While the Internet archivists have preserved Ruth Reichl’s first-ever tweet in all its fumbling glory (“trying to figure out Twitter. Watching Superbowl”), the one she remembers most vividly still has a rawness to it six years later: “Gourmet’s over. What now?”
The 2009 closure of Condé Nast’s flagship food magazine has become convenient shorthand for publishing wonks bemoaning the death of print, but Reichl recalls the wreckage from the inside: the self-doubt about why the country’s oldest food publication was folding on her watch; the guilt about 60 staffers losing their jobs overnight; and the ‘holy crap’ moment of feeling suddenly rudderless at 61.
As it turns out, a lot happened next. Reichl published a novel (Delicious!) and added to her streak of best-selling memoirs; she launched and shuttered the longform-oriented Gilt Taste, where she learned about the ruthlessness of web media (“You have a year to make it, or not, and then they move on”); and she settled effortlessly into your de facto role as the grande-dame of food writing—a bridge between the bygone world of luminaries like James Beard and Julia Child (whom she knew personally), and the current era of off-the-cuff blog posts and 140-character missives about breakfast (hers happen to paradigms of the form).
For her deeply personal new cookbook, though, she returns to those dark post-Gourmet days to explore how cooking—and Twitter—became her salvation when questions like “What should we do with this $30,000 Thanksgiving-spread budget?” gave way to “What should I do with my life?” Punctuated by her famously evocative tweets, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life—out September 29 from Random House—is as much soul-bearing memoir as instructional manual, revealing how Reichl regained her bearings by making meals for herself and her family, and discovered a new community of online food obsessives to replace the cadre she left behind at Condé Nast.
“It’s almost an accidental book,” she said over the phone from her home in upstate New York. “I find writing difficult and often unpleasant. This wasn’t. This was just, ‘Okay, I’m going use the tweets and talk about what I was cooking and the backstory, and maybe it will be useful to people [to know] that this is one way to really heal yourself.”
Of course, the recipes from that therapeutic cooking frenzy are just a drop in the well of culinary memories from a life where every moment—from leaving her husband for another lover, to igniting her first major controversy as the New York Times restaurant critic—is animated by her infectious passion for food. Here, Reichl walks us through the dishes—and arguments with David Foster Wallace—that still define her approach to cooking, chronicling, and thinking about food.
Aunt Birdie’s potato salad
My mother was the world’s worst cook. I mean, my first book begins with my mother putting 26 people in the hospital with food poisoning. She was truly scary. My Aunt Birdie was not a cook either, but she made one great dish. When she showed up at our house, she always brought a jar of potato salad for my father, who loved it.
That was probably the first really delicious thing I ever tasted in my house, but the real reason Aunt Birdie is important to me is because she had a Caribbean housekeeper named Alice, who was a spectacular cook. She was this regal woman who could make a shoe taste great, and when she walked through the stores [in Washington Heights, where Aunt Birdie lived], nobody tried to give her anything but the best. She would walk into the butcher shop and say she wanted a piece of meat, and they would say, “No, no, we’re not going give you this one from the case,” and they would go in the back and bring out special cuts for her. I learned from her the power of food and the power of passion. (Photo: The Italian Fork)
When I’d just turned 13, my mother put me in a boarding school run by the French government for the children of their diplomats in Montreal. I was a Jewish girl from New York who didn’t speak a word of French, and I was suddenly in a French Catholic boarding school. I was more miserable than I can possibly describe to you. On top of that, it was a boarding school where most kids went home on Friday night and came back on Monday morning, so I was the only person in the school over the weekends, which was really weird.
About a month into the experience, one of the girls took me home with her to Ottawa. I had never met people like her parents. She used the formal term when she spoke to them, and was basically was up on the children’s floor most of the time. But the first night they invited us to eat with them. They were French and rich, and I had never seen food like that in my life. It was formal, spectacularly good French food, and her father saw me as a fellow food lover and said, “You’re going to come down and have all your meals with us.”
The second night there he ordered a chocolate soufflé for dinner because he said there is such pleasure in watching a child eat her first soufflé when she appreciates it. After that, I spent most weekends with them, and it was an education in food. And one of the things that happened was that my friend Beatrice, who had not been very close with her parents, saw that one way she could get her father’s attention was by paying attention to food. So the two of us became little food fanatics, and her father set out to delight and surprise us with every meal. They had a cook, of course, but he would order all kinds of foods just to watch our expressions change. It was an introduction not just to the world of France—I came home fluent in French—but also to a world of food, and food lovers and food people. (Photo: Romulo Yanes for Epicurious)
Grilled fish on a mountain in Crete
My first husband and I got married in 1970 when nobody got married. We basically did it so we could take back our wedding presents and go to Europe for as long as possible. That was when you could live in Europe for two dollars a day. We slept on trains and lived in hostels and ate bread and cheese.
We had a professor who had moved to Crete, and as a wedding present he invited us to come spend a month with him on the island. The deal was: I cooked for Milton, and we lived in his fabulous place in Chania. One day he said, “We’re going for a walk.” We trekked up this mountain and when we got to the top, there was a little stone hut with a porch in front. This old lady came out and she set out a plate of olive oil that was pressed from olives from her own tree. You have to understand what olive oil was in the United States in 1970: I thought I hated olive oil, and suddenly this olive oil was like ambrosia. She goes out and picks herbs and wild oregano from the hills and fields, and sprinkles it in; finds fresh tomatoes to put on a plate with onions; and brings out a loaf of freshly baked bread with a jug of wine that her neighbor has just made.
Then, she picks up a fishing rod and says, “Help yourself, I’ll be back.” She goes down the mountain and goes fishing while we sit there eating this fantastic spread. She comes back up and she’s got a string of fish, and she builds a fire over with olive branches. She brushes the fish with olive oil, sprinkles some herbs on it, and she grills it. And then for dessert we had yogurt from her own sheep.
It was for me the ‘aha’ moment where I realized I could go home to my loft on Rivington street in New York and I could duplicate this meal, but it wouldn’t be the same. It was the first time I really understood the notion of terroir in food, and it was the first time I think I had ever in my life had something that was so fresh, so completely local. (Photo: Food52)
Tom Yum Goong (Los Angeles)
Living in New York in the early ’70s was not all that pleasant if you didn’t have any money, so we moved to Berkeley. At one point we went down to L.A. and went to some little Thai restaurant in Hollywood and I ordered a bowl of soup. I had never had Thai food before and it took my head off; I thought, “Oh my God, where has this food been all my life? I love this.”
At that point, I was a restaurant critic at New West magazine, and I thought, “I wonder if this food is authentic.” It was this moment of, “I really love this food, but I have to go to Thailand. I have to find out what this food really tastes like.” So I went to every magazine that did anything about food and said I want to write about Thai food. I was trying to get enough assignments so I could afford to go to Thailand, but nobody was interested. I made the rounds and I couldn’t sell the idea to a single magazine. Not to Gourmet. Not to Bon Appetit. Not to Food & Wine. So then I thought, “Okay, I’ll go to Japan, and I bet I can get some articles on Japanese food.” And I did. I sold a ton of articles and went to Japan for a month, and then I went to Thailand and discovered the food was so much better than I had anticipated. And it was that one bowl of soup that set me off.
Back then, serious critics would say things like, “Well, I don’t know what Thai food is supposed to taste like, but I liked it.” And I realized that is not good enough. You better find out what the food is supposed to taste like; that’s something that informed my writing from then on. (Photo: templeofthai.com)
Chocolate cake for Michael
I was married to one man and in love with another—or, in love with them both, really. But when I was in the throes of “what do I do, what do I do,” Michael—who has now been my husband for 30 years—had a birthday party with 300 people at a bar in North Beach in San Francisco. I baked a chocolate cake [for the whole party], and it took six people to carry it in. It was an expression of “I love you,” and a very public declaration of my love. That was the moment that I thought, “Oh, I guess I really am going to leave my husband.”
At the time I was involved with a restaurant in Berkeley and I was catering a lot of wedding cakes, but we didn’t have the tiers and all that kind of stuff—I mean, we were Berkeley, right? So I developed a dense cake that you could stack. And then I decorated them with candy and flowers—again, Berkeley; what can I say? [Laughs.] I decorated this cake with nonpareils, beautiful black and white candies, and daisies. It was the size of a door. (Photo courtesy Ruth Reichl)
When you’re a food editor, you go through a million turkeys. Around this time [of year], every food editor in America starts thinking, “Oh, what are we going do for the 2016 turkey? What clever twist will it have?”
The biggest problem with the turkeys is you want the stuffing in the turkey. But because you have this big dense mass that’s in the middle of the bird and shielded from the meat itself, you’ve got get it up to 165 degrees just to be safe. Which means that you have to overcook your turkey. One year at the LA Times, I had the brilliant notion—you’re going to laugh—of putting the stuffing under the skin. Do you have any idea how hard it is? We tested it and it worked fine, but no sane person would do this a second time. Still, I tried to persuade the entire city of Los Angeles that this was the perfect way to cook a turkey.
I admit now that turkey’s easy; it’s not the thing you should be agonizing over at Thanksgiving. You should be worried about your gravy; you should make great stuffing; you should make great pies and great side dishes. But the high-heat turkey method is basically you crank your oven up to 450, shove the turkey in, and take it out an hour and a half later. The turkey for me is a reminder of “don’t complicate it.” Keep your eye on what’s really important. (Photo: Gourmet)
Curried tuna tartare at Le Cirque (NYC)
If I have a tombstone, it will probably say: “The king of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready.” That review [of Le Cirque] follows me around. It was a seminal moment in my career. It was only my seventh review at the New York Times, and it was an announcement to the city of New York that I was wearing disguises and would be on the readers’ side, not on the restaurant’s side.
The truth was that everyone who wrote about restaurants knew that Le Cirque was a private club that was very good to you if they knew you. For years, when I was at the LA Times, I would come to New York and people would say, “Can you take me to Le Cirque?” And I would say, “No, I’m not known there, there’s no point in going.” But when I was writing that review—looking at it from when I was in disguise, and from when I was just me and they knew I was coming—it was like two completely different restaurants.
The uproar in New York after that piece came out was huge. It was like everybody had read it and people started calling me a spy in the house of food. But it was so important to me to say, “I’m going to tell you what’s going happen to you, not what happens to the critic of the New York Times.” And more importantly, I think it made restaurants be much nicer to ordinary people for a while. They’d never know who [a customer] was going turn out to be—this old lady that you’re being so rude to might be the restaurant critic of the New York Times. (Photo: A Table at Le Cirque, Rizzoli)
Hanmura An (NYC)
Hanmura An was, I think, the second review I wrote at the New York Times. I’m a New Yorker, but I’d been in California for 20 years and New York was still very Eurocentric in its restaurants. And here I had this real love for, and interest in, Asian cuisines of all kinds. I’d been to China, Japan, and Thailand. I really respect those cuisines, and Hanmura An is a place I miss every day; I loved that restaurant. It was a perfect little soba place on Mercer Street. They didn’t do a whole lot, but everything they did was perfect. It was very much in the kaiseki style.
It was modest and you had to climb a set of stairs to get there, but I gave it three stars. Again, the uproar in New York was, “Oh my god, she’s giving three stars to little Japanese noodle joints.” My predecessor at the paper started a campaign to get rid of me, saying that I was destroying the standards that he and his predecessors had set up. It’s important to me because I then wrote serious reviews of Korean restaurants and Chinese restaurants, and I did my best to bring a level of respect to these cuisines that they hadn’t had before in New York.
I think one of the reasons that restaurant reviews are important in a daily newspaper is because it’s one way that you really represent the community. And this is why a food section is important: You cover the community in a way that other places just don’t, and you introduce people to their own city. What you need a critic to do is give you tools for experiencing restaurants in better ways: to put it in context, to point out to you things that you might not have noticed, to give you the history of that cuisine. There are lots of things that critics can do that go way beyond, you know, spend your money here or don’t. (Photo: ontheinside.info)
Lobster (David Foster Wallace)
There’s no food magazine today that would publish “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace. There just isn’t. It was a big moment because the pressure not to run that piece was huge. No advertiser wanted to be [near it]]. My publisher said people were going to cancel their subscriptions in droves; people don’t buy Gourmet magazine to read about the ethics of eating. And I said, “Well, I think they do.” So, it was a gamble. We did not anticipate, when we assigned this piece, that he was going to come back with a piece on bioethics. I’m very proud of it, but before it ran I thought, “What am I going to do if 500,000 people say cancel my subscription?” Part of it is about trusting your readers. We received hundreds of letters, but not one that said “cancel my subscription.”
I had a big argument with D.F.W. about some editorial changes in that piece. He said he was going to pull the piece, and I said to him, “Yes, you can pull the piece. Anyone will publish it, it’s brilliant. But if you want the people cooking the lobsters to read it, you’ll let us have it.” And he said, “You know, you’re right. Yours is the audience I want to be speaking to in this.” And that’s really true—you want people who are about to make a lobster dinner to think about who these creature are.
When the book came out and he had actually called it Consider the Lobster, it was another great moment because we basically named that piece. It’s a take on a M. F. K. Fisher piece [“Consider the Oyster”]. He liked it, but it wasn’t his title; it was our title. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Steak sandwich at Newark Airport
When Gourmet closed, I had been on a book tour for the Gourmet cookbook. They called me home, and so I was there standing with the staff when I found out the magazine was closing. It was a complete shock; everybody else packed up their offices, but I was contractually obligated to go back on tour for the cookbook.
I really wanted a couple of days to just collect myself before I went back on tour. I was supposed to go to Kansas City the next day, and I said to my editor at Houghton Mifflin, “Give me a couple days. I can’t do Kansas City.” And she said, “The chef has had farmers raising special chickens for months for the dinner.” I just didn’t know how to say no to that. I was really not in a good place, but I threw some stuff in a bag and went to the airport. The last thing Michael said to me was, “You haven’t eaten anything. Promise me you’ll eat something before you get on the plane.” So I’m wandering around at Newark Airport and I pick up a steak sandwich at one of those vendors. And as I go to pay for it, a woman says to me, “I loved that magazine, I’m so sorry. This one’s on me.”
It was a random act of kindness at a really bad time. And I knew it wasn’t a tribute to me, it was a tribute to the magazine and how much it meant to her. But ever since then, a steak sandwich is a reminder that there are moments in your life when a small gesture can mean a lot to someone. Her saying that to me just picked me right up; it was, “Oh, okay, I’m not a complete failure. I managed to make a magazine that meant a lot to someone, and she’s mourning it as much as I am.” (Photo courtesy Ruth Reichl)