AudioFile October-November 2015: When Gourmet magazine abruptly closed in October of 2009, editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl was as shocked as the rest of the world. Returning from a book tour, she faced the end of a life she’d loved. “I thought--what am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
Instinctively, she began “wandering around, collecting ingredients and bringing them home to her kitchen. I realized that I had not--except for holiday meals--been entertaining much or had a chance to cook or play around with recipes.” Reichl decided to give herself a pass on trying to figure out the rest of her life. “I said, ‘Ok, I’m just going to be in the kitchen for a while.’”
MY KITCHEN YEAR: 136 RECIPES THAT SAVED MY LIFE chronicles her reflections and experiences during that time. Peppered with haiku-like insights about what she was cooking (lots of comfort foods like “Hot Fudge to Soothe Your Soul” and “The Cake That Cures Everything”), along with what she was thinking about when she cooked those recipes, the cookbook offers an honest journey of self-discovery during that sometimes painful, sometimes joyful but always revelatory year.
This was not a book she ever intended to write. “I was talking to a friend, telling her I was trying to do some writing and she said, ‘Why don't you write a cookbook? You're talking about how much pleasure you're getting, and you’ve spent your whole life trying to get people into the kitchen.’” That conversation explains a lot about the 136 recipes she includes. “If I’d deliberately set out to write a cookbook, it might have been more balanced. I might have thought, ‘I need so many meat things and so many hors d’oeuvres.’ But the book really is just what I happened to be cooking that year.”
When she learned that publishers wanted to produce MY KITCHEN YEAR as an audiobook, Reichl was surprised. “I said, ‘Really? It’s a cookbook !’ But then--it made sense. I’d written the recipes very conversationally. I don’t start with a list of ingredients; they’re incorporated along with the directions, so it reads like your neighbor’s standing there and cooking with you, telling you what to do next.”
Reichl is an avid audiobook listener. “I’d bet that I’m one of Audible’s best customers.” Even at her busiest moments as editor of Gourmet , she would listen-- during her 45-minute walk to work, on the subway, or when driving. “And,” she adds, “one of the huge pleasures in my life is listening to audiobooks while cooking.”
Though she’s an experienced narrator of her own work, Reichl admits that narrating MY KITCHEN YEAR presented unique challenges. First, she woke up with a cold on the initial day of production. “We had to stop earlier than anticipated; my voice just gave out.” Then there was the challenge of reading about so much delicious, mouthwatering food. “Mics are so sensitive!” she laughs. “They catch every stomach growl!”
Like cooking, narrating requires Reichl to be “completely in the moment, to do it well. You cannot read on automatic. I have to be very conscious of each word. It’s exhausting, actually. At the end of every day, I’d used everything. Just like when I’m cooking, I was very much in that mode of ‘can’t be distracted.’”
Despite all the surprises along the way, Reichl is genuinely pleased with the end result. She takes a special pleasure from knowing that the recipes she includes in her cookbook are very usable and approachable--“not intimidating chef recipes but ones inviting to everyday cooks. We in the media have a lot to answer for,” she says ruefully. “We’ve made home cooks think they need to be chefs.”
For her part, Reichl proudly claims the title of cook. “The way I handle a knife makes every chef I know laugh!” But she believes that inviting people into your home and cooking for them is an act of both “generosity and bravery”--a willingness to display who we really are, with all our various imperfections. “But I turn out really nice meals, and I love it. I believe it’s important for people to know they shouldn’t be scared--there are always more meals ahead. One bad meal isn’t a tragedy!” She reflects for a moment. “I’m hoping to liberate people. Chefs need to shine. But cooks don’t.”--Jessie C. Grearson
Photo © Fiona Aboud
AudioFile October-November 2005: "One of my favorite things to do in the whole world is to spend a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon listening to an audiobook while I cook," says Ruth Reichl in the same warm, confiding voice with which she reads from her bestselling memoirs. "I listen to tons of audiobooks while I cook. This is for me the conjunction of my two favorite things: cooking and reading."
Now editor of GOURMET and formerly "the most important restaurant critic in the world" (read chief food critic at THE NEW YORK TIMES), Ruth is nevertheless the opposite of a snob. She came from L.A. intent on writing not just for the swells who eat weekly at Lutece but also for those who only dream about it and--perhaps most importantly--for those who scrimp for a lifetime in order to taste luxury once.
But how could this be done? "Every restaurant in town has your picture pinned to the bulletin board, next to the specials of the day," she was told on a flight East by the waitress sitting next to her, before she'd even started the job. "Forget anonymity."
Before the plane landed, though, Ruth had a plan. Sometimes she'd be Ruth Reichl, the most important, et cetera. Sometimes not. When she went to New York's famous and famously expensive Le Cirque, the owner spotted her--and she was treated like a king. The food and service were both superb. But when she went to Le Cirque disguised as Molly Hollis, a fictional schoolteacher from Michigan whose husband had made it big in strip malls, Molly found the service abysmal. The food wasn't all that great either. The review, which reported both experiences, created a furor among New York's foodies.
Having hit on the costume gambit, Ruth expanded her repertoire, taking on a variety of different outfits, wigs, and personalities. Her costumes were so convincing that they fooled her doorman, her friends, and even, sometimes, herself. Most importantly, though, she fooled the restaurants and so could be--what she'd always intended--a voice for the voiceless. You can hear that voice in the abridgment of GARLIC AND SAPPHIRES.
"I always go into it thinking, 'Oh, it's going to be terribly hard,' and then it's always fun," she says of her recording experience. "I mean, you have a perfect audience when you are doing a recording. You have these three people who are sitting out in front of you . . . rapt.
"We had blocked out three mornings from nine to one, but I don't think we ever started 'til ten, because we would sort of yak, and then we would stop and eat something. So I would guess that the whole thing probably didn't take more than eight hours. I mean, it's like anything," she says, giving a flash of her trademark optimism, "you go into it with dread. And then it's fun."
In any case, it's worth the effort. People who read her books and have also listened to them "have said that they much preferred listening to them," Ruth says. "The microphone loves me."
Ruth is not a fan of abridgments, but then her memoir is also out there at full-length, so true fans can hear Ruth herself as an aperitif and then chow down on the entire book. That's what I did.--Benjamin Cheever
Photo by Fiona Aboud
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