is overnourished.

Where do you think the change in our food production system and our attitudes about food needs to begin? In our kitchens? In our schools? In Washington? In our media coverage?

I think it has to start at home. Eating is learned behavior. There is a reason Japanese children grow up eating rice and fish for breakfast while American kids grow up eating sugary snacks. Parents have to take responsibility for the fact that, at every meal, they are teaching their children how they should eat for the rest of their lives. We have this elite thing where rich mothers puree their own organic baby food. That's nice, but it puts the bar very high for the 95 percent of the population who are pressed for time and money. There has to be something between that and sugar-laden cereals. What about making them an egg?

Any advice for families who want to change their habits but aren't sure how to start, especially if resources are limited?

The way we live is kind of crazy: Everybody is feeding their kids every night. If we could figure out some way for people to cook together, you could have four families who share a common kitchen, and you would only have to cook two days a week. It would make complete sense. It's as much work to cook for one family as it is to cook for four. The real solution is to learn to cook. If you can cook, you can make foods that are not expensive and make them really delicious and nutritious. I also happen to believe that cooking is a natural activity. If you don't know what to do with your kids, take them into the kitchen. Make some bread, and they can watch it rise. Kids love that.

Also, remember that we vote with our dollars, and it is a powerful vote. So demand that your shops sell ethically raised food. Talk about it to your neighbors. Consumerism in this case has enormous clout. You see it with the growth of the organic food movement. When I was a kid, there was an organic grocery store a few blocks from my home filled with old, brown, horrible things. Now, organic products are mainstream and really good, and prices have come down. So demand that schools pay attention to what they're serving in the lunch room and demand that they start teaching kids about food.

What is the role of pleasure in all of this?

The reason the food system is changing in this country comes straight out of our renewed interest in food. You can trace much of this to the advent of food TV and celebrity chefs. When I first started writing about food, most chefs were not educated or particularly articulate. We now have a generation of extremely articulate well-educated chefs who have been very vocal and used their fame for the public good. But if it hadn't started with the pleasure principle, we wouldn't be where we are now with farmers markets and a whole generation of kids who are very serious about food issues.

I actually hadn't thought about this before, but I think it's connected to the Silicon Valley in a really interesting way. We are now looking at the first generation who have been raised with virtual reality at their fingertips. They hunger for a reality that is real. I think that's one reason why farming is appealing to so many people in their 20s and 30s. They are opting to spend 14 hours a day glued to the land instead of the screen. I think it's a natural reaction.

What: Ruth Reichl in conversation with Michael Krasny, presented by the Peninsula Open Space Trust

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Monday, Aug. 31, 8 p.m.

Cost: $22

Info: Go to or call 650-903-6000.

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