Warm October evening, sun setting over a Sleeping Lady, Insalata’s walls bursting with devotees, Ruth Reichl holding court front and center, entrances all.
Ruth Reichl entranced a full house of adoring fans last night at the visionary Mediterranean restaurant, Insalata’s. The event was to celebrate the recent publication of her gorgeous and heartfelt cookbook/memoir, My Kitchen Year, a lyrical ode to her year spent healing after the sudden closure of Gourmet Magazine. The book offers a portal – through food, lens, and verse – into Reichl’s life and it glows with the patina of a life lived with a deep respect for sustenance on all levels, intellectual and spiritual as well as physical.
“I didn’t want to write a cookbook, I didn’t start out wanting to write a cookbook,” Reichl asserts, “if I did it would have looked very different. I would have wanted to have so many appetizers and so many entrees and so on. This book isn’t like that, it isn’t arranged like that, this is the food my family eats. I wanted the recipes to be more of a conversation rather than a prescription.”
The book offers intimate glimpses into Reichl’s life and home, recipes come in stories, conjured glimpses of dinners and time at the stove and market. Quiet moments of work and repose, the seeds of a transformation cultivated by culinary longings. It’s like being with Reichl and her family, being invited into their home for a meal and glass of wine and full bodied conversation.
Diners got a taste of what Reichl’s family eats as they all sat down to a beautifully conceived and executed menu featuring recipes from My Kitchen Year, all with Insalata’s culinary imprint.
Highlights of the meal included a velvety butternut squash served with delightfully briny pickled walnuts, the most deeply satisfying buttermilk mashed potatoes EVER, and the finale, a dessert simply called The Cake That Cures Everything: A chocolate layer cake with thick fudgey layers of chocolate served whole at each table, birthday cake style.
“This cake,” Ruth explained to the swooning crowd, “came from my days working at a caterer in Berkeley. I made wedding cakes. Of course we never had the right sized pans and somehow I had to figure out how to make these layer cakes without them falling apart or getting crushed. This is the cake I came up with. We decorated it with all these candies and flowers, this was the seventies in Berkeley. I like to call it my hippy cake.”
Ruth also confided to her legions that she did not feel like she was a supertaster, per se, referring to her days as a food critic, but rather someone with the imagination and verbal ability to transform that taste experience into words.
She shared her personal culinary awakening on her honeymoon in Crete in 1970. She described being invited to dinner at the home of a local family, how sliced tomatoes were picked from the garden and dressed in olive oil made from their olives and sprinkled with greens from their hillside. How the fish, freshly caught, was cooked over a bed of their grape cuttings. How their dessert of yogurt came from their sheep.
“It was really at that moment,” Reichl explains, “that I understood the concept of terroir in food. I knew that I could go back to New York and make that very same meal, and it would never taste anything like the meal I had just had.”
The evening was filled with these moments of sweet connection, Ruth joining guests and talking to each table. The gorgeous and lavishly simple menu reflecting the down to earth, honestly delicious ethic Ruth has in food and life. It was served and received with a quiet joy in knowing the best was being had, dinner with a food icon, being sustained and sated with the food from her table.