After a career setback, a foodie who fell from grace finds her voice anew.
I needed to lose everything to try something new,” Ruth Reichl is saying. From bohemian beginnings in the kitchen at an early organic co-op in Berkeley, Calif., Reichl became a pioneer of gonzo food writing in the New Journalism Wild West of the 1970s. She went on to critique the food establishment from the inside: through the ’80s and ’90s, she wore a wig as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and then the New York Times. Deploying a sharp pen, she lampooned pretensions and deflated outsized chef egos.
But a fierce resume doesn’t guarantee a soft landing.
By 2009, Reichl (pronounced RYE-shil) had hit the wall. Adrift that year in the aftermath of the shuttering of Gourmet magazine by Condé Nast, the title for which she had been editor-in-chief for a decade, she blamed herself for the loss of 65 livelihoods alongside her own. Then 61, she says, “I truly thought I would never get another job.”
Now 68, she landed in Toronto late last year for an event in support of her new book, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life. This is a journal of her reinvention, which was named as one of the best books of 2015 by dozens of newspapers and magazines around the world.
Later that day, she was greeted at George Brown College by a mix of hard-core fans who have followed her whole career, plus a new generation of food obsessives who found her on Twitter, where Reichl is a sensation (with 750,000-plus followers).
It was through Twitter’s staccato rhythms that Reichl mourned alongside Gourmet readers. The account took on a life of its own. Her signature style verges into the campy in tweet format.
My favourite: “Power still out. Storm raging. Running out of food. What can I cook with this sad cabbage?” But her little updates are addictive. I wanted to know what Reichl was cooking each day; it is obvious, but nonetheless compelling, the way she links up food emotions to the seasons, to the weather, to the small moments of life.
This is how she nails summer: “Sun splashed sky. Yellow birds dart through spray of outdoor shower. Local eggs, bright golden yolks, tangled with green garlic. Happy.”
Well now I am, too!
Reichl retreated to her country home in Hudson Valley, N.Y., that fall of 2009 (worried she may not be able to afford to keep the property, post-Gourmet). She cooked her way out of her funk, watching the seasons swirl by outside her kitchen window and finding joy in feeding herself and her husband, veteran news producer Michael Singer, three meals a day.
She reconnected with local farmers and producers and lived the simple farm-to-table philosophy that defines this decade.
As she told PBS: “Cooking for me is a real meditation, that if you allow yourself to be in the process, instead of worrying about the results, I’m going to get dinner on the table, but if you stand here and you come, smell—I mean, the scent of onions and garlic when they’re cooking in a little bit of olive oil is—it’s a wonderful scent. Just feel—I mean, just the feel of doing this, the sound, if you pay attention to these things, you go into it and it’s very calming.”
Reichl herself came to love food despite being raised by a mother whose creations she described in 1998’s Tender at the Bone as “cat toes and rotted barley” or “antique anchovies and moldy chocolate.” She became obsessed with observing what people eat and when. “Like a hearing child born to deaf parents, I was shaped by my mother’s handicap, discovering that food could be a way of making sense of the world.”
She has hosted PBS series and appeared on Top Chef Masters, but Reichl is really the clever behind-the-scenes gal. Watch Nigella with her plummy, fleshy smile, and you feel sexier about yourself. Martha makes us feel accomplished and superior just witnessing her tick aspirational boxes. Lidia is clearly everyone’s dream Italian mom. Jamie is our best mate. But it is Reichl whom you invite onto your bedside table with you at night, to help you dream about what you will want to eat next.
I myself am such a Reichl enthusiast that, right after I interviewed her, I went on holiday (somewhat near, but not stalking-distance-near) her Hudson place and cooked from My Kitchen Year, happily looking out onto fall leaves and a first snowfall; hooked, I went back to do the same this past spring and matched that same window’s greenery to my menu.
Her chocolate cake, her congee, her turkey hash, her spicy pork ragù, all these taste better in the country air by a fireplace, just as from whence they were born. I learned to love cooking through women like Reichl, who is the anti-food snob, the self-described voice of everyman, who doesn’t have camera-ready flashy knife skills and who most importantly doesn’t cook to show off but for shared pleasure.
In other words, there is authenticity to a celebrity cook who doesn’t think of herself as a brand.
Reichl is ambivalent about her new public profile. She has been an insider at the revolution (she was pals with M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, Alice Waters and Paula Wolfert), but says she always felt like an observer. Taking photos for My Kitchen Year happened organically.
“I didn’t want a vanity project,” she says. Indeed photographer Mikkel Vang, a collaborator from her Gourmet world, spent a full second year after the writing of the book snapping offhand shots of a confident woman in slices: slender with long black hair seen from the back walking in the woods, glimpsed from the side while cheese shopping. Her real hands chop real food. The finished product looks in situ, not food-stylist perfect.
The moment she finished this book, the very same night, she took the more remarkable first step of sitting down with a glass of wine to begin writing her first novel. Delicious was released in 2014, prior to this one.
“I always said that when I didn’t have a day job, I would write a novel. Well, I had no job so I had to do it.” The novel went on to receive some tart reviews, critics citing cloying food descriptions and a Devil Wears Prada-type of airy caper plot. But as read by a fan (me), it was a terrific romp.
Reichl’s tale of reimagination has the same simple ingredients of her life spent telling universal stories: “We are all enormously difficult and have deep secrets. We have the same emotions. Sometimes you have to trust it will all be okay. There is a lesson to be learned in showing the ugly stuff.” She is roused to impassioned for the first time in a low-key, jovial hour: “Take a chance. Do something different. Don’t play it safe!”
Trust Ruth Reichl on this one. After all, she picked herself up, dusted herself off and cooked her way into her next life.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 issue with the headline, “Ruth’s Recipe,” p. 72-74.