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Seeking her kitchen’s comforts, food writer Ruth Reichl rediscovers the awe of cooking

Ruth Reichl, one of the country's most prominent food writers, was editor of the nation's oldest food and wine magazine for a decade. Then in 2009, Gourmet was abruptly shut down by the publisher. Out of a job, what did Reichl do? She hunkered down and started cooking. She talks to Jeffrey Brown about her new book, "My Kitchen Year."

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We have all heard about the solace eating comfort food can bring. Well, now a well-known food writer gives her take on the healing powers of cooking.

    Jeffrey Brown recently helped Ruth Reichl prepare a meal in her New York City kitchen.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Spicy Tuscan kale, pork and tomatillo stew, and, yes, cake that cures everything, just some of the recipes that Ruth Reichl says saved her life and are now collected in her new book, part cookbook, part memoir, titles "My Kitchen Year."

    That year came in 2009, when "Gourmet," the nation's oldest food and wine magazine, was suddenly shut down by its publisher, Conde Nast, and Reichl's 10-year reign as editor abruptly ended. She'd been one of the country's most prominent food writers since the 1970s, as a critic at The Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and in her bestselling memoirs.

    Now suddenly jobless, what to do? She hunkered down, started whipping up recipes, and tweets about them, and gained a large new following. In her New York apartment recently, we talked about life changes and the simple pleasures of cooking.

    So, I'm getting the Tuscan kale? That's what you picked?

    RUTH REICHL, Author, "My Kitchen Year": You are — that's what I picked. You sound like a vegetable guy to me.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    OK.

  • RUTH REICHL:

    And this is one of my favorite vegetables. I love Tuscan kale. I think it's beautiful. And it's kind of emblematic of what I like about vegetables that are seasonal.

    This is very easy to work with. I mean, this is like how you — then you just pull it apart with your fingers.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. So, this is an example, and you call this, the subtitle is "Recipes That Saved My Life."

  • RUTH REICHL:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's a dramatic title there. In what sense did it save your life to come back to the kitchen?

  • RUTH REICHL:

    OK. This was a very dramatic time in my life. I was the editor of "Gourmet" magazine. And this venerable institution, I get a call one day, meet with your staff. The boss comes down and says, magazine's done. It's dead.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's over.

  • RUTH REICHL:

    Pack up your stuff, you're all going home. I was devastated. I revered this magazine. I have revered it my whole life. I never saw it coming.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You had a lot of employees as well.

  • RUTH REICHL:

    I had a lot of employees. I had more than 60 people, all of whom lost their jobs. And here was a 69-year institution that closed on my watch.

    And I felt like the world's worst failure.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So you wrote about coming back to the kitchen as the place that you retreated to, but a place that you had not been in for a while, because, like most of us, you're a busy person? What is it?

  • RUTH REICHL:

    I had always cooked.

    I wrote a cookbook when I was 21, so I started as a cook. I had a restaurant when I was in my 20s. And then I went into the world of journalism. And I would do the kind of cooking that everybody else does. At 7:00, your husband calls and says, when are we going to eat dinner? You put on your coat, you rush home, you don't even take your coat off, you start cooking dinner and you get dinner on the table.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right, which is in fact what most of us have to do.

  • RUTH REICHL:

    Which is what most people have to do.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right.

  • RUTH REICHL:

    Now I had the leisure to go in and out of stores, talk to butchers, talk to farmers, pick up ingredients I didn't know what to do with exactly, take them home and play with them.

    Cooking for me is a real meditation, that if you allow yourself to be in the process, instead of worrying about the results, I'm going to get dinner on the table, but if you stand here and you come, smell — I mean, the scent of onions and garlic when they're cooking in a little bit of olive oil is — it's a wonderful scent. Just feel — I mean, just the feel of doing this, the sound, if you pay attention to these things, you go into it and it's very calming.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You know, I think, too, about the proliferation of cooking shows and the chefs, the star chefs. But in some ways, does that teach us that things are harder, that you have to be one of those top chefs to…

  • RUTH REICHL:

    Yes. Yes.

    I feel like we in the media have a lot to answer for, because I think we have made people afraid of cooking.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Afraid of cooking? That's what I was wondering. I mean, people love those shows, but does it help them or does it in some way hurt them?

  • RUTH REICHL:

    I think, if you think you have to be a chef at home, you're instantly worried about the performative aspect of cooking, when what you should be thinking about, I think, is the adventure of cooking.

    And, you know, if you make a mistake, big deal. It's one meal. I love making bread crumbs. I mean, this is what you do with leftover bread, right? You just turn it into bread crumbs. And so I decided I wanted a little crunch in there.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I know you have said that food tells a lot about a culture, right?

  • RUTH REICHL:

    Oh, absolutely, not only about a culture, but about people.

    When I was growing up, people who came to America wanted to forget where they came from. They wanted to assimilate as quickly as possible. And so when I was going to PS41, everybody came to school with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And it didn't matter what your background was.

    Today, you look at what kids are bringing to school, and they are proudly displaying their heritage, and I think that says something very good. Yes, we're Americans, but that doesn't mean that we have to reject that place that we used to be.

    The other thing is, I mean, there was a long time when people would go to the supermarket and not want to accept the fact that that steak that was wrapped up in a piece of plastic had ever come from a living creature. And the not thinking about it meant that you also didn't have to think about the conditions in which they were raised.

    And, today, we know what it means, the difference between factory animals and animals who are humanely raised. We are really starting to understand that eating is an ethical act.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What about for you, personally? That book is "My Kitchen Year."

  • RUTH REICHL:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But it's years — it's a few years later now. You're still in the kitchen.

  • RUTH REICHL:

    I'm still — you know, I love to cook. I feel like cooking grounds me in time and space. It grounds me in the seasons. It's pure pleasure for me.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, now can we eat?

  • RUTH REICHL:

    We can eat as soon as this blini is done.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right.

    Ruth Reichl, thanks so much.

  • RUTH REICHL:

    Thank you.

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