I’d barely been blogging six months in the fall of 2009, when the food world (old and new media) was shocked as Gourmet magazine was abruptly shut down by its parent company. I’d been a longtime reader of Gourmet and was deeply saddened. So many people were. Ruth Reichl, who had been the Editor in Chief for the previous ten years was no exception. All of a sudden, after an illustrious career in food with what appeared to be a solid career path, she was suddenly faced with uncertainty. As she came to terms with the news, she retreated to one place she always found peace. “I did what I always do when I’m confused, lonely, or frightened,” she writes. “I disappeared into the kitchen.”
My Kitchen Year documents what happened in the year following Gourmet’s demise. Over the course of four seasons, we see Reichl slowly heal herself through food – re-discovering the simple pleasure that is cooking and really taking the time to appreciate food all over again. She writes that when she was busy with Gourmet, she would often just “throw together” a meal for herself and or her family/ friends but in that year in the kitchen, she was able to renew her love affair with food and remember why she loves cooking so much.
I had the pleasure last month to attend an evening at George Brown College here in Toronto, listening to Reichl speak about her journey over the course of that year. Reichl is a lyrical writer and I was interested to hear her speak for the first time – would she talk like she writes? In fact, she does not. Reichl is one of the most down-to-earth “food celebrities” I have heard speak and the stories she shared with us that evening showed that she, too, despite “being Ruth Reichl” is just a regular human being, with hopes and fears and emotions. If you’ve read My Kitchen Year, you’ll know this. Reichl comes across as so normal. So approachable. Reading the book is like reading a close friend’s diary and hearing her speak was like getting together with a long-time friend (the only thing that was missing was a glass of wine and some food!).
The book itself is a little different from a regular cookbook. Reichl wanted to “talk about cooking differently” and doesn’t believe that recipes should simply be a list of ingredients and a method. If you’re used to the standard layout of recipes (i.e. ingredients listed in the order in which you use them), you might find it a little bit of a learning curve to work from this book. Ingredients are listed according to what’s a pantry “staple” and what should be on your shopping list for this recipe. I appreciate where Reichl is coming from here, but I do think the term “staple” is a little subjective so this recipe style requires a little more pre-reading and planning than others.
The book reads more like a memoir than a cookbook per-se and goes a long way to showing us the person behind the “Ruth Reichl” name. As she told us that evening, noone should be defined by their job and the book shows us the “real” Ruth Reichl . It’s a wonderful read – recipes and memories punctuated with Reichl’s tweets from that year. Her Twitter presence served a couple of purposes during that year – her tweets acted like a diary, keeping track of her activity both in and out of the kitchen that year but also, she told us, her Twitter presence helped her find her voice and connected her to the average home cook – to this day, she still loves the community aspect of Twitter.
In fact, the real Ruth Reichl shares one of my missions in life – to get people back in the kitchen and cooking. She told us when she arrived at Gourmet all those years ago, she found the recipes too difficult for the average home cook and made it her business to make them more accessible and approachable. My Kitchen Year acknowledges that most people do not slavishly follow recipes to the letter – she wanted to write recipes that spoke to this way of cooking. Once you get used to the way the recipes are written (it reminds me a little bit of when I phone my mum to ask about a recipe and she will talk me though it, punctuating it with notes and anecdotes), it may very well be freeing for you. Reichl gives you the licence to be a little creative and to make things work for you which is totally what cooking should be about.
On that note, during question time, I asked Reichl what she would teach a bunch of pretty food-savvy 7-10 year olds and she responded without much hesitation “Risotto“. I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed that she didn’t say anything more complex – after all I love to teach my boys “unthinkable” recipes in under an hour. Choux pastry, pasta from scratch, jam, bread etc… With a little forward planning, all that can be done. But when Ruth Reichl suggests that you teach your class to make risotto, well, you do. Last week, my younger cooking club, the Cooking Basics boys, made Reichl’s Risotto Primavera from her book Garlic and Sapphires (with sugar snap peas instead of asparagus). It was such a lovely lesson – we practiced chopping vegetables into same-sized pieces, measuring, pouring, stirring and most of all – patience. Bonus? They got to taste the rice along the way to “check for doneness”. The boys loved watching the different stages of the dish and couldn’t wait to taste it (to check for “done-ness”). They loved the vibrancy of the saffron and were excited to learn new cooking words (al dente). Such a peaceful and smooth session – so calm (trust me, my classes aren’t always so un-chaotic) and, as a bonus, we had the time to chat about all sort of things that had happened in the boys’ days. A great way to end the day!
When the boys were being picked up and proudly showing off their containers of risotto to anyone who would listen to them, I noticed a little bit of “wow” on many adult faces. One mum confessed to me “I would never dare make risotto, much less with my kid in the kitchen but this looks amazing.” And I realised that Ruth’s suggestion had been spot on. Risotto with 7 year-olds? It can be done. Thanks for the suggestion, Ruth. I think kids learning how to make risotto should be mandatory. It’s a life skill, right?
Disclosure: I attended Up Close and Personal with Ruth Reichl as a guest of George Brown College and received a copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes. This article has not been reviewed prior to publication and I have not received compensation for writing about the book or the event.
Canadian readers – win a copy of My Kitchen Year! Details here.
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