The legendary food author and editor chats with Real Simple about starting over in her 60s, the joys of improvisational cooking, and why she keeps a desk drawer full of garlic.
For more than three decades, in power positions like food editor of the Los Angeles Times, chief restaurant critic for the New York Times, and editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, Ruth Reichl sat at the beating heart of the American culinary scene. Then, on a Monday morning in early October 2009, she walked into her office and learned the ride was over: Gourmet had been unceremoniously shuttered and she was without a job. Stinging from the shock and unsure of where to turn next, Reichl retreated to the place that had always been a sanctuary: her kitchen. Now, in the recently-released "My Kitchen Year"—her first cookbook in more than 40 years—Reichl chronicles those rocky, revelatory months through a collection of recipes and diary entries that are as disarming as they are delicious. We caught up by phone as she wound her way down the west coast on book tour; here, Reichl shares her must-have refrigerator staples, her passionate opinions about recipe-writing, and simple advice for raising happy eaters.
This is a cookbook packed with recipes—but it's also part memoir. Are those the kind of cookbooks you like to read?
They absolutely are. Because really, there are a million recipes in the world. If I am going to pick up a cookbook, I want to read about the person as well as the food. I want to decide if I like the person as well as the food. I like to think of cooking as a kind of conversation. And as a writer, I've always found that cooking and writing go hand in hand. When I'm blocked, I go into the kitchen—and more often than not, the cooking is the thing that opens me up.
Your recipes are written very loosely, almost casually—is that the way you want to encourage readers to cook?
Absolutely. As the food editor of the LA Times and editor of Gourmet, I spent years and years and years thinking about recipes. And I always sort of hated the idea of presenting them as a march, where you have to buy these exact ingredients, and use them in this particular order and there's no deviation. I think of recipes as a kind of partnership between the reader and the writer. I don't want them to be my recipes, I want them to be your recipes. I want them to be suggestions. It was also important to me that the recipes guide people to slow down and actually pay attention to all the wonderful sensory things that can happen in the kitchen. To stop and listen to the sound of water boiling, to hear the sizzle in the pan.
I for one really appreciated your assertion in one of the Thanksgiving recipes that "it's absurd to agonize over a turkey." Is your approach to the holiday season really that simple?
It is. Thanksgiving has become this sort of week long festival in my house and we have this huge and ever-expanding group that comes every year. But people want certain things—there are only so many deviations you can make before someone starts shouting. I always do mashed potatoes and I always make four pies. My husband, Michael wants pumpkin pie, so even though I don't love it, I make one for him. I always make a pecan pie and an apple pie. So that leaves one for me to play around with. One year at Gourmet we ran a recipe for Japanese sweet potatoes with miso butter, and they immediately became a staple because they're so easy and make a lovely savory foil to sweet dishes like cranberry sauce. But Thanksgiving is not an experimental meal. It's a moment for everyone to taste the pies they love and the stuffing they love and to remember the year before and the year before and the year before.
Are there any staples you can't live without in your fridge?
Many. First, good sweet butter. I could never go without that! Some really good soy sauce. Anchovies, miso, ketchup, mustard. Olives, capers. Michael loves this Tiptree Little Scarlet strawberry jam that is ludicrously expensive, but I think of it as one of those affordable luxuries. And lemons. My basic belief is every food needs a little touch of acid, so I tend to throw lemon juice into almost everything.
Do you have a go-to supper for times when you can't even stop to think?
Carbonara, definitely. Bacon, eggs, and parmesan are three other things I always have on hand—so if plans fall through or people show up at the house that I wasn't expecting, there's still the makings of dinner. That, plus I always have greens for a salad.
Are there any things you avoid cooking because you never seem to get them right?
Honestly, I can't think of anything. I think my instinct would be if I really couldn't get it right, to keep trying until I did. And I'm not into fussy food, so I don't try a ton of terribly difficult things. I'm not likely to try glove boning a chicken!
You seem to have a such an ease in the kitchen and a generous urge to feed people. I'm curious: how do you deal with picky eaters or guests with dietary restrictions?
I may be blessed or maybe people just don't tell me, but except for the one time my son had a vegan girlfriend, I haven't encountered a whole lot of food restrictions. Getting around meat is really easy; lacto-ovo-vegetarians are a bit harder because cooking without eggs or dairy can be challenging. But I can't remember anyone who's ever come to my house and said "I don't eat gluten."
Lucky you! Though actually, while I would happily eat gluten three meals a day, one of the first things that caught my eye in your new book was a recipe for chicken dumplings in egg wrappers—which sound amazing and happen to be gluten-free, right?
They are amazing. It takes a little bit to master that gesture of rolling the egg wrapping around the filling, but once you get the hang of it the dumplings are so great, so delicious and so simple. And truthfully, even if you don't wrap them beautifully, they're still fabulous.
You've become known for your haiku-like tweets, which are always so sensual and seasonal. What are the tastes and ingredients that inspire you this time of year? What will you be cooking—once you're off the road, that is!
Well, this is really the most perfect time of year. I'm in Seattle right now and was at the Ballard farmers market earlier and there were these gorgeous porcinis and matsutake mushrooms and artisanal butchers with perfect cuts of pork and wonderful greens and peppers...and I wanted to buy them all. But I have nowhere to cook. It's killing me! So, I'm really hoping I'll get home when there are still nice peppers and apples with a lot of character in the market. Also, another thing I do at this time of year is buy enough garlic to see me through until February, because it really will keep and it means I don't have to buy that nasty Chinese garlic that ruins everything it touches. In fact, if there's one thing you're going to tell your readers, it should be go to their farmers market and buy a bunch of garlic and put it in their basement. Or anywhere cool and dark. I have an unheated work studio and right now I have one whole desk drawer full of garlic.
Your son is grown now. Does he cook with you? What have you hoped to impart to him about food?
I have to say that one of my happiest times was when my son, Nick, went off to college and that first year, instead of the Freshman 15, he got really thin. When I asked him about it, he said eating there was no fun because no one ever had meals, they just sort of wandered around eating whenever. So, he decided he wanted to move into a place where he could cook, not because he wanted to make his own food, but because he wanted to have a dinnertime with other people. And when I heard that I thought, "Yes! My work here is done." Because it's not about the food, it's about what happens around it.