Back in October 2009, Ruth Reichl was headed to Kansas City for a stop on a cookbook tour when she got word publisher Conde Nast was shuttering Gourmet, the crown jewel of food magazines.
“I was in shock. When I got to Kansas City, I was barely alive,” Reichl says in a recent phone interview. As the magazine’s editor-in-chief, she was left to carry the weight of its sudden demise: “I should have seen it coming.”
To cope with the loss of a staff that was like family and the grief that acompanies a loss of work identity, Reichl started cooking again, and wound up writing her first cookbook in 40 years: “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life” (Random House, released Sept. 29).
“I just did what I always do when I’m really frightened. I just go into the kitchen,” she says. “I literally don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had the anchor of the kitchen.”
After years of dining out at the finest restaurants as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times restaurant critic then working long hours at Gourmet, what Reichl couldn’t have predicted was that she had been given the luxury of time — to explore, cook and re-evaluate.
The process of gathering food to cook for family or friends proved equally as important as the time she spent in the kitchen. She began strolling local markets near her Hudson Valley, N.Y., home, where she struck up conversations with farmers, butchers and cheesemakers.
“We should be really proud of this artisan movement in this country,” she says, noting that it is no longer outside the realm of possibilities to stumble across such local artisanal condiments as Worcestershire or fish sauce. “It makes me really crazy that Americans refuse to embrace how great our food has become.”
Meanwhile, Reichl found unexpected refuge in her Twitter followers (now 359,000 strong @ruthreichl), and the food writer who was best known for her long-form narratives found a new muse within the 140-character tweet.
Recent examples include: “Swift clouds scud across pale sky. Wind rustles leaves. Curious deer spy on outdoor shower. Coffee. Season’s final peach. Headed to town.”
“The mountains are blue today. Chill in the air. Hot spiced cider. Tangled onions and red peppers scrambled into eggs. Autumn on the way.”
“I had initially done it at Gourmet, but I was too busy to have a long conversation with readers,” Reichl says. “I’d just send a snapshot everyday. … I found it very empowering.”
Although Reichl says she’d never try to write a recipe in a tweet, those snapshots or “word pictures” from her kitchen proved to be more than mere therapy. Many of her tweets served as chapter introductions for “My Kitchen Year,” and the recipes that followed were likewise — simple, even spare, a few simple ingredients followed by an instructional narrative.
“Of all things I’ve ever written, this was the most natural,” Reichl says.
Rethinking her glossy days at Gourmet, there are no styled photos in her latest cookbook. After all, she says, the visual landscape has radically changed in the age of Instagram, and she admits those Christmas cookies that every food magazine has been putting on its holiday covers for years are meant to be aspirational, not achievable.
Reichl and Danish-born photographer Mikkel Vang — whose Twitter bio reads simply “Image warrior” —shot the cookbook without the benefit of prop stylists, tweezer-wielding food stylists or an erector set of light stands. Instead, Vang wanted to capture Reichl as she cooked by herself at home, using her own pots and pans, with produce that was ripe and in season, and using only natural light.
Reichl also decided to break out of the confines of conventional recipe style and its inherent lack of voice. “Recipe styles are a history of where a cook is in a given moment,” she says. “I think we are now getting to a generation that is actually more conversant in the kitchen, and they are actually ready for a change of style when it comes to recipes.”
Which is not to say that Reichl went so far as to dispense with a professional recipe tester; each recipe was written out in classic format and tested for accuracy. She even considered including those more “clinical” ingredient lists at the back of the book as reference but decided against it.
“I just realized I didn’t want to encourage that in the book,” she says. “I think of my recipes not as prescriptions but as suggestions.”
Reichl’s narrative recipes are a style fans of her best-selling memoirs “Comfort Me With Apples,” “Tender at the Bone” or “Garlic and Sapphires” are sure to appreciate.
“I really wanted people to have fun with it,” she says. “I wanted to encourage people to go back into the kitchen and not be afraid.”
Food writer and editor Ruth Reichl will be in Kansas City on Saturday, Oct. 3, to promote her new cookbook during a luncheon from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Webster House Restaurant, 1644 Wyandotte St., 816-800-8820. Tickets are $70 per person and include luncheon, tax, gratuity and a hardcover copy of “My Kitchen Year.” A book signing sponsored by Rainy Day Books will follow the presentation.
THE DIVA OF GRILLED CHEESE
1/4 pound cheddar cheese
2 slices sturdy sourdough bread
1 onion (any color)
1 clove garlic (minced)
Makes 1 sandwich
Gather a group of shallots, leeks, scallions, and an onion red, yellow, or white — as many members of the allium family as you have on hand — and chop them into a small heap. Add a minced clove of garlic. Grate a few generous handfuls of the best cheddar you can afford (Montgomery is particularly appealing), set a little aside, and gently combine the rest with the onion mixture.
Butter one side of thickly sliced bread and heap as much of the mixture as possible between the slices. Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on the outside of the bread (this will keep it from scorching on the griddle). Press the reserved grated cheese to the outside of the bread, where it will create a wonderfully crisp and shaggy crust, giving your sandwich an entirely new dimension.
Fry on a heated griddle or in a skillet about 4 minutes a side, until the cheese is softly melted.
5 heirloom apples
3/4 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 cup of flour with 2/3 cup 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.