Now We’re Cookin’
Ruth Reichl, food writer, culinary editor and author, shares memories of Wilton.
After the parent company of Gourmet abruptly shuttered the magazine’s doors in the fall of 2009, editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl turned to the one place that had always provided sanctuary: her kitchen. The result is My Kitchen Year (Random House September 2015). Billed as part memoir and part “paean to the household gods,” the book follows the change of seasons and Ruth’s emotions as she heals through the simple pleasure of cooking. “Each dish becomes a stepping stone to finding joy again in ordinary things,” she says.
Her long chestnut hair, wide smile, and youthful appearance belie her many years as a seasoned food critic, editor, author, and host of Food Network shows. Riding the wave of “California cuisine” at its birth in the 1970s, Reichl found a place as a novice food writer for the LA Times while living in a communal house, and befriended early organic food pioneers like Alice Waters.
Wilton was the place where Reichl spent her early years. She chronicles that time in an earlier memoir, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (Random House 2010). Inside the family’s narrow pine-paneled kitchen, Reichl discovered her special space as the family transitioned back and forth to their apartment in Manhattan. Mrs. Peavy, the eccentric cook, came and went with them. “She made her disdain for our shabby house clear by saying she was returning to civilization when she left for her day off,” Reichl recalls.
Before moving on for good, Mrs. Peavy offered Reichl three life lessons to remember: “Don’t let other people tell you how to live your life. Look out for yourself. And don’t forget to make extra pastry when you make a beef Wellington.”
Reichl clearly remembers rural Wilton back in the 1960s. “My parents bought nine acres very cheaply on Seir Hill Road. Since they couldn’t afford an architect, they designed our house themselves. They miscalculated a bit, and the downstairs bedrooms were very strangely shaped.”
Ruth’s father loved spending time in Wilton. “He was immensely proud of his handiwork, despite the drooping roof and awkward layout, and even prouder of our long, rutted, meandering driveway,” says Reichl. “Dad didn’t want to cut down a single tree.”
Evangeline Post Elementary School in Wilton Center was where Reichl began and ended every school year. During the winter months, the family returned to Manhattan. “I was in second grade when the town of Wilton decided that we owned more land in Norwalk than we did in Wilton, so I had to change schools again,” Reichl says. “Now Loudon Dairy is a golf course and there are something like 50 houses where our old one used to be.”
Reichl discovered early that if you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were. “If my mother came upon a new food she’d never seen before, she bought it. This meant I was the first person in my class to taste cactus fruit, sea urchins, and lychee nuts.”
For high school Reichl was packed off to a French boarding school and when she returned, her tether to Wilton had been severed. “In a moment of whimsy my mother sold our house and bought one on the water in the next town over. It was a surprise for my father. Dad was heartbroken,” she writes.
Immersed in French and terribly homesick, Reichl still has the “tear-stained journals” from that time. All the students had returned to their homes and she was left alone at the school. Replacing the warmth of her family kitchen with solitary explorations along unfamiliar streets, Reichl looked through cafés and food markets, sampling new delicacies alone.
Four decades later, after the closing of Gourmet, she worked her way through 136 recipes. Reichl cooked because she was comforted by the rituals of the kitchen. “My Kitchen Year is a narrative,” she says. “It’s not like any other cookbook you’ve ever seen. Each entry begins as a tweet and there’s a back story on every one.”
When asked which dish she likes best, she smiles as though she gets this question all the time. “Let me just say that I am always thankful for really good bread, cold cultured sweet butter and,” she pauses, “I would rather that it be local.”