When Gourmet magazine, America’s first and arguably most elegant epicurean magazine, was abruptly shut down in the fall of 2009, Ruth Reichl, its editor-in-chief for the last 10 of its 69 years, was devastated. She felt stung, and guilty that it had happened on her watch. At age 61, she also wondered who would hire her and how she would fill a future of “endless empty days.”
Reichl retreated with her husband from the bustle of Manhattan to their hilltop glass house in upstate New York, where she gradually re-discovered the restorative solace of cooking and the pleasures of a simpler life. To her surprise, she barely missed the fancy expense-account dining she had enjoyed since 1978 as a perk of her Gourmet job and her prior positions as restaurant critic for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
But Reichl is clearly not wired for the retiring life. This is a woman who needs a project. She found it when she decided to write a cookbook about her return to her home on the range. The result is My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, a book about resilience and the redemptive power of “finding joy in ordinary things” – and a welcome return to form after her recent, painfully schmaltzy novel, "Delicious!"
Like her bestsellers, "Tender at the Bone" and "Comfort Me With Apples," "My Kitchen Year" is a memoir infused with recipes, though this time the emphasis is on the recipes. (Another memoir, about her years at Gourmet, is reportedly in the works.) Yet what makes Reichl stand out among food writers isn’t the actual recipes but her appealing voice, at once confessional, informal, opinionated, and sentimental. For her, food and memory are as closely linked as in Proust.
Reichl’s recipes are more about comfort, satisfying cravings, and recreating yearned-for ethnic foods like Thai Kaho Man Gai, a chicken with rice dish more readily available in the city, than about inventing culinary novelties. Although many dishes require advanced planning for yeast to rise or meats to marinate, most are not elaborate and encourage variations. Reichl suggests that even labor-intensive tasks such as husking chick-peas for hummus lose their tedium when regarded as a labor of love or “a kind of meditation.”
With her predilection for lemons, splashes of Sriracha and other hot spices, and fistfuls of cilantro, it’s clear that Reichl likes assertive pick-me-up foods. Yet it’s her comforting cholesterol-and-calories-be-damned breakfasts, including pumpkin pancakes and peach cobbler, that are particularly appealing. About her “ethereal” yeast-raised waffles, a Fannie Farmer classic, she comments, “There are easier waffle recipes, but they’re little more than pancakes with dents.”
Forthright opinions like these add zest to Reichl’s book. Eating, she insists, “is an ethical act,” and “our food choices matter.” Despite her new budget constraints, Reichl repeatedly touts farmer’s market seasonal bounty and advises against “bedraggled” supermarket foods, including chicken livers for paté. She contrasts “the bland rubbery blob” of commercial mozzarella with the ecstasy of buffalo mozzarella, and advises you to skip her Painless Pasta for Three if you can’t get the good stuff. Similarly, gazpacho, “basically a liquid tomato salad,” is simply “not worth making with tepid pepper or sad tomatoes,” she writes.
On the other hand, who can resist James Beard’s Tomato Pie after reading this endorsement: “I would not want to write a cookbook that did not include this classic.” Stressed by entertaining? Here’s a tip: “When I’m expecting a lot of guests I always bake a simple pound cake. It’s the little black dress of the pastry world; at night you can dress it up with ice cream, fruit, or sauce, while in the morning, toasted pound cake is a promising way to start the day.”
Organized by season, "My Kitchen Year" spans Reichl’s first 12 post-Gourmet months – including a difficult, frigid winter blighted by storms and power outages and exacerbated by a long recovery from surgery after she shattered her foot while on book tour in Los Angeles. Handwritten haiku-like bulletins scattered throughout capture the mood: “White world. Snow still falling. Even the hawks have flown away. Lemon soup, bright, soothing. Somewhere the sun is shining.” Mikkel Vang’s lovely photographs of plated foods, Reichl’s hands at work, snowy or verdant landscapes, and partial views of the roaming, dark-maned author add atmosphere to the mix.
What it all adds up to is a heartening, tasty lesson in fortitude and a reminder that “Failure doesn’t last forever.” Reichl comments, “In a world filled with no, [cooking] is my yes.”
In addition to The Christian Science Monitor, Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. She also writes the Reading in Common column for The Barnes & Noble Review.