Ruth Reichl’s new book, “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life,” is both a cookbook — the first she’s written solo in 44 years — and a memoir, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Not the readers of the other books she’s written since 1971, which include three memoirs, not the viewers of her PBS shows, and certainly not any of her 330K-plus Twitter followers.
“My Kitchen Year” is exactly what the title says it is: a chronicle of Reichl’s year following the abrupt shuttering of Conde Nast’s Gourmet magazine, this country’s oldest food and wine publication, in 2009. She had been its editor for a decade. That year — spent largely holed up at her home in New York’s Hudson Valley, licking her wounds, pondering her future and cooking — became her annus horribilis.
It was also Reichl’s Year of Magical Thinking, months in which she returned to where it pretty much all began: her own kitchen. No expense accounts, limos or fancy restaurants — just her house, her family, her food.
Did the book turn out to be a coping mechanism, a survival handbook, a long object lesson? Sure, it’s all of those things. It’s also a fun read.
Of course, what you think of the book’s pages and the recipes embedded within them will depend a lot on what you think of Reichl’s tenure at Gourmet (or the New York Times, where she was food editor, or the Los Angeles Times, where she was restaurant critic and food editor). It will also depend on your opinion of her famous Twitter feed (I’ve always thought of it as a mash-up of Alice Waters and Bashō) and on your opinion of Reichl’s equally famous persona. Reichl, now 67, is one of those people who enjoys being recognized and is very good at it — ironic, of course, as she was once famous for wearing disguises to restaurants to avoid being recognized as a critic.
Good books are often mimetic, as are our readings of them. So when we read about Reichl making chicken stock during a time of duress, we might think: Oh, right, I remember doing that for about the same reason. When she writes about making congee with whatever’s in her pantry because it too is comfort food, we think: What about the arborio rice the kids like for risotto — let’s use that for breakfast.
We know that the worldview that informs the writing of “My Kitchen Year” is not ours; Carole King was not our vacation roommate, nor was Calvin Trillin a recurrent guest at our Thanksgiving table. But Reichl is skilled enough to make us feel as if we are somehow sharing that worldview — up to a point. (Of course, I’m writing this from her old office, metaphorically if not actually — the Food section has moved floors since she was here.)
Reichl’s approach to recipe writing in “My Kitchen Year” is as casual as the new life she was trying to establish for herself. “When you pay attention,” she writes, “cooking becomes a kind of meditation.” All the more so when you’re worried about being suddenly unemployed at her age. Ingredients are divided into “shopping lists” and “staples,” and the instructions are often vague and always chatty, as if you’re sitting with Reichl in her kitchen.
She assumes a certain level of accomplishment from her readers. Does “peel a few different kinds of apples, enjoying the way they shrug reluctantly out of their skins” mean just peel them? I grew up next to an apple orchard and agree that peeling apples can indeed become therapeutic, but mostly it’s not. Like her tweets — which are dropped throughout the book like epigrams — her assumptions can be maddening or liberating, depending on your own state of mind.
The same could be said about other aspects of the book. The photographs by Mikkel Vang, which were all shot in Reichl’s home, are purposefully casual and unstyled, as if you needed another clue that Reichl was cooking at home and not orchestrating feasts for Condé Nast. Thus there are beautiful shots of the dishes and market produce, of the forests and horizons and snowfall of upstate New York — and also many of Reichl herself, often in silhouette or from the back or at a distance, sometimes purposefully blurry, as if she were a woodland deer captured in transit.
The recipes are seemingly random but always personalized. The first recipe in the book, for shirred eggs with potato purée, is what Reichl made just before she learned that Gourmet was about to shutter; it’s an “omen,” but it’s also just a very good breakfast. She made “Easy ‘Bolognese” with friends — including chef Nancy Silverton — who gathered in the wake of that shuttering. A recipe for roasted winter strawberries with ice cream is included because Reichl came to Los Angeles in January 2010 — a few months after the Gourmet announcement — and went to the Hollywood Farmers Market.
At the end of “My Kitchen Year,” Reichl has finished her post-Gourmet narrative. She’s starting to write her first novel (2014’s “Delicious!”) and cooking and washing the dishes. This image of her hands plunged into the warm water is, fittingly, the last of the book. The last recipe has been written and the last meal, a quick supper for her and her husband, is over —at least until she wanders into the kitchen and decides to cook the next one. For us? For her son? For Trillin? Why not.