Tuesday, November 10, 2015

My Kitchen Year

The subtitle to My Kitchen Year, Ruth Reichl’s memoir-cookbook hybrid is “136 Recipes That Saved My Life.”  Saved her life?  Wow.  What had happened to have so dramatically affected her life that it needed “saving?” you might ask.  I know I did, and I purchased it using one of those precious book gift cards that comes along every now and then when good fortune smiles.  I’m apt to hoard those cards, saving them for something that has staying power:  a cookbook, an art book, historical non-fiction…a Led Zeppelin CD.  I never make a hasty decision when using a gift card.  Even when I’ve zeroed in on a prospective choice I still mull it over a while.  One would think I’d give greater thought to an item for which I’ve actually spent hard-earned money.  But, no that is not the case.  For whatever strange reason, no.

            And so I honed in on My Kitchen Year and waited impatiently for it to be delivered, ripping open the packaging as soon as it landed on my doorstep, and I began reading it that evening.  I wanted to love it; I tried to love it.  Sadly, I don’t love it.  I just can’t bring myself to love it and here are some of the reasons why.

            Let’s begin with the physicality of the book itself as an object.  It’s a chunky-ish book, about 9-1/2” x 7 x 1-1/2, the size one might find in the hardback version of a new crime novel. There is no dust cover, but it does have a nice hardboard cover with a picture of a smiling Ruth Reichl and a good-looking gray canvas spine.  It feels heavy for its size – partly because the pages are printed on a hefty, matte paper – rather than the glossier paper that one often finds in cookbooks.  One finds that sort of paper in many cookbooks for a very good reason:  photographs of food should look temptingly glorious.  So much so that the reader runs into the kitchen, throws open the pantry, and begins to pull out ingredients, never feeling the urgency to create that particular dish until a photograph sparks an epiphany of the palate.  It pains me to say the photographs in this book are a bit lack luster – not awful.  But, oh such a missed opportunity to make them shine.

            The book itself is difficult to cook from because it does not lie flat, so if you are inclined to make the Spinach Ricotta Gnocchi you’ll either have to wrestle it into submission a with a big brick hauled in from the garden, write the recipe out by hand, or hire a butler who will submissively hold it open for you.  A shame, really, because although a bit simplistic, the ones I’ve tried are really quite good (the Shirred Eggs in Potato Puree is good enough to dream about).

            I could readily ignore these annoying technical difficulties since they do not form the true basis of my irritation with having expended a precious gift card on this book.  It is more visceral than.  It’is Ruth Reichl herself who is irritating.  Let me explain.  

For ten years Reichl was the Editor in Chief of Gourmet magazine, a wonderful publication for which I had a subscription many years running.  That is, until publisher Conde Nast (which also publishes big name magazines such as Bon Appetit, Brides, Glamour, The New Yorker, Vogue) decided to close down the magazine – literally overnight and after 69 years of publication.  Reichl recounts going back to her “huge office overlooking Times Square,” feeling miserable.  Apart from losing her job, she was also leaving what had become a “family” comprised of her co-workers.  Up to this point, I was sympathetic – empathetic even.  But then, Ruth Reichl drags the reader through 4 seasons of self-indulgent whining – with recipes.

            Suddenly finding herself unemployed, Reichl worried that she and her (obviously very loving, financially successful and unerringly supportive) husband would not be able to keep both their Manhattan apartment AND the “little country house” in upstate New York unless she was able to find another job.  Photographs of “the little country house” and the grounds upon which it sits would seem like heaven to most of us.  I would gladly have given up the New York pad, content to look out my country window at the magnificent million-dollar view.  But that is me.  Ruth, however, “entered the land of grief” (Yes, gentle readers..."land of grief") as her colleagues were beginning to find jobs and recover.  She, on the other hand, “looked into the future seeing endless empty days, incapable of imaging how my life would ever change.”  She actually insinuated she feared she would “end up alone and homeless.”  This from a woman known widely in the publishing industry, with a vast array of influential friends, a loving family, and who was already a best-selling author.  She is interviewed by Anderson Cooper; she attends Yo-Yo Ma concerts, she travels.  Still, life is bleak until one makes Cranberry-Pecan Crostata which perhaps will make it worth living - for a short period of time.  I had gotten to page 61 at this point and was tempted to throw the book against the wall…instead I read on.

            It is mid-February and Gourmet has been defunct for several months; she is feeling especially depressed.  Out there, in the “real world, people were doing big things, thinking big thoughts, living big lives.”  She felt “marginalized” and couldn’t help “thinking about the life I might be living.”  At this point, I am overcome with the sudden urge to grab this tedious woman by the shoulders, look into her eyes, and ask her, "Do you really want to think about the life you might be living?  Let me enlighten you, Ruthie.  You might be living a life in a wheelchair or one filled with the despair of poverty and ignorance.  You might be living a life where the grief you feel is not from losing your "huge office overlooking Times Square", but rather consists of the grief that comes with burying a child.  You might be living a life where there is no loving supportive husband to be your companion and friend.  Nor any dream of being lucky enough to own a "little house in the country" or anyplace else for that matter.  Or, you might be living a life filled with an unsinkable positive attitude and appreciation for how truly fortunate - even blessed - you have been."  Maybe I would have borrowed that great Cher line from Moonstruck and yelled, "Snap out of it!"  Through all this angst, she is cooking up a storm – for you see, she has a memoir-cookbook in the making – the very one for which I would expend a precious book token - and which I do not love.  And when added with all the other readers who aren't doing big things or thinking big thoughts, we will make it a little easier for you to keep that little place in upstate New York and that great Manhattan pad.  And allow you to continue to think and do "big."

            I had finally had enough. 

Ms. Reichl is a fine writer, there is no taking that away from her.  There are some very workable recipes in the book; delicious even.  And, to be fair, after a full year of soul-searching, ingredient shopping, party giving, romantic evenings with her husband, and long walks in the woods, she comes to the revelation that her life is pretty damn good after all.  Something that many of us already knew.  One wonders why it took her so long.