Photographs by John Rizzo.
In 2009, Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, was in a Seattle restaurant while on tour with “The Gourmet Cookbook” — the one with the green cover, foodies, not the yellow-covered one, which is from 2004 — when the manager came over to say that there was a phone call for her.
“I froze,” she remembers. “I thought something happened to my family.”
It turned out the call was from the office. But relief soon gave way to uneasiness: Ruth had to return immediately to New York for a staff meeting the next morning.
The news from the meeting was worse than her being fired. Not only was she gone, but so was the close-knit, creative staff. Gourmet — the 68-year-old magazine that she had nurtured for 10 years and that was as much a way of life as a publication — had folded. Just like that.
“‘This can’t be true. This can’t be true,’” she recalls thinking. “I felt the magazine belonged to the readers. It was a kind of death.”
Ruth is sitting downstairs at The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges on a lovely warm day, discussing the gain in loss — a theme that’s not only explored in her debut novel “Delicious” and forthcoming cookbook “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Changed My Life” (both Random House) but exemplified by their very presence. She’s just finished two days of lunches at The Inn to promote “Delicious” — now in paperback — the first events in the Literary Luncheon Series there established by actor-ceramicist (and former WAG cover subject) Carey Lowell and Holly Parmelee.
“It’s fitting that the first guest is Ruth Reichl, who is such a food star,” Carey tells the sold-out gathering on the second day.
Part of what makes Ruth a star is that authoritative palate, honed during her tenure as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and then The New York Times.
“Yesterday’s lunch was great,” she says to the ladies, and gentlemen, who lunch. “But today’s is even better. We had halibut yesterday, too, but we did not have it in this saffron sauce. Jean-Georges (Vongerichten) grows the saffron on his (Waccabuc) property and takes it out with a tweezer after it’s dried in the sun.”
The palate is accompanied by the storyteller’s gift — on the page, at the table and in front of an audience. She opens up the question-and-answer period with a funny story from her acclaimed memoir, “Tender at the Bone,” about how she became a restaurant critic while living with her first husband, the sculptor Douglas Hollis, in Berkeley, Calif., in the early 1970s. It’s a story enhanced by it being easy to imagine the young woman she was, her still striking long dark hair casually pulled back in a profusion of curls.
She had already established herself as a chef-restaurateur (the Swallow restaurant-collective) and cookbook prodigy (“Mmmmm: A Feastiary”) when she auditioned for restaurant critic of New West magazine. The second assignment to secure the post — review a fancy San Francisco restaurant. So her friends gussied themselves up in outfits from Value Village and together with Ruth, in vintage lavender, boarded Doug’s artsy van, which Ruth says was like “a rolling camera obscura.”
“It took a long time to park,” she recalls. “When we got out of the van it was like clowns piling out.”
Over dinner, her pals kept lobbing observations — which, as any self-respecting critic knows, you’re not supposed to heed, Ruth says. She turned in a “cute” piece, then later thought the better of it. But it was the ’70s, when fresh meals required a fresh journalistic approach. That she nailed the job is a foregone conclusion.
“The lesson for me… that I took to the L.A. Times and The New York Times… is I dared to do something out of the ordinary. The mantra for the rest of my life has been ‘Take a chance.’”
Ruth has been taking chances since her youth in Greenwich Village, where she grew up the daughter of a book designer, poring over the pages of “a big brown leather-covered tome with ‘The Gourmet Cookbook’ stamped in gold on the front.”
“It was the doorway to a magic land where sophisticated men sipped drinks with names like angel’s dream (brandy topped with cream) while beautiful women nibbled on truffled chicken,” she writes in the introduction to the 2004 edition of “the Book.” “I liked knowing that such things were out in the world and that people were eating them. It gave me hope that one day I too would have a chance to taste such exotic dishes.”
Ruth’s quest for exotic dishes would not only take her around the world to savor fabulous meals — like the one she had in Italy with son Nick Singer, now a filmmaker — but back in time to ancient Roman and Renaissance feasts and then to the high altar of gastronomy, the editorship of Gourmet. When the ax fell — with luxury advertising drying up during the worst recession this side of the Great Depression even as circulation was at its peak — Ruth was still not done with Gourmet. She was back on the road with the 2009 “Gourmet Cookbook” and in her office to clear it out.
Instead, an encounter with the “disappointing” complaint letters and recipe requests filed in the windowless Gourmet library led her to sit down at her office desk and imagine a series of letters from 12-year-old Lulu Swan, who seeks cooking advice during World War II from a real-life Gourmet staffer — legendary chef James Beard.
Those letters would be the roux for “Delicious,” about a food magazine editor, Billie Breslin, and how her search for Lulu leads to a deeper understanding of herself. It’s no roman à clef. For one thing, Ruth never conjures the responses from Beard, whom she knew. (The book is dedicated to the memory of Marion Cunningham, his assistant.) For another, the library at Delicious magazine is a lot nicer — a warm, Victorian affair.
It’s a tale of what’s lost, professionally and personally, and found.
“What I learned about loss is that help comes in unexpected ways. … It’s about these people finding each other and saving each other in space and time.”
The loss of Gourmet also sent Ruth back to the kitchen at the Columbia County home she shares with husband, Michael Singer, to whip up daily tweets — the ace deadline writer likes the discipline of 140 characters — and dishes like shirred eggs, potato puree and chicken liver mousse. She imagined the resulting “My Kitchen Year” as a small, meditative book with no pictures. Not so Random House, which will release it Sept. 29.
Enter photographer Mikkel Vang, who clicked away while Ruth cooked. But don’t expect the production values of Gourmet.
Says Ruth, “It’s cooking unplugged.”