Comfort Me With Memories A Visit with Ruth Reichl
A Visit High on a Hill with Ruth Reichl
My first recollection of Ruth Reichl was as a spy, of sorts. I had read, a few decades ago, about this phantom woman who had previously been the food editor at the Los Angeles Times and then became the restaurant critic at the New York Times, and who, in an effort to maintain her anonymity, would routinely disguise herself with wigs, makeup and other accessories to mask her identity as the person who could make or break a restaurant with a review. For a few years there, Reichl’s pen was mightier than any sword put to use in any kitchen. She went on to author numerous books like Garlic and Sapphires and Tender at the Bone and then, maybe more notably, she served as the powerhouse editor in chief of Gourmet until it was unexpectedly shuttered in 2009. But now, on a day in late fall, Reichl stood in front of me, armed with a smile and a knife, and welcomed me into her home.
Sitting high upon a shale plateau in Columbia County, dramatically overlooking the Hudson Valley, is Reichl’s contemporary home that she shares with her husband, Michael Singer. This is the place where Reichl now conducts much of her life’s work—cooking and remembering. In 2009, when Gourmet met its demise, Reichl was admittedly “devastated” by not only the loss of a magazine, which had a lengthy history before she joined but which she helped shape into a defining voice of food journalism, but also by the loss of her loyal and trusted staff, who were set out on their proverbial asses, just as Reichl was. “They were my family,” Reichl remembers, and she felt not just protective but indebted to them. Reichl has remained in close contact with many of her former staff and has watched them extend their influence into the larger world, but the experience rattled her. With such crisis came inspiration, and in 2015 Reichl published My Kitchen Year (Random House), a four-season cookbook as well as a tender meditation on grief and reflection. One page muses on the perfect fried oysters, while another page addresses the moments of solitary regret about the end of the Gourmet era.
For Reichl, she no longer misses the rush of the editorial deadline, nor the thrill of eating incognito. Instead, she is wholly in love with the act of cooking for friends and family. She equates cooking for people as providing care in the form of food. She views recipes, like the ones in her book, as “conversations” rather than “lectures” and believes that the simple act of cooking should be more of a product of expression than intended result. She likes mistakes, but honestly, her mistakes are probably no less delicious than her triumphs.