The Power of Chow

It was still summer when I sat down to read Ruth Reichl’s new cookbook, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life (Random House, $35). I knew this partly because when I checked my Twitter feed that morning, Reichl herself reminded me: “So lush. So green. Plants seem to leap into welcoming air. First sour cherries, slumped onto warm buttered biscuits. Summer’s here.” Reichl, who joined Twitter in January 2009, has become famous—if not infamous—for her ongoing stream of Zen-like gustatory dispatches, described by the New York Times as follows: “Start with an encapsulation of the weather and the scene, add a reference to what you are eating and then close with a poignant reflection.” Somehow, as the Times went on to point out, this seemingly uncomplicated formula created an endless desire for more: We couldn’t get enough of Reichl’s tweets about sea urchin or strawberries or glasses of cold fresh-squeezed orange juice on frigid winter mornings. Each little summation was like a sparkly foodie snow globe, even if all she was doing was drinking coffee. We came to rely on her for a moment of calm in the chaotic Twitterverse.

I joined Twitter around the same time as Reichl did, and I remember how weird it was at first. Back then, the idea of trying to convey meaning in 140 characters seemed not only peculiar but also totally misguided. Reichl, though, immediately took to the form and made it her own, as she has done throughout her career, whether writing restaurant reviews or memoirs. At her first magazine job, she wrote what she called “essentially short stories as restaurant reviews”—a novelty at the time. When she joined the New York Times in 1993, she helped broaden the paper’s coverage beyond the usual fancy French suspects to include everything from sushi and Thai noodles to Indian curries and Korean barbecue in Queens, and wore elaborate disguises when she dined out in order to get a true impression of the places she wrote about and see them from different perspectives (as chronicled in her 2005 book, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise). Her first memoir, Tender at the Bone (1998), befuddled bookstores by defying categorization. It was a book with recipes that wasn’t quite a cookbook, and a personal narrative that wasn’t exactly a memoir, either. When you look at the ongoing flood of stories written in this form now (it seems that any tale—tragic, comic, romantic—can be bolstered with a good recipe or two), it’s clear that Reichl helped to launch a whole new genre.

But back to Twitter: It wasn’t long before Reichl acquired two hundred thousand followers, one of whom ran the parody account @RuthBourdain. The feed’s avatar and voice were a mash-up of Reichl and bad-boy restaurateur turned eminent TV personality Anthony Bourdain. Day after day, its author responded almost instantaneously to Reichl’s tweets with raunchy, hilarious mimicry. Reichl: “Good night. Hot kimchi, slicked with chilies. Smoky, sweet grilled beef in crisp lettuce. Sake. Slow stroll home down electric streets.” Ruth Bourdain: “Bad night. Hot kimchi slicked w/chilies = spicarrhea. Smoking beef in lettuce ZigZags laced w/Sake didn’t help. Streets electrified by ConEd.”

Ruth Bourdain was eventually unmasked as New Jersey–based freelance food writer Josh Friedland, but not before winning the admiration of Reichl, Bourdain, and most of the food world, as well as both a James Beard Award (a humor category was invented for the purpose) and a book deal (Reichl: Comfort Me with Apples [2001]; Ruth Bourdain: Comfort Me with Offal [2012]). Ruth Bourdain rarely tweets these days, but Ruth Reichl is still going strong. On a recent morning, this appeared in my feed: “Wind. Rain. Fog. End of world weather. Day to stay inside. Congee. Splash soy. Scattered scallion. Shredded chicken. Chile. Cilantro. Warm.” It’s a tempting, cozy little snapshot, and now, thanks to My Kitchen Year, readers can go a step beyond the daydream it evokes and actually make this meal. True to form, Reichl has again made a new kind of cookbook—or at least nudged the genre into the twenty-first century—by basing her latest recipe collection on a year of her tweets. The book is seasonal, and a similar congee recipe appears in its first section, “Fall,” introduced with a different but no less evocative tweet: “Still dark. City Glitters. Awake, alone. Comfort of congee laced with ginger: scatter of scallion, splash of soy, crunch of nut.”

A bowl of chicken congee with egg, fried shallot, and Chinese parsley.
A bowl of chicken congee with egg, fried shallot, and Chinese parsley. Sebastian Mary/Flickr

This urban congee fantasy was conjured in the fall of 2009, just after Condé Nast unceremoniously shuttered Gourmet magazine, where Reichl had been the editor in chief for a decade. Reichl was on the road promoting the magazine’s mammoth new cookbook when she got the call. Blindsided by the news, she took to Twitter: “Mysterious misty morning. Crows wheeling, cawing. Storm is on the way. Coffee black. Eggs fried. Toast burnt. Gourmet’s over. What now?”

When Reichl at last landed back home in New York, she returned to the one thing she knew would get her through. As she writes in the book’s introduction, “Compared to those of many others, my problems were small. I was in good health. I was not about to starve. But I was sixty-one years old, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever get another job. I had no idea what to do with the rest of my life and no notion of how we’d pay the bills. And so I did what I always do when I’m confused, lonely, or frightened: I disappeared into the kitchen.” Whether or not you believe that someone as talented, experienced, and well-connected as Reichl would actually have trouble finding work (indeed, she got a three-book deal almost immediately, then signed on as a judge on Top Chef Masters, an editor at large at Random House, and the editorial adviser of the now-defunct Gilt Groupe food site), she tells, as always, a gripping story. At one stop on her never-ending book tour, she stood for hours with a stack of cookbooks while shoppers “sped past in pursuit of bargain appliances. . . . I felt awkward and out of place.” Enter the congee: Finally home, “I spooned up the restorative soup.”

This, in a nutshell—or a congee bowl—is the tone of My Kitchen Year. It follows Reichl through her horrible, no-good, very bad year via the food she cooked to make herself feel better. These autobiographical passages dovetail with the ruminative tone of the tweets, which function throughout like atmospheric recipe headnotes. On Thanksgiving, she awakens to make a cranberry-pecan crostata for a house full of still-sleeping guests—“Up early. Clouds lying in the valley. Wild turkey parade. Cutting butter into flour. Urgent desire for cranberry crostata”—then notes in the paragraph that comes between this and the recipe that, “in that moment, in my kitchen, I was firmly anchored in the present.” The tweets function as perfect encapsulations of each moment she wants to remember, while the little prose sections that follow them allow her to drive the point home.

Not that we need her to, particularly, as she states it clearly from the start. Beginning with her introduction, Reichl narrows in on her main theme: “I still believe, to the core of my being, that when you pay attention, cooking becomes a kind of meditation.” She comes back to this idea frequently, on Thanksgiving or while making Chinese dumplings, when she reflects: “You have to concentrate . . . because it takes a while to master the gesture of creating the thin egg wrapping and then rolling it around the filling. . . . I had to be completely in the moment while I cooked.” Things continue like this as she recovers from the shock of being pushed into a new life, and Twitter is never far from her fingertips. Looking for a good banana-bread recipe, she sends a “tweet out into the universe, hoping to connect with my community of cooks.” Though she’s amazed by the number and variety of responses, “in the end, I reverted to the recipe I’ve been using most of my life.”

My Kitchen Year, in other words, is at least partly founded on a contradiction that only someone with Reichl’s force of personality could resolve: It’s a book built on social media that nonetheless presents a single, coherent vision of how one person cooks—the opposite of a crowd-sourced recipe book like the ones recently put out by Food52 and Good magazine. It also takes something meant to be ephemeral and makes it permanent: Tweets read very differently when printed on paper and used as the backbone of a book than they do in a busy feed scrolling down a screen. Though it’s a stretch to say she’s turned them into poems, she’s certainly enshrined them in a way that shows their potential power. Her quick takes on slow moments come together to give busy people permission to take a break not just when they can fit in a yoga class, but also when they’re making dinner.

And that, of course, is what makes this book the logical next step in Reichl’s publishing career. She’s been the fairy godmother of food for years, by turns sexy and intelligent, insecure and lovable, and her devotees rely on her to translate the role and possibilities of food in our lives as the culture changes around us. There are many interesting recipes in My Kitchen Year, like duck carpaccio and bulgogi and sriracha shrimp. But there are just as many for simple comfort foods like peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, French toast, grilled cheese, and roast chicken with potatoes. We don’t really need these, but like Reichl’s Twitter feed, we want them, because they’re hers. Though My Kitchen Year is more cookbook than memoir—a reversal of Reichl’s previous work—it’s still the combination of the two that carries us along. Food, as Reichl would be the first to tell you, is always much better when you have people to share it with.

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).