New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jul 13, 2013
It has been one of the most vexing questions facing the food world. Not who makes the best risotto, or where to forage for chanterelles, but this:
Who is Ruth Bourdain?
For three years and 2,700 tweets, an anonymous wit has used RuthBourdain — a Twitter avatar conceived as an unholy mash-up of the former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and the bad-boy TV food host Anthony Bourdain — as a sharp fork to poke fun at the pretensions of the culinary elite. The dispatches have taken pot shots at celebrity chefs, noting "Mario Batali's plump biscuits," endowing Tom Colicchio with a habit of snorting tangerine zest and teasing Thomas Keller for his saintly status in the religion of restaurants.
In response, attempts to ferret out the identity of Bourdain's creator have burned up the blogosphere. Accusations have been leveled. Wild guesses have been flung. Perhaps in an effort to flush out the truth, a new James Beard journalism prize for humor was invented and awarded to RuthBourdain. No one showed up to accept it.
But now the perpetrator has decided to come in from the cold. In a message to The this week, RuthBourdain offered an "exclusive reveal," adding, "It's going to be you or asylum in Venezuela."
Ruth Bourdain, it turns out, is Josh Friedland, a mild-mannered freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., who produces The Food Section, one of the longest-running culinary blogs on the Web. "I never thought the joke would go on so long," said Friedland, who plans to continue the tweets. "But the food world has become so ripe for satire in the time since I started it."
Few arenas of 21st-century life have so quickly become the focus of aspiration and outright obsession: the byzantine tasting menus, the competition to discover the Next Great Place, the melodramatic top-chef reality shows. And while most celebrities are subjected to satire these days, few are mocked more gleefully than the legion of chefs who can claim some level of fame, from international brand names like Gordon Ramsay to local upstarts in every city, each with an online following and a pork-butchery diagram tattooed on a forearm.
To Friedland and other parodists (including the amateurs who in recent weeks have created a YouTube subgenre of Paula Deen send-ups), these cooks and their culture offer a delicious opportunity to remind devotees that for all their passion about cooking and eating, it is all, finally, just food.
Friedland, 43, has sent Twitter messages almost daily since March 2010, when Reichl, a former Times restaurant critic, began posting a flowery, haiku-like description of her breakfast nearly every morning. Anthony Bourdain, famously combative, began reading them aloud on his Sirius radio show.
"It wasn't a huge leap to combine their voices in a funny way," said Friedland, noting that phony Twitter accounts like Fake Steve Jobs had just begun to pop up. "They are pretty much the polar opposites of culinary experience."
Here is the real Reichl writing on Twitter: "Still. Gray. Cicadas screeching. Such a mournful sound. Fragrant strawberries, just picked. Rivers of yellow cream. Color for a muted day."
And here is Ruth Bourdain, who is frequently profane, libidinous or under the influence of hallucinogens: "Foggy. Stormy. Lightning in the night. Is that asparagus tucked into your softly stirred eggs or are you just happy to see me? Brown butter me."
Over time, this slim premise has drawn more than 66,000 followers, and evolved to include the invention of new holiday drinks (turduckennog), pasta shapes (recessionini) and classifications for the food-crazed, from "curd nerds" to "Zagateers."
A few people have accurately guessed Ruth Bourdain's identity, but Friedland managed to deflect them, often changing his cellphone number, using voice-cloaking software to do radio interviews in character, and compelling editors and some reporters to sign nondisclosure agreements.
In 2011, the local-fresh-organic-food guru Alice Waters, not known for her sense of humor, announced on Twitter that she was Ruth Bourdain, sparking a fresh round of speculation.
Later that year, Robert Sietsema, the former Village Voice restaurant critic, was mistakenly outed as Ruth Bourdain at a conference of food journalists in Charleston, S.C., when Lee Svitak Dean, reporting for The Minneapolis StarTribune, said she had spotted him typing on his phone at precisely the same times that Bourdain posts were going up. She immediately posted her accusation on Twitter.
"I started looking around to see who was the likely person, who has the sort of humor you need and the big-enough ego to be Ruth Bourdain," Dean told a reporter then. "It's like playing the game of Clue."
In 2012, New York magazine casually referred to "Ruth Bourdain (aka Voice writer Robert Sietsema)" in a mention of "Comfort Me With Offal," the satirical book Friedland wrote as Ruth Bourdain and published last fall.
Told this week that the long mystery was solved, Sietsema said, "It's about time." He said that he had mildly enjoyed watching the scrum as his colleagues leapt into detective mode, but that the shock and wit of the Ruth Bourdain voice had worn thin after three years. "There's nowhere to go with the joke."
The undercover comedy routine has many precedents and imitators. In 2010, a new Toronto chef named Grant Soto hailed himself on Twitter as a "culinary legend," a fashion designer and a DJ. He bragged shamelessly about his groundbreaking restaurant, Gravitas, where he had just sourced some local owl meat. One night, he announced a staff meal of salvaged shrimp cocktails from the Costa Concordia shipwreck. The character was eventually unmasked by his creator, an aspiring screenwriter named Taylor Clarke.
On its website in April, Esquire published a long profile of renegade chef Chris Randle and his highly acclaimed restaurant Manna; hidden in the Nevada desert, it requires a helicopter ride to get to, has no website, specializes in dishes made from the breast milk of its servers and may even have served human flesh. The story was picked up by BBC Travel and a host of other websites, which hailed Manna as the best restaurant you'd never heard of (which made sense, since the story was an April Fool's Day prank by a contributing writer, Stephen Marche).
However outlandish, these parodies are just a shade past the reality of fashionable restaurants like Noma (the world-renowned Copenhagen shrine of New Nordic cooking, where birch bark meringue has been served) and Animal in Los Angeles (where each day's menu reads like a veterinarian's anatomy textbook: beef tendon, pig tail, marrow bone, veal brains). Friedland said that at first he enjoyed — even craved — using the Twitter handle to poke fun at these developments, which he had to address with a straight face in his blog. But the need to conceal his alter ego has become exhausting, he said; being unable to take credit for the work has become a hindrance, and he is ready to step into the spotlight (and, perhaps, sell a few more copies of the book).
"It was a good choice for the character not to attend the Beard awards," he said, "but would I like to have been there, getting a medal for my work? Of course."