Perhaps you don’t feel sorry for Ruth Reichl. Yes, Gourmet magazine’s former editor was left jobless after Condé Nast abruptly shut the magazine down in 2007. Yet as many Americans were losing everything during that time, Reichl got a generous a severance package, was in good health, and had residences in New York City and in the upstate New York hamlet of Spencertown.
Indeed, her long career in the food world was glorious by any standard: multiply-awarded, well-compensated and highly recognized. But suddenly, all that seemed to be over.
A stunned Reichl retreated to the kitchen, jotting down what became My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life. A memoir, journal, and cookbook chronicling the year after Gourmet’s shutdown, the book is a heartfelt account of losing one’s life work, of mourning a magazine with a 69-year history, of picking up the pieces at age 61.
“I had no idea what to do with the rest of my life and no notion how we’d pay the bills. And so I did what I always do when I’m confused, lonely, or frightened: I disappeared into the kitchen.”
At first glance, My Kitchen Year is easily slotted into the glossy cookbook category. A vivacious Reichl, clad in a hot-pink shirt, graces the cover. Inside, seasonally organized recipes are illustrated by Mikkel Vang’s dazzling photos. Unabashedly rich recipes swim in cream and butter, chocolate and lobster.
Yet closer examination reveals greater depths. When Gourmet shut down, Reichl was on the road, promoting the cookbook Gourmet Today. Forced to finish the task, she was continually approached by bereaved strangers. Finally home, facing an ominously empty schedule, Reichl turns to the “Twittersphere”, encountering a group of foodies who prove a surprising source of support. In the coming months, Reichl would need it.
As colleagues begin finding jobs and moving on, Reichl remained adrift. An interview with a famously hard-driving magazine editor was a miserable experience. Plagued by nightmares of homelessness and feelings of “failure, fear, inadequacy”, Reichl sought relief at the stove.
The majority of My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life unfolds in Spencertown. Despite her anxiety at the prospect of rural living, Reichl discovers good butchers, a farmer’s market, fine cheeses. While it’s easy to sneer at the community’s evident wealth, readers are better off empathizing with Reichl’s genuine pain as she grapples with losing not only her job, but the very way she defined herself.
As winter comes, so does grief, which hits “like a wave, a physical force that knocked me back”. By February, with the holidays over, Reichl feels “the real world” has left her behind: “people were doing big things, thinking big thoughts, living big lives.”
Even as Reichl anxiously wonders what’s next—she thinks it’s the novel, Delicious (reviewed here)—we know it’s not. Reichl’s decades as a restaurant critic, writer, and editor have all led to this: the woman is a damned fine cookbook writer.
Okay, so maybe your grocery list doesn’t include Creamed Lobster on Brioche. (If it does, may I come over?) Fair enough. Most of the recipes in My Kitchen Year are appealing, simple, and call for ingredients most mortals tend to have around. Granted, none of this is diet food, but it’s clear from Vang’s photographs that Reichl, with her enviably svelte figure, has mastered the art of portion control. We are well-advised to follow her example.
Consider the Diva of Grilled Cheese, which can be made cheaply or expensively, depending on the cheese. It will be insanely delicious no matter what. After buttering your sourdough bread, piling it with cheese and sliced onion, shallot, scallion, whatever alliums you’ve got, Reichl instructs you to smear mayonnaise on the outer sides of the bread, where it will prevent scorching. Even if your sandwich scorches, as mine did, exercise restraint: this, bar none, is the best grilled cheese you will ever eat, anywhere, and the desire to immediately make and consume another will be overwhelming. Be strong.
A Gingered Applesauce Cake works beautifully with or without the accompanying Caramel Glaze. The “Easy Bolognese” really is easy, asking only for spicy sausage, canned tomatoes, and time, while the Lemon Panna Cotta epitomizes simplicity with three ingredients: lemons, cream, and sugar. Holiday recipes for Butternut Squash Soup and High-Heat Turkey assist during one of cooking’s most stressful times.
More adventurous types can try Spicy Korean Rice Sticks or Chinese Dumplings, whose delicately pleated wrappers will forever elude me. The truly brave can make French Fries, a process requiring a quart of vegetable oil. Those able to purchase banana leaves should attempt Cochinita Pibil, or spice-rubbed pork wrapped in said leaves. Banana leaves are inedible, but lend their ineffable flavor and scent to the pork as it roasts. Mine just came out of the oven. The meat is literally fork-tender.
My Kitchen Year ends on an upbeat note, with Reichl claiming to savor life in the slower lane. Were this entirely true, we might not be holding this book in our hands. Yet nobody can blame Reichl for rejecting a retirement thrust upon her rather than chosen.
If My Kitchen Year is the result of restlessness, we only reap the benefits; for in a world overflowing with cookbooks, the truly useful ones, with recipes one turns to repeatedly, are surprisingly scarce. My Kitchen Year will remind many, with a pang, they loved about Gourmet. For those who never knew it, taste the past, and understand what so many of us continue to lament.
// Notes from the Road
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