Francis Lam: You are embarking on a book tour for a book in which you wrote about a book tour, so this is very meta. People love you for your stories. I'm sure many, many people are eagerly anticipating your next memoir about the Gourmet years. Why write a cookbook?
Ruth Reichl: This was really accidental. I did not set out to write this book.
The magazine closed and I was in a really bad way. Gourmet magazine was almost 70 years old. It closed on my watch. Sixty people lost their jobs. It was like losing an entire family overnight. I never saw it coming.
I was on book tour, so that kept me busy for a while. It was odd because it was a tour for The Gourmet Cookbook, which I didn't get a penny for. It wasn't my book, but I was contractually obligated to do it. It kept me busy for 6 weeks.
Then I came home and the reality hit me: "Oh my god, what am I going to do with the rest of my life? I'm 62 years old. I don't have a job. Who's going to hire me? And who am I?"
I'd had a day job for my whole adult life. I felt guilty and depressed. I did what I always do when I'm sad and lonely: I started cooking. It was almost unconscious. It's my happy place.
It was about 8 months later -- it was one of those Gourmet reunions where we would all gather, hug each other and talk about who was doing what. Bill Sertl turned to me and said, "You're always talking about how you wish people would go back into the kitchen. Maybe you were meant to write a book about this year."
It was like a light bulb went off over my head. I felt like I had something to say to people. One of them is cooking; when you give yourself to it, is a wonderful, healing meditation. Two, it is really important to pay attention to the little things in life.
I came from this very big life; being an editor at Condé Nast is a very princess position. Suddenly, there I was in a kitchen. I loved it. This was cooking just for the pure pleasure of it, and seeing where it ended up. There's real value in doing that.
FL: There's this really striking moment in the book where you're really upset. The thing you remember to do, or the thing you think to do, is to make these dumplings that you'd learned to make in China. The recipe sounds great -- I would love to make them -- but it sounds tricky. You have to make a wrapper out of a thin sheet of basically a very, very paper-thin omelet. Then you make the wrapper out of that. You cook it while it's already cooked.
You write in the book that it was meditative because it forced you to have to focus on that thing. I thought that was so interesting because when I cook, and if I'm making something that requires precision and requires that kind of focus, I get really upset. I think we all talk about the love of cooking, the love of working with food and putting your hands in food, and cooking for people. But for me, and I suspect for a lot of people, cooking is performance.
RR: Here's the difference between you and me. You are a trained cook. You are a chef. You went to culinary school, right? You cook differently. I'm a home cook. I have never been trained in any way. I've never taken a cooking class except from home cooks. I don't have great knife skills.
I feel like every time I cook I'm learning. Part of what I want the book to be about is giving yourself permission to make mistakes and trying things you've never tried before. Stop thinking that you have to be a chef in your own kitchen.
FL: Younger cooks are getting into cooking because they were into food -- there's this wave now of young foodies who were psyched about chefs or psyched about restaurants. Now they take that same mentality and interest in food into their own home kitchen. I feel like it's the mentality of someone who's been weaned on chef food and now feels like it needs to be perfect when they make it at home.
RR: I feel like we in the media have a lot to answer for because you don't have to be so results-oriented. You're really depriving yourself of, for me, the pleasure of cooking.
FL: I think a lot of it is because cooking and food are in what we call the "lifestyle" space in media. It's about what is this fabulous life you can aspire to?
Gray. Cool. Spring's hiding. Lace-edged fried eggs. Crisp bacon. Home-baked bread. Outside the window, bobcat prowling. Such proud beauty.
— ruthreichl (@ruthreichl) May 13, 2013
Gray. Cold. Wearing a nightgown made of crisp bacon, bread and lace-edged fried eggs. Outside the window, bobcat prowling. Such proud booty.
— Ruth Bourdain (@RuthBourdain) May 13, 2013
You have had an active Twitter account now for a number of years. Your tweets play a role in the book. You have these tweets that are well known and well parodied because like, "Oh my god, she cannot live this perfect, fabulous life all the time." Tell me about how that sort of engagement with social media has worked its way into the writing of the book.
RR: In My Kitchen Year, Twitter was incredibly important. I have always felt alone in the kitchen. One of the things I loved best about Gourmet was you had those eight connected test kitchens. You would go in there and there would be 10 passionate cooks arguing about every recipe, talking about it, "How do you make this better?"
The first time after we moved up to the country in a very bad winter, we got snowbound a lot. There would be whole days when we were really stuck alone up in that cold winter. The one way I had of being connected to the world was my phone. My iPhone still worked; I could still tweet to people.
I had just kneaded a loaf of bread when the power went out. I tweeted, "What can I do with this dough? It could be days before I get power again." People started tweeting back at me: "Just keep punching it down. Just keep punching it down." I did for three days. At the end of it, it was the best bread I've ever baked in my life. But it was the Twitter community who -- I suddenly felt like I'm not alone in my kitchen.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.