Ruth Reichl is not wearing a disguise. I admit that part of me was hoping to meet Molly Hollis, one of the personas Reichl created (with the help of her mother’s old friend, Claudia Banks, a retired acting coach,) so as the Restaurant Critic for the New York Times, she could review restaurants anonymously. “Molly” was an unfashionable Midwestern wife as personified by Reichl in disguise wearing “a dowdy Armani suit that was three sizes too large,” and, at Claudia’s insistence, “a padded bra and two thick skirts beneath it to give me more girth,” she writes in Garlic and Sapphires her third memoir that was published in 2005.
“Actually, we auctioned off all those costumes for Share Our Strength, the charity to end child hunger in the U.S., a long time ago,” laughs Reichl. She’s Skyping with me from the terrace of a rented house in LA, where she is taking a break from her current publicity tour for My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, published by appetite Random House. Then off to Vancouver welcomed by an early spring and appearance at Barbara-Jo’s Books To Cooks and a dinner for which recipes from her new cookbook were prepared in her honor.
At 68, Ruth Reichl is the down-to-earth, boho journalist who has spent a lifetime demystifying food. She went from a decade as editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine into free-fall after Conde Nast’s iconic publication was abruptly shuttered in 2009. Ironically, Reichl was on a media tour to promote The Gourmet Cookbook at the time and humiliatingly, appeared to be the last to find out about its demise. She also finished the tour, and that says a lot about the woman, but certainly not unscathed.
Like all too many accomplished women who find themselves over a certain age and out of a job, in Reichl’s case, for the first time in 30 years, she immediately blamed herself for Gourmet’s closure under her watch, not just the recession. “I was pretty raw,” she says of trying to process what happened. “Inside I was eaten up with self-doubt and so I did what I always do when I’m confused, lonely or frightened – I disappeared into the kitchen.”
My Kitchen Year, which began as a diary, is a sensuous ode to the four seasons and healing through cooking in which Reichl’s vulnerability is palpable, as she commits herself to living full-time in her isolated country Hudson Valley home. “We had no back-up generator and a very steep driveway that we had to dig our way out of in the winter,” she laughs. “Looking back on it now, especially when the power went out, I felt like a pioneer woman that should have stayed in New York. We had major bear issues and one day, I looked out my window to see a magnificent moose on our driveway- I remember it was the beginning of Yom Kippur.”
Over the ensuing year, Reichl was even tormented in her dreams: “I’d been dreaming that I was being chased across a field by an angry army of produce. The irate ingredients of all the recipes that hadn’t worked, shook their leaves and rattled their roots as they hurled rotten fruit at my head.” Going into the kitchen that August morning, she concocted a delicious Corn Pudding that her husband, Michael adored and helped to dissuade her inner demons.
Reichl grew up in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village, New York and started cooking at age seven. She admits that unlike many Jewish women, her Mom “was a pretty terrible cook, the ‘Queen of Mold’ ” and relates the hilarious story from her first book, Tender At The Bone: Growing Up at the Table, of her mother’s recipe for ‘Everything Stew’ that included throwing in apple pie. “When I didn’t know what to do with Nick (Reichl’s son) as a kid, we always cooked together. Now that he’s at college he hates the food there and enjoys cooking for his friends and girlfriend.”
“You know, food is what connects us to everyday life,” explains Reichl, who cooks her way through Fall’s Chicken Liver Pate, Winter’s Gingered Applesauce Cake Glazed With Caramel to Spring’s Salmon With Rubarb Glaze and Cucumber Soup Laced With Lemon Verbena, Threads Of Mint in Summer. “I still love cooking with friends and family and I designed my kitchen to be the center of our home. I have a very savory palette and love Thai food – especially after spending a month in Thailand.”
The photographs by Mikkel Vang, which were all shot in Reichl’s Hudson Valley home, are deliberately rustic with no telltale signatures of a food stylist at work. Plated food melds into forests and snowfalls; Reichl’s hands chopping and stirring; Stella the cat; Reichl on long walks and blurry silhouettes that seem to evoke the slow passage of My Kitchen Year.
She is already on to other projects. Delicious, her first foray into fiction will not be her last. “I’ll write two more novels, but not necessarily with the same characters,” she says with a big smile. Garlic and Sapphires has already been optioned for a film. “You just never know,” she says buoyantly, so obviously re-vitalized by the success of My Kitchen Year. “Hollywood is crazy. Hey that’s a good name for a book!”
TOP PHOTO: Cover, Ruth Reichl, My Kitchen Year- 136 RECIPES that SAVED MY LIFE Photo credit: Mikkel Vang