American cooks are still mourning Gourmet magazine.
“It’s been six years, and there’s not one day of my life that somebody doesn’t come up to me and say, ‘I miss that magazine,’” says Ruth Reichl, the New York City native who, during 10 years as editor-in-chief, had pushed the oldest epicurean magazine in the country to new heights before Conde Nast unexpectedly closed it in 2009.
“It’s not that they miss anything specific; they miss the idea of it. It was a way for people to define themselves,” she says.
It was also a way that Reichl defined herself. When she heard the news — in the middle of promoting a new soon-to-be-bestselling Gourmet cookbook and wrapping up a 10-episode Gourmet series that would premiere on PBS just weeks later — her life ground to a halt.
After 40 years in the food business, Reichl wasn’t sure she’d get another job. She’d already been a restaurant critic at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. She’d already published memoirs about her life and career. At Gourmet, she earned critical acclaim by maintaining the magazine’s legacy of beautiful food photography and savvy-yet-attainable recipes while also publishing gritty stories that made us think, such as David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” and a series about enslaved tomato workers in Florida.
“It’s still incomprehensible to me that they gave it up,” she says, hints of that initial shock still in her voice.
That fall, after the book tour finally ended and she could curl up in her family’s farmhouse in upstate New York, the grief settled in. Losing her job was one thing. Watching her staff members lose theirs was something else entirely. She’d changed jobs plenty in her career, but never like this.
“If you always do things you know how to do, you get old very fast,” she says. “You have the choice: Am I going to do the same, safe old thing and bore myself to death, or am I going to constantly walk a tightrope, be scared to death, but feel alive?”
This time felt different. The food media world didn’t look much like the one she had started out in, in large part because food blogging and social media had changed the pace.
Taking her own advice about walking the tightrope, she’d started tweeting in the months before Gourmet closed, and now that was one of the only outlets she had, for both her creativity and connection with her community.
So she started spending even more time on Twitter, sharing 140 character updates about the food and environment around her, the colors, smells, sounds, tastes and textures saturated with emotion.
“Heading off to launch party for Adventures with Ruth. Strange feeling. The last Gourmet party ever.”
“Still dark. City glitters. Awake, alone. Comfort of congee laced with ginger; scatter of scallion, splash of soy, crunch of nut.”
“Chilly gray morning. Empty day looms. I will make ma po tofu sparked with the strange prickly heat of Szechuan peppercorns.”
Through those tweets — those singular moments frozen in ones and zeros — she confronted the fears, the loneliness, the anxiety and, even in the hardest moments, the gratitude. “I’ve always believed that the secret of life is learning to appreciate little things, but Twitter really clarified that for me,” she says. “There’s a real discipline in trying to convey information in a very terse way. For me, it turned into a language I didn’t know I spoke.”
Those seemingly innocuous tweets appear throughout Reichl’s latest book, “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life” (Random House, $35), a chronological look at the first year after Gourmet closed. She’ll be in Austin on Thursday to talk about the book, her life and career at the Paramount Theater. (There is also a VIP pre-show event with bites and drinks from local companies. You can find tickets at austintheatre.org.)
The book is a comforting read for anyone who has gone through a sudden, unexpected change and found solace by the stove.
Reichl’s own turning point came a few months later, in mid-February, “the horrid in-between season.”
She’d been cooking her way through the long winter, and in the midst of making Thai noodles for lunch, Reichl had a fleeting thought. “I’d spent too many years trading time for money. Was I better off now?” she writes. It was a fleeting thought that sneaked into her head while her brain was otherwise occupied by cooking.
Reichl was beginning to heal enough to start looking for that next step, the next risk that would both make money and lead to a different kind of fulfillment.
She cooked, wrote (and tweeted) nearly every day, and by the following year, she was the editor at Gilt Taste, an experimental, editorial-driven e-commerce site that eventually folded in 2013.
It was a failure by some measures, but not Reichl’s. “There’s nothing worse than falling on your face in public, but if you’re proud of it, it’s not a failure.”
She signed a five-book deal with Random House, publishing her first fiction book, “Delicious!,” in 2015, just a few months before “My Kitchen Year.” She’s currently working on a memoir about her time at Gourmet and two other fiction projects.
What current readers might not realize is that before Gourmet, Reichl spent nearly 20 years in newspapers. Before her famed stint as the restaurant critic at the New York Times, Reichl was a critic at the Los Angeles Times. She saw the 60-page food section and knew the paper could fill that space with more meaningful content, so she spearheaded a makeover that included more in-depth reporting.
At the New York Times, Reichl again pushed industry boundaries by writing reviews from a wider swath of restaurants and for a wider swath of diners.
Today, she thinks restaurant critics are better than they ever have been, precisely because of user-generated reviews, which provide consumer reporting and still leave plenty of space for professional critics. “The paid critics are writing what restaurant criticism should be: Not telling you how to spend your money, but giving you better tools to evaluate the restaurant with,” she says.
On the cookbook side, she can appreciate the technical, restaurant-inspired cookbooks but thinks they can have an inverse effect.
“Cooking has become a performative act, rather than something that is a pleasure,” she says. “We’ve scared people away from cooking. That if you can’t cook at some crazy level, then you shouldn’t at all. The whole point of my book is, I don’t think you should try to be a chef.”
Even as a longtime restaurant critic, she’s protective of home kitchens and the cooks who occupy that space. She pays close attention to the politics of where ingredients come from, how they are labeled and who produces them — and she wants other cooks to do the same.
“Cooks can affect real change. You can go to the grocery store and say, ‘I’m not cooking this (expletive) anymore,” she says.
That doesn’t mean cooking elaborate, complicated food. Simple food has power, too.
Reichl enjoys the intellectual food stories that appear in a variety of publications online, but it troubles her that there isn’t a print magazine targeted toward both the home cook and the thinker.
In some ways, as the last editor, she’s the keeper of everything Gourmet represented, but often that now means the physical copies, too. Readers she meets during her travels are eager to pass along old copies from the magazine’s nearly 70-year run.
When she’s not working on those upcoming books, Reichl continues to tweet small observations and appreciations just about every day and frequently blogs about some of her discoveries in those magazine issues, as well as in vintage cookbooks, at ruthreichl.com.
The platform might have changed, but the spirit of Reichl’s work remains the same: treasuring cooking and the home cooks who carry on that culture, even as the world changes at breakneck speed around them.
The Diva of Grilled Cheese
Leeks, scallions and/or shallots
1 onion (any color)
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 lb. cheddar cheese
2 slices sturdy sourdough bread
Gather a group of shallots, leeks, scallions and an onion (red, yellow or white) — as many members of the allium family as you have on hand — and chop them into a small heap. Add a minced clove of garlic. Grate a few generous handfuls of the best cheddar you can afford (Montgomery is particularly appealing), set a little aside, and gently combine the rest with the onion mixture.
Butter one side of thickly sliced bread and heap as much of the mixture as possible between the slices, butter side in. Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on the outside of the bread (this will keep it from scorching on the griddle). Press the reserved grated cheese to the outside of the bread, where it will create a wonderfully crisp and shaggy crust, giving your sandwich an entirely new dimension.
Fry on a heated griddle or in a skillet about 4 minutes a side, until the cheese is softly melted. Makes 1 sandwich.
— From “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life” by Ruth Reichl (Random House, $35)
1 (8-oz.) package very thin rice vermicelli (sometimes called rice sticks)
1/2 lb. shrimp
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup peanuts
1/2 lb. ground pork
Pinch red chili flakes
Peanut oil, for frying
Sriracha sauce and cilantro, for serving
Soak the rice noodles in hot water for about 10 minutes, or until they go limp. Drain and set aside.
Prepare your mise en place: Peel the shrimp and dry them well. If they’re big, cut them in half. Dice the whites of the scallions, and slice the green parts into confetti. Smash the cloves of garlic. Mix the sugar with the fish sauce and the white vinegar. Squeeze in the juice of 1 lime. Put the peanuts into a plastic bag and hit it with something heavy — a rolling pin works well — until the peanuts are crushed.
Assemble all of this next to the stove, along with the ground pork, the eggs and some crushed red chili flakes.
Working quickly, heat a large wok and film it with peanut oil until it shimmers. Add the shrimp, toss them just until they’re no longer transparent, and turn them onto a platter. Add a bit more oil to the wok, toss in the garlic, and stir; add the whites of the scallions, the chili flakes and then the pork, stirring until it’s no longer red. Throw in the drained noodles, give a couple more stirs, and pour in the fish sauce mixture.
Cook, at high heat, about 7 minutes, until the noodles have absorbed all the liquid. Push them aside and crack one egg into the bottom of the wok, breaking the yolk and tilting so that it forms a sheet. When it has set, mix it into the noodles, breaking the sheet into little pieces as you go, then repeat with the other egg. Toss it all about, add the shrimp and scallion greens, and toss once again. Turn onto a platter and top with crushed peanuts. Serve with lime wedges, fresh cilantro and Sriracha sauce. Serves 4.
— From “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life” by Ruth Reichl (Random House, $35)