Ruth Reichl talks about bouncing back from Gourmet's demise
Ready for a deep dive into the dismantling of Gourmet magazine? Ruth Reichl is ready to share.
Actually, it's more about how that dismantling uprooted the life of the magazine's former editor-in-chief, but the stories tread similar ground. That's because for the decade that she headed the iconic food magazine, Reichl represented an embodiment of the inspirational ethos that saturated Gourmet's lush pages and drew so many readers.
And when in 2009 parent company Conde Nast put that to an end, those readers — and Reichl herself — found themselves adrift. In the year that followed, Reichl's Twitter followers could glimpse snippets of what the closure meant, dispensed in lyrical 140-character missives. "Chilly gray morning. Empty day looms. I will make ma po tofu sparked with the strange prickly heat of Szechuan peppercorns."
Now Reichl has filled in the spaces between those tweets. In the just-released "My Kitchen Year," she writes evocatively of the months after Gourmet magazine was shut down after nearly 70 years. Mostly, of course, she talks about the foods she ate, and how getting back into the kitchen helped her move on.
Reichl recently spoke with AP about that year, the book it launched and the years since. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AP: What was the most difficult part of writing this book?
Reichl: I really didn't set out to write this book. It wasn't like the magazine closes and I think, "I'm going to write a cookbook." Because so much of it came so much later. Like most writers, I find writing really agonizing. But this book just felt natural. Writing this book was not agony. I had the tweets. I had the diary of what had been going on in my life. So it just happened. It was kind of like all along the way, it just kind of organically turned into a book.
AP: The tone of the book is rather grey. Yet it isn't depressing. I think that's because the recipes provide hopeful sparks. It says a lot about how you — and frankly many of us — heal.
Reichl: I really do love cooking. I know there are people who don't. I don't understand it. I love everything you can do in a kitchen. So for me it really was therapeutic. I don't know what I would have done with myself right after the magazine closed if I hadn't been able to cook. The other part of it is, I love the shopping too. The fun of going to the butcher and asking, "What would you do with this pork chop?" It'd been years since I'd really had time to do that. I'd had a serious day job for 30 years. Suddenly, I had time. It gave me a focus for my life.
AP: What do you think will surprise readers most?
Reichl: I think people will be surprised by how honest it is, that I really do talk about what a blow losing Gourmet was.
AP: Do you still get approached by readers? What do you tell them today?
Reichl: There is not a day of my life that somebody doesn't come up to me and say to me how much they loved the magazine and how much they miss it. They always ask me, "Why did it close?" And I say I don't know. I mean, sure we were in a recession and things were bad, but they were bad all over the industry. Nobody ever said to me, "We are closing it for X reason." It was just, "We're closing it."
AP: Do you think there ever will be another Gourmet?
Reichl: There may be another Gourmet, but we had the amazing privilege of working for a company that gave us all the resources we needed, the money we needed, and the freedom to do whatever we wanted. And I think that will never happen again. We were just lucky enough to be at this amazing place at a very particular time.
And the way we consume media has changed a lot. The internet has made niche publications the norm. You get a lot of passion and you have really great new publications that have all started since Gourmet — Lucky Peach, Cherry Bombe — that are really smart and done with passion. Except that they are done for a smaller group of people. They are not looking to be general.
And in the food space, a kind of wonderful thing has happened in America. When we remade Gourmet in 2000, the idea that you would cover food politics and sociology and science in a serious way was all very new. Now it's kind of come into the culture, so you don't have the same kind of need. When we were doing investigative pieces about fish farmers or the dangers of trans fats, it was not being done by mainstream publications. Now it is. And that's good.
AP: Do people have a similar connection to magazines today, the way they did with Gourmet?
Reichl: People subscribed to Gourmet for their whole lives and could tell you in great detail that they really loved some issue from 1972. I think there are a few magazines that still have that kind of pull. There are people who subscribe to The New Yorker year in and year out, whether they read it or not. But I think it's rarer and rarer. And I don't know if a new magazine will ever be able to have that same kind of grip on their readership.
Computers have changed our lives so much. We all walk around with a computer in our pocket all the time, so information is available to us 24-7. That's what's so sad to me about the closing of Gourmet. Because if you want a recipe, you can just Google anything you want. And that's partly why I wrote the cookbook. I think that what great magazines do is give people great information they didn't know they wanted. Part of what the book is about is to make you want to go out and talk to a butcher and buy a turkey. It's inspiration, rather than instructional. And I think that's what great magazines did for people.
AP: Looking back on that year, maybe even that day, anything you'd do differently? Wish you'd said?
Reichl: No, I don't. If it happened all over again, I would probably behave exactly the same way. It has been a delicious year cooking, indeed.
J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs at http://www.LunchBoxBlues.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch . Email him at email@example.com