Paul Cézanne. Still Life with Apples on a Sideboard. 1900–06. Pencil and watercolor on paper, 19 1/8 × 24 7/8" (48.6 × 63.2 cm). Dallas Museum of Art. The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection

Paul Cézanne turned me into a food writer.

But it was not for any of the reasons you might imagine.

In the late sixties, when I was a graduate student in art history, my professors were constantly dropping the names of restaurants near great monuments of art. I wrote them all down: the trattoria five minutes from Giotto’s murals in Assisi (“get the ribollita”), the bistro around the corner from Notre Dame that served fantastic choucroute, and the 500-year-old tofu specialist near Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji. And it was while studying Gustav Klimt that I first heard of Demel, Vienna’s venerable emporium of pastry.

The art historians I studied with also enjoyed deconstructing the many meals depicted in art. Together we devoured endless last suppers, along with the painted feasts of Bruegel, Vermeer, and Veronese. They discussed artists like Orozco and de Heem, who used food as both allegory and a means of illuminating ordinary life. And when one professor announced that his next lecture would be devoted to the food of Cézanne, I could hardly wait.

We walked into the room to find a slide of Cézanne’s Apples on the giant screen above our heads. “Cézanne,” the professor began, “once told a friend that fruits ‘love having their portraits done’.” We all stared up at the painting as he continued. “Cézanne also said that he wanted to ‘astonish Paris with an apple’.”

I concentrated on that image, waiting to be astonished. But hard as I tried, those apples left me cold. Cézanne’s apples, I soon discovered, were not apples; they were painted strokes on a canvas, and he did not want you to forget it. That was the point.

I understood what the artist was up to. That painting was about art, not apples. It was about the impossibility of ever making two dimensions truly resemble three. It is an interesting intellectual idea, and in the context of art history, an important one. But the more I stared at that painting, the more I began to wonder if I wanted to spend the rest of my life thinking about such things.

I left that class in a state of confusion. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, and as I walked back to my apartment, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong with me. Shouldn’t a person who planned to be an art historian appreciate Cézanne’s apples? Passing a local grocery store I noticed a fine display of Ida Reds, Arkansas Blacks, and Esopus Spitzenburgs. They were beautiful; astonishing, in fact. But I had no desire to contemplate those apples; all I wanted to do was eat them. I bought as many as I could carry, determined to transform them into something delicious.

At home I peeled the apples, listening to the seductive way they came whispering out of their skins. I sliced them and showered them with lemon juice, leaning into the citric scent. Constructing a crumble, I concentrated on the way the butter became one with the flour. And then, surrounded by the heady aroma of sugar, butter, and fruit swirling through my kitchen, I opened my notebooks and began to read.

The evidence was all there: I was looking at art but focusing on food. I was clearly not meant to be an art historian. Much as I enjoyed studying art, my true passions lay elsewhere. By the time the apples emerged from the oven, my life had changed.

I still don’t like Cézanne as much as I think I should. But I am very grateful to him. Had I not encountered his apples on an autumn afternoon in Ann Arbor, I would probably be teaching art history today.

I’d be happy enough, and yet… deep down I would be aware that my life had gone wrong.

The author as a graduate student

The author as a graduate student

Photo: Mikkel Vang

Photo: Mikkel Vang

Apple Crumble

In the early fall, when apples fill the trees, they are best served without much embellishment. Later in the year you might want to tuck them into pastry, roast them into sauce or stuff them into the mouth of a suckling pig. At this time of the year, however, less is definitely more.

A recipe this simple requires a few different varieties of excellent apples. Try for heirlooms that not only have different flavor profiles, but also react differently to heat. I like to blend apples that maintain their shape when cooked (Arkansas Blacks, Ida Reds), and some that go into a slump when they encounter heat (McIntosh, Golden Delicious).


5 heirloom apples
1 lemon
2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup brown sugar
6 tbsp unsalted butter


  1. Peel a few different kinds of apples, enjoying the way they shrug reluctantly out of their skins. Core, slice, and layer the apples into a buttered pie plate or baking dish and toss them with the juice of one lemon.
  2. Mix 2/3 cups of flour with 2/3 cups of brown sugar. Add a dash of salt and a grating of fresh cinnamon. Using two knives (or just your fingers), cut in most of a stick of sweet butter and sprinkle the mixture over the top of the apples.
  3. The cooking time is forgiving; you can put your crisp into a 375-degree oven and pretty much forget it for 45 minutes to an hour. The juices should be bubbling a bit at the edges, the top should be crisp, golden, and fragrant. Serve warm, with a splash of cream.

Ruth Reichl received a master’s in history of art in 1970, and went on to become the restaurant critic and food editor of the Los Angeles Times, the restaurant critic of the New York Times, and the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.

Cézanne Drawing, organized by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, and Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, with Kiko Aebi, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, is on view at MoMA through September 25, 2021.