The joy of cooking for one, moms in the kitchen, and Ruth Reichl

Excerpt from Ruth Reichl My Kitchen Year

This is the introduction to a recipe from Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. Part cookbook, part memoir, it documents the year after the renowned food editor was laid off, along with her entire staff, when Gourmet magazine was shut down. For anyone who loves New York, it’s an evocative snapshot of the city’s restaurants and markets, for anyone who loves magazines, it’s a poignant tale of one more recession-era death, and for anyone who loves food, it’s an engaging document of a creative person finding herself again in the kitchen.

I read a lot of cookbooks. I meditate by putting greens in a skillet with Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and chopped garlic. I unwind on a Saturday by going to the grocery store. It’s a good week if, when visiting my mom, I can tell her about a noteworthy dinner or two.

And when I describe to her a dish I’ve cooked, we both know it was “cooking for one.” I love cooking for friends and family, whether it’s decadent grilled sandwiches on those “visits with Ma,” or a whole party of savory finger foods. But I also believe one can enjoy home cooked meals alone. I disagree when someone says they see no point in cooking when they’re single. If anything, one should cook more for oneself when one is single, as a morale booster, to make it fun rather than torture to be alone.

Why in the world should being single mean missing out on one of the great delights of life?

I do consider cooking one of the great delights of life in spite of a lifelong issue with what they call IBS. It probably seems odd that someone whose digestive system is a land mine should prefer cookbooks to novels and biographies, and time cooking to time in front of the TV. But on the other hand, it must make perfect sense. When medicine has failed, the gentle philosophies of naturopaths in several cities have made no impact, and your waking life becomes an ongoing mental diary tracking the consumption of “trigger foods” and their impact, food is officially your most codependent relationship. You’re stuck with food, food makes you miserable and delighted, and you both can’t decide who’s to blame.

What else is left but to make love to it?

Cooking bone broth - pork bone broth made from smoked pork

So I read cookbooks. I read them for flavor combinations. I read them to learn how other cultures create a meal, because there as many versions of what constitutes a “dinner” as there are countries on the map. I read them because in my family, cooking was a classic woman’s ritual, conversation about husbands and home life building over the din of stovetop and cutting board, the laughter of men and children in the background.

Recently a friend asked me why I loved cookbooks and then answered it for me with another question: Is it because it reminds you of your mom? I realized, considering my answer, that it wasn’t about my mom, who is an amazing cook, so much as the absence of the dads. This isn’t because I hate my dad or my uncles but because when I was a kid, subliminally I felt like they were always preoccupied about work and sports and other competitive things.

Whereas my mom and her sisters and their mom, my Grandma, were talking about home. They were talking about relationship, family, the reality of now – and whether it needed more liquid smoke. They were not talking about themselves. There is no competitive spirit in these women, for better and for worse. They’re all remarkably okay with the now and with who they are. No blue ribbons needed.

Of course this is a generalization- everyone jumps in the ring for something. But by and large, a conversation in the kitchen was very different than the one going on between the uncles and Grandpa in the living room. I think more than anything, that is what I cherish: the sanctity of it.

And the emotional resonance of it.

We all talk about work a lot, but there is very little emotional meaning in how that meeting went. There is ego, who accomplished what, whether it went the way you wanted. Compare that to how the kids are doing, the new fourth grade teacher, sweet potatoes vs yams, cheddar or Swiss on the casserole, Jeremy’s visit to the doctor, the plot of the book they’re reading… the nuances of daily life. In retrospect, their supposedly “limited” perspective as homemakers looks much healthier than those of us “working professionals.”

In My Kitchen Year, Reichl is married with grown children. But most of her entries describe cooking as a project to satisfy her curiosity, or to feed herself, rather than for a meal with her husband. This was simply the reality of a woman suddenly at home all day instead of working, trying to find herself at the stove. It’s a perfect articulation of the joy of cooking for oneself, although that was not the point of the book by any means.

For the same reasons, I come home from work and I cook dinner. For one. Yes, I strategize about pots and pans, no, I don’t cook elaborate three-course meals. But I chop the veggies and braise the meat and create a sauce for the pasta, just for myself.

I do this because, like the women in my family, and like Ruth Reichl, I find a blissful mental silence at the cutting board. Whether you work in an office or at home, at a computer or by raising your children, your active mind relishes a break.

It’s odd how time in front of the TV silences but doesn’t relieve the mind.

Time at the cutting board, however, always works.

Ruth Reichl My Kitchen Year and Molly on the Range by Molly Yeh plus Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook

To your health, Julia

To your health, Julia

What is health, these days? If, like me, you started answering that question by sitting on your butt reading articles online, you find out that health is yoga girls doing handstands surrounded by cacti, the rippling muscles of Paleo-powered weight lifters, and beaming food-gurus holding up clean salmon-tumeric bowls.

Health is illustrated on Instagram and Pinterest and the interwebs in general with these fabulous human specimens because we’re supposed to find them inspiring. And I assume a lot of people do. But I find it just kind of odd. Who wants to spend all day in Lycra or upside-down or at the gym? Who wants to smile like that? #healthyglow

What if I don’t want to be that happy or that Californian or that thin, but just, like, normal? Or is that a silly question in this country?

I was asking myself those questions today because I woke up the day after Christmas feeling like it was officially time to get my $@% together. I’ve been in this vicious cycle for a couple years now of feeling badly and then doing things that make me feel worse. I’m tired so I don’t go for a walk; I’m blue so I eat foods I don’t tolerate.

A few months ago I went to the doctor to see if she had any theories. As I listed my symptoms, weighed down by the litany of ickiness, I started slumping off the bench, finally collapsing in a puddle on the floor buried under maternity magazines as the doctor gave up and left.

“Can’t test for that,” her glazed eyes and lowered pen imply oh-so-clearly. “Insurance doesn’t cover lameness. Go… pin something.”

Now if you read all these health articles you discover that the lame, icky, lethargic, fat way I feel is pretty much how most of America feels. The causes are always described in compelling, scientific ways, but after you’ve read a few of these articles, you realize all they agree on is that all the best things in life are too blame.

Coffee, alcohol, binge watching shows on Netflix, bread, cheese, fried foods, deep fried cheesy bread with Netflix… the yoga girls and the California nutritionists and the #focused weight lifters all agree that everything you love is making you fat, miserable and, yes, un-Instagrammable.

The current list of villainous foods would seem reasonable except that I was raised, not that long ago, with a food pyramid built on carbs. I was advised in high school to choose the bagel and avoid the bacon. Today, bacon is having a glory moment not seen since 1953 and bagels are practically illegal.

Were the dieticians right before, or are they right now? Add to that all the terrible things we know are done to and with our food, from how livestock are raised to what they’re injected with to all the mysterious ingredients Michael Pollan has opened our eyes to, and one finds oneself wandering the grocery store looking for anything one could buy in good faith. This is usually celery.

And then there’s the question of your overall diet, the combinations of things. You can’t just eat stuff because it’s good, you have to pick a plan. Red meat may not cause heart disease, maybe, but you can’t just eat meat and bread and dairy.

You may find a nutritionist who will allow you to, but the foods will be limited to clean foods, or super foods, these foods that justify their consumption by not only having lots of nutrients but also looking great styled in a blue bowl in front of a San Diego sunrise. I’m talking kale, brown rice, quinoa, salmon, beets. I think maybe you can put a few nuts, seeds or pickled things in there. No cheese, no sauce, no dressings rich in polyunsaturated hydro-whatsis’s. Just the fresh, clean flavors of dry roasted beets and plain grilled salmon and, mmm, nutty quinoa.

As always in moments of severe personal crisis, I reach for Julia Child. My personal favorites are her Julia Child & Company books, from the 70s. They’re very chatty, like she’s dropped by to spur you on to make the cassoulet. It will be fun, she implies, in text accompanied by color photographs of pork feet.

Reading Julia reminds me that we have gone insane. She didn’t need to ask, Is my food clean? Is it super? It was just food. She started cooking in France after the war when the market was full of people selling produce and meat they’d caught or harvested themselves only a few miles away. And you walked to that market and you walked back home to prepare it all by hand. Even in the 70s when she was writing these later cookbooks, industrial agriculture was only just being conceived. There wasn’t soy and corn buried in every ingredient list. We didn’t yet have generations raised on prepared foods so salty and so sweet they had actually destroyed our taste buds.

Yes, it’s true, Julia Child knew what an apple tasted like without having to spend three dollars on an organic Honeycrisp.

Some day we will trust our food again. We will trust ourselves to eat a variety of foods in moderation, and know they were raised humanely, grown ethically, and that we can eat them without weeping or upgrading our health insurance plan. (Because yes, in this fantasy future, we have health insurance.)

In the meantime, about that cassoulet…