Food For Life: How Cooking Saved Ruth Reichl
When the former Gourmet editor lost her job, she refound a sense of purpose by experimenting with recipes. Now she’s distilled the experience into a memoir.
In 2009, Ruth Reichl was on top of the food world.
From an early job cooking at a restaurant collective in Berkeley, she went on to become the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and then The New York Times. Along the way, she shared her life and food adventures in a cookbook and four juicy memoirs. Then, in 1999, Reichl earned the coveted top position at the glossy bible for foodies, Gourmet.
“Being a Condé Nast editor is a very princess job…I had no idea of the kind of luxury that you live in. I’d never experienced it before. I felt like Cinderella. For the first time in my life I didn’t worry about money,” Reichl tells The Daily Beast. “And, then, it suddenly was gone.”
She was on the road in the fall of 2009 promoting the release of a new Gourmet cookbook when she received a call from the Condé top brass: She was needed back at the office, immediately.
With no warning or fanfare, the mega-publishing company announced they were shuttering the magazine Reichl had passionately shepherded for 10 years. Her team, which had become like a family, was disbanded. And Reichl found herself 61 years old and out of a job.
So, after lots of wine with her staff, Reichl did what she always does when things go wrong: She went back to the kitchen.
“I had never not had a job since I was 16. I kind of lost myself, and it’s kind of what I always do when I’m scared,” Reichl says. “I start wandering the streets and talking to butchers and bakers and cheese people and going down to Chinatown and looking at the ingredients and bringing them back into the kitchen and cooking.”
The result is My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, an unconventional cookbook-cum-memoir that follows Reichl as she cooks her way through the next four seasons and out of the depression that followed Gourmet’s closure.
Reichl says she “see[s] the world food first,” which is evident in how she writes about it.
She has a reverence for ingredients, for flavors, for the process of cooking that she finds meditative. A unique dish or a single piece of fruit can bring back memories and emotions or help her get out of a funk and appreciate life more (a recipe for Shirred Eggs with Potato Puree includes the observation: “Each bite reminds you why you’re glad to be alive”).
Reichl’s first memoir, Tender at the Bone, was a revelation. During the days before food memoirs dotted the shelves at every bookstore, she honestly and entertainingly wrote about growing up with a love of food and a mother who suffered from mental illness. She included the recipes that shaped her childhood at the end of each section, of course.
Her mother had an adventurous palate but was a notoriously bad cook, to say the least. Expiration dates or a little mold meant nothing to her. Reichl says her earliest memory is watching her mom “scrape the blue stuff off” things she found in the refrigerator. “She literally did poison people,” Reichl says (unintentionally, of course).
“Because of that, I learned at a very, very young age—I mean, I remember doing this at like 2½—tasting things carefully,” says Reichl. “I’m not a super taster. I don’t taste better than anybody else. But my mother trained me to concentrate on flavor. You know, ‘Taste this carefully, see if it’s safe.’ And when you start with that, you become interested in flavor and you start noticing flavor nuances.”
Despite the sometimes dangerously bad results, Reichl says her mom was “intellectually interested” in food, and that her own love of food is a little bit because of, and a little bit in spite of, her.
“If she was in the market and she saw a baby goat, she would bring it home, or a cactus fruit, or sea urchins. You know, we ate grasshoppers…I think because of her, the normal disgust reaction that Americans have for unfamiliar foods I don’t have.”
Reichl followed Tender at the Bone with another memoir, Comfort Me With Apples, about her sultry affair with a fellow food writer and the resulting end of her first marriage.
She wrote her third memoir about her days as a food critic when she would don disguises and make or break restaurants with a pen. In 2010, For You Mom, Finally took a closer look at her mother’s life.
Throughout her work, it is obvious that Reichl is not only a talented storyteller, but that she also is a magnet and repository for everything food-related—stories, tips, recipes, history. Everyone she encounters—including random strangers—seem to have a favorite recipe or food story to share.
During a stop on the Gourmet book tour in December 2009 (yes, she was in the painful position of having to continue promoting a book for the company that had fired her), she writes, “an entire constellation of cooks stopped to share recipes and memories. A curator from the Smithsonian told me stories of Julia Child, a Vietnamese man brought me a bowl of pho, and a little girl shyly offered me a brownie.”
She honed this skill during her twenties living in the Lower East Side, which was still a bit dodgy, but “it was a great community.” She would pick up recipes and tips from the people waiting in line with her at Di Palo’s or Russ & Daughters.
“There was a butcher on Mulberry Street, an old Italian butcher, and I would go in there and he would spend an hour boning out lamb necks for me because it was cheaper. And, as he was doing it, he would give me recipes,” Reichl remembers. “Because they were just thrilled to have someone who was interested.”
When her reign at Conde Nast came crashing down, Reichl “was too kind of depressed and shocked still to do much work for awhile,” so she found her comfort and refuge back in the kitchen.
At the time, writing a cookbook wasn’t even remotely on her mind.
She and her husband, Michael Singer, decided to try living at their home in upstate New York during the following winter. Reichl spent much of the time holed up, often cut off from the world, cooking. She kept a kitchen journal as she tried out new recipes, and continued sending out her unique, haiku-like tweets where “[I] try and take one moment and just make a little snapshot.”
“Ice blue afternoon. No sun. No color. Even the birds are still. Thai noodles. Sweet. Spicy. Slippery. A tiny trip to the tropics.”
She found a community online that kept her connected, even when the snow cut her hilltop house off from civilization.
When the power went out before the bread she was making had a chance to take a turn in the oven, she turned to Twitter for suggestions.
The response was loud—don’t throw the dough out, just keep punching it down until the power comes back on (three days later)—and the result “was far more intense than anything I’d made before.” Reichl included additional rises in her final bread recipe.
When she had some old bananas and wanted to make the perfect banana bread, another tweet and “the outpouring of answering recipes was immediate,” she writes.
She loved the variety of suggestions—chocolate, new spices, fruits and nuts, even booze—but ended up sticking with her old, no-frills recipe.
“One of the things I missed most about Gourmet was [that] the test kitchen was such an extraordinary place. We had eight connected kitchens with 12 cooks, and any time you wanted to hear a passionate argument about food you could go down there,” Reichl says. “I loved it, and I really missed that. And, suddenly, I realized that I had it here in my own kitchen.”
Six months after Gourmet closed, Reichl headed back to New York City for a reunion.
After a former colleague asked her if she missed eating at fancy restaurants on her generous expense account, she realized she didn’t. She told him how happy she had been cooking at home, and he suggested maybe she should turn that time into a book.
The product is the delightful and intimate My Kitchen Year, which shares recipes that are “conversations, not lectures.”
Her passion radiates off the page, but she’s not too precious about the process. Far from the perfectionist cook in a spotless white apron, Reichl gets her hands dirty with casual, often entertaining recipes that tell home cooks what they really want to know.
Take her fresh pasta recipe for example: “Making pasta always reminds me of playing in the sandbox as a kid. It’s tactile, messy fun…if it looks like a big shaggy mess, you’re doing it right.”
“The one thing I really hope that this book will impart to people is that cooking isn’t hard, you shouldn’t be afraid of it,” Reichl says. “I hate this notion that every home cook thinks that they need to be a chef. You don’t, and cooking shouldn’t be a test. It should be an adventure. And if you make a bad meal…big deal.”
Since that fateful day in 2009, Reichl has published her first novel (Delicious!, and it is), and is working on her second as well as a memoir about her years at Gourmet.
Reading her cookbook is like being right there with Reichl as she grills, bakes, and boils her way out of her post-Gourmet slump. You can almost taste the delicious Cake That Cures Everything or wish you could cop an invite to her multi-day extravaganza that is Thanksgiving.
“American cookbook writers tend to be sensible people. At the very least, we attempt to create the illusion that we are sober counselors handing down sage advice,” Reichl writes.
But more than a sober counselor, Reichl is like a friend whose infectious passion will lure even the most amateur of cooks into the kitchen. She’ll pour you a glass of wine, bury her hands in the pasta dough right there with you, and egg you on to take chances, to try something new, and to savor whatever may come next.
Recipes from My Kitchen Year:
Cider-braised Pork Shoulder
8-to 9-pound bone-in pork shoulder1½ cups apple cider
3 cloves garlicsaltpepper6 large onionsvegetable oil
I love pork shoulder because it’s one of those cheap, fatty, flavorful cuts that reward the patient cook. This particular dish, which is just about the easiest way I know to feed a crowd, is mostly cooked the day before it’s served. It does, however, require a covered pot big enough to hold a hefty joint of meat.
Ask your butcher (or your farmer) for a bone-in fresh pork shoulder. Score the skin into a crosshatch pattern, cutting down through the fat to the meat. Then take a thin-bladed knife and pierce little slits all over the pork. Cut the garlic into slivers and poke them into the slits. Dry the meat well, then shower it liberally with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Cut the onions by halving them lengthwise and then ribboning them into long slices. Set them aside while you heat a couple of tablespoons of grapeseed or canola oil in a heavy pot and brown the pork on all sides. It’s not easy to turn a piece of meat this heavy, so use your most substantial fork, or two.
When the meat is browned on all sides, remove it to a platter and add the onions to the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they’re fragrant, golden, and caramelized. Stir in 1½ teaspoons of salt and the apple cider, return the pork to the pot, cover it securely, and put it into a 325-degree oven. You can forget it for the next 3 hours.
When the time’s up, remove the pot from the oven, uncover it, and allow it to cool. Put the cover back on and set the pot in the refrigerator overnight.
Two or three hours before you plan to serve dinner, take the pot out of the refrigerator and lift off and discard the solidified fat that’s risen to the top. Allow the meat to come back to room temperature, then reheat it in a 325-degree oven for another hour. By now it should be extremely tender. Lift the pork onto a platter and measure the onion-cider mixture that’s left in the pot. If it is more than a quart, bring it to a boil and let it cook furiously until it’s reduced to one quart (4 cups). Taste and add as much salt and pepper as you think it needs.
This is great with mashed potatoes and warm applesauce on the side.
(A note on the liquid measurement: both the pork and the onions release a surprising amount of liquid.)
5 heirloom apples1 lemon3/4 stick butter
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.
Mix 2/3 cups of flour with 2/3 cups of brown sugar, and 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 pat it over the top. The cooking time is forgiving; you can put your crisp into a 375 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. Served warm, with a pitcher of cream, it makes you grateful for fall.
Excerpted from MY KITCHEN YEAR: 136 RECIPES THAT SAVED MY LIFE by Ruth Reichl Copyright © 2015 by Ruth Reichl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.