When Condé Nast abruptly shut down Gourmet magazine in 2009, 10 years into Ruth Reichl’s tenure as editor in chief, Reichl was as surprised as Gourmet’s readers; she hadn’t seen it coming. Shocked, reeling, and no longer sure what lay ahead for her professionally, she retreated to her country house with her husband, where she immersed herself in her writing and — as she has always done when things get tough — her kitchen.
My Kitchen Year is a beautifully illustrated cookbook, but more than that, it’s an anecdotal memoir of how Reichl coped and what she cooked for herself, her family, and her friends in the year that followed the end of the magazine. (Get the recipe for “the cake that cures everything” here.) It’s a thoughtful meditation on how the sudden loss of a beloved job can set a driven person adrift, and what it takes to get back to “normal.”
Reichl’s bestselling memoirs Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires, and For You Mom, Finally have endeared millions of readers to her writing, and countless others have come to know her through her television work, including three seasons as host of Eating Out Loud on Food Network. She has won six James Beard Awards, including for her journalism work as a restaurant critic for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Also: she’s something of a legend on Twitter, where her rhapsodic tweets about everything from the food on her plate to the weather outside have earned her a following of nearly 350,000 (not to mention a few parody accounts).
Reichl will appear in Nashville as part of the Salon@615 author series on Thursday, October 1, in conversation with Ann Patchett at the Nashville Public Library. Meanwhile, she took a moment to chat with our MUSING editor, Mary Laura Philpott, in advance of her visit. Here’s their conversation.
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First of all, I have to say your Twitter feed is a work of literary art in itself, and I’m obviously not the only person who thinks so. You were named in Time magazine’s 140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2013, and last year, The New York Times asked, “Can You Tweet Like Ruth Reichl?” Did you have any clue when you first started tweeting that you would become a Twitter star?
RR: None at all. When some friends who came to dinner discovered I’d never heard of Twitter, they signed me up. At the time I was so busy with Gourmet that I’d kind of lost touch with old friends, and I thought of it as an easy way to reach out to them. My thought was to make a little verbal snapshot every day, just to let them know what I was doing. I never thought about other people — strangers — reading my tweets, and it came as a complete shock when I found out how many people were following me.
In the acknowledgments of this book, you thank those people, calling them “all my Twitter friends.” How was the virtual presence of strangers meaningful and comforting to you when you were processing the very real news that Gourmet was shutting down?
RR: As soon as the word got out, thousands of people started tweeting their shock and grief about the loss of Gourmet. At a time of true despair, it was so comforting not to feel alone. And later, when we were in the country in a terrible winter, snow-bound without electricity, I could still get Twitter on my cell phone and it made us both feel less alone.
Readers are also able to keep up with you through your blog. What do you do there that’s different from what you do in a book?
RR: Writing a book is a long, slow process. But the blog is a way to share things that interest me; it could be recipes, or articles, or restaurants I’ve liked or maybe just some new food I’ve discovered. There’s a kind of artlessness to the form that I find appealing.
What was it like to get back to writing something more like a memoir after writing fiction? Do you prefer one over the other as a writer?
RR: If you’re referring to My Kitchen Year as memoir — this was the easiest, most natural thing I’ve ever written. I think of it with longing, because at the moment I’m struggling with the memoir of the Gourmet years. But My Kitchen Year feels like an accidental book — I didn’t really set out to write it — and it almost wrote itself. I’ve never had that experience before. But a friend suggested that maybe I should write a cookbook, and it all just came together in a very organic way.
It does feel a little like a memoir to me, maybe because of all the bits and pieces of stories you tell throughout. I adore your candor — for example when you tell readers that although the biscuit recipe in this book is the best you’ve ever tasted, it does “contain an unconscionable amount of butter.” I feel like that keeps your recipes very real and grounded. How conscious are you, as you write, that there’s a real-live person on the other end of this exchange who will be reading and making these recipes? Is there an ideal reader you have in mind?
RR: Maybe it’s my training as a restaurant critic — I was very conscious of the need to tell the truth when I was writing reviews. And so I spoke to my readers as I would to any friend. It’s the same with these recipes; I’m writing to friends.
What’s a food trend you’re tired of?
RR: Bacon in everything.
What’s a food trend you’d like to see happen?
RR: I’d like to see us start eating offal again. Tripe. Livers. Hearts. We pay lip service to the notion, but until we really start eating all of the animals we slaughter, we won’t have a sustainable food system. We’re still living way too high on the hog.
Back to social media for a moment: What are some of YOUR favorite Twitter feeds?
RR: There’s someone called @NYFarmer whom I love. I do not know this person, but according to her profile she’s a fourth generation dairy farmer, a lawyer, and a veterinarian’s assistant, and she teaches me something almost every day. I love @mylastbite — I have met Jo (but only after I was following her), and she keeps me up on what’s going on in the food world. I like @gastropoda — Regina Schrambling, who retweets fascinating articles. I follow @civileats and @tomphilpott — are you related? [MLP: I don’t think so!] — for their interesting takes on the world. And @randallgrahm because he’s so funny.
We’ll check them out. Thank you!
(Want more? Don’t miss Reichl’s interview with local cookbook author Nicki Pendleton Wood for Chapter16 / Humanities Tennessee, too!)
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TWITTER TAKEOVER: Make sure you’re following @ParnassusBooks1 as Ruth Reichl tweets her thoughts on books and bookstores from our account today under the hashtag #RuthTweets!
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