My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl
Reviewed by Kurt Michael Friese
Sometimes just when we feel our lives are going along swimmingly, when our careers are on track and the future looks bright, the Fates snip a thread and everything spins out of control.
Six years ago Ruth Reichl had been the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine for ten years. Food magazines everywhere were succumbing to the onset of the Internet, but her title, a flagship of the mighty Condé Nast empire, had been the granddaddy of food and cooking periodicals for nearly 70 years. It never crossed her mind that Gourmet might shutter. Until it did.
In her new book, Reichl discusses the demise of Gourmet, how retreating to the kitchen was her salvation, and her surprising success on a then-new medium called Twitter. My Kitchen Year is part journal, part recipe collection, part compendium of tweets that read like Haiku. Random House’s great book designer Susan Turner used Reichl’s recipes and journal entries, along with the inviting photography of Mikkel Vang, to craft an alluring hybrid of Reichl’s award-winning memoir style and a seasonal cookbook.
Organized as perhaps all cookbooks should be—by season—Reichl carries us along on her year-long journey from shock and mourning to a rediscovery of the power and joy of cooking. The bombshell had struck as if it were scripted for a movie— Reichl on the other side of the country when she gets a call from her boss with merely the vague admonition that they needed her back in the office right away. The following morning, she learned right along with her staff that Gourmet was done, and that they should all clear out their desks. No explanations.
Word rocketed around the Internet, and those of us in the food writing world joined Reichl in collective shock, the deluge of support manifesting on Twitter, where Reichl replied, “Thank you all SO much for this outpouring of support. It means a lot. Sorry not to be posting now, but I’m packing. We’re all stunned, sad.” Then, despite the closure, she still felt obligated to complete the promotional tour she’d been in the middle of when the axe fell. It was ten more days before she finally woke at home, cooked a simple breakfast, and went off to the farmers’ market. She did not know it at the time, but the eggs, the coffee, the bacon, the aromas and bustle of the market had started her on a journey into nesting and comfort that would reboot her life.
With recipes like Cider-braised pork shoulder and “easy Bolognese,” she invites us along on that journey, encouraging the reader all the while to see the procedures she spells out as mere suggestions. We should make each recipe our own, just as she had, adopting each from years of stored memories until, sculpted and reshaped they were truly hers. The reader should, in turn, add a little of this, substitute that for the other thing, and see cooking not as a chore but as an expression. Since this all began as her personal journal, though, she was really telling that to herself.
Cooking is the most tangible way we have of expressing our love to our family and friends, and Reichl relearns this important lesson through ice storms and days-long power outages that test her knowledge of technique as much as her patience and sanity. But as winter finally gives way to spring, another of her tweets reads, “Sun coming up. Hawks hovering outside. Dancing in the kitchen with gnocchi and the blues. Good way to start a Sunday.”
Easter brings saffron-laced deviled eggs while “Sturdy spears of asparagus march through the market, soldiers of spring. They round me up, call my name. Yes please.” Spring welcomes summer with simple hummus, then with PB&J, then with purslane tacos. Each has a story. Each brings comfort in subtle and surprising ways.
Summer gives way as it must, and simple staples like chicken stock begin the season of “puttin’ up.” Back at Twitter, Reichl writes, “Clouds coming in. Chilly outside. In here the generous scent of chicken stock swirls through the air. A solace and a promise.” Thus Reichl’s life is saved, in four seasons, by way of work and reflection, cooking and the joys of the kitchen. Would that all such recoveries were so delicious.
Kurt Michael Friese is a chef and restaurant owner, and publisher of Edible Iowa. He lives with his wife Kim, and his dog Archie, in the rolling hills outside Iowa City.