Ruth Reichl recharges in the kitchen

Credit: Tony Cenicola

Credit: Tony Cenicola

SPENCERTOWN, N.Y. — Ruth Reichl is in the kitchen she designed as both command center and comfort station, making a salami sandwich for her husband, Michael Singer, 75, a former CBS News producer who has been recovering from back surgery.

“He has this thing from his childhood about salami,” she said, smearing a slice of ciabatta bread with Dijon mustard.

“It’s not a Freudian issue,” he shouted from the Danish-modern kitchen table, where his head was buried in his laptop. “I just like salami.”

This, now, is life for Reichl. At 67, she is softer, less anxious and, her friends say, a happier version of the cautious workaholic who was the food editor at The Los Angeles Times, the restaurant critic at The New York Times, a best-selling memoirist and, for a decade, the editor of Gourmet, the oldest food and wine magazine in America.

She makes her husband three meals a day when she is not traveling. She writes in a little cabin set a few dozen paces behind the sleek house with glass walls that the couple built 11 years ago here on a shale plateau between the Hudson River and the Berkshires. And she cooks for just about anyone who walks in the door.

“At this point in your life,” she said, “you have to have as much fun as you can because you don’t know what’s coming down the road.”

In 2009, while she was in Seattle promoting a Gourmet cookbook, her horse was shot out from under her. Without warning, Condé Nast closed Gourmet, after 69 years, on her watch.

(She said she still doesn’t know why, although luxury advertising was in a slump and not all readers responded favorably to articles in which writers like David Foster Wallace were given 7,500 words to explore the moral implications of killing lobsters. Her memoir about her years at Condé Nast is in the works.)

In as much time as it takes to peel a peach, she went from the top of the heap into free fall. No more Condé Nast salary, black cars at her beckoning and $30,000 budgets to shoot a Thanksgiving spread. Her carefully curated team of writers, designers and cooks, many of them close friends, were gone, off to find work elsewhere with varying degrees of success.

Reichl, who often invokes her hippie bona fides, said she always knew she was a visitor in that world. It didn’t take her long to remember that one can get by just fine without those trappings. But getting dumped at 61?

“It’s really scary when you’re old because who the hell is going to hire you?” she said.

Their son, Nick, was in college at Wesleyan University. People were scheduled to live in the couple’s New York apartment that winter. Singer was happily ensconced upstate. So a woman who calls herself relentlessly urban moved to the country, defeated. And she began to cook.

Her new book, “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life,” which will be released by Random House on Sept. 29, is the baby conceived in that first painful post-Gourmet year. It is also her first solo cookbook since 1971, when she wrote “Mmmmm: A Feastiary.”

Reichl has long embraced a certain amount of what Stephen Colbert may call truthiness or what she calls “embroidering” in her nonfiction work. “Everything here is true,” she wrote in her first memoir, “Tender at the Bone,” “but it may not be entirely factual.”

Her new cookbook, she said, is as close to an authentic and unvarnished accounting of her life as she has produced.

The book was an accident, really. She had not yet secured contracts for her memoir and “Delicious!,” her first novel. The couple worried that they might not have enough money to keep both places. And then there was the question of who she was if she wasn’t someone’s full-time employee.

“I didn’t know where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing,” she said. “If I hadn’t had cooking, I honestly don’t know what I would have done.”

That year, she kept what amounted to an emotional cooking journal, a season-by-season accounting of her recovery. It began to look like a book. She added the best of her haiku-like food posts on Twitter, which have long been fodder for parody among those who have never sipped the Reichl Kool-Aid. (“Power still out. Storm raging. Running out of food. What can I cook with this sad cabbage?”)

An editor helped her nudge it into a full-fledged cookbook. Reichl spent another year recreating what she had done the first year, this time during visits from the photographer Mikkel Vang, who captured her tossing leaves in the air, trudging to her writing cabin in the snow and cooking the book’s recipes.

All are immediately appealing, written with lyrical notes that are both reassuring and exacting. She encourages cooks to approach peeling chickpeas for hummus as meditation and to notice the way banana leaves intended to wrap a pork shoulder quickly turn shiny as they cross a gas flame.

There is congee, apricot pie and an easy version of sausage Bolognese that she cooked after the grim day that friends from Los Angeles helped her pack her office at Gourmet. She broke out of a bout of self-pity and grief by making a giant two-layer chocolate cake with whipped cream cheese in the frosting.

She offers a precise accounting of both a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the recipe for chef Eric Ripert’s sea urchin pasta, the dish she fantasized about most when she spent two months away from the stove recovering from a broken foot.

After decades as an editor who encouraged readers to apply elaborate cooking methods to the Thanksgiving turkey, Reichl breaks free from the tyranny of innovation and admits that simply shoving an unseasoned bird into a 450-degree oven is the best way to go.

Six years have passed since she began cooking the recipes in the book, and she has moved on to new dishes. Notably, she is perfecting a pork and Chinese noodle dish that is her husband’s current favorite.

She drives around the Hudson Valley in the Lexus she got to keep as part of her Condé Nast severance package, which also included enough money to knock down the note on the house. The car has 100,000 miles on it. Reichl, who has a deeply entrenched thrift gene, intends to add another 100,000. “She’d buy a three-legged card table if she could get a deal,” Singer said.

She raises money for her favorite charity, New York’s Rural & Migrant Ministry, and has invested in a favorite local butcher shop. She regularly kibitzes with other writers and food people who make the Hudson Valley home, the cheesemonger Matthew Rubiner among them. She has discovered really good local cream and discusses potatoes and corn with the family that runs her favorite farm stand.

“That wandering-around-and-picking-stuff-up kind of cooking, I really hadn’t been able to do that since I left Berkeley,” she said.

And she spends a lot of time engaged with the couple’s cats, two Russian Blues she got from a shelter named Cielo and ZaZa, who look exactly like what would arrive if you called central casting and ordered up cats for Ruth Reichl.

Still, she is afraid to stop working. Despite a few brutal reviews for her first work of fiction, she is plowing ahead with another novel — this one about a group of friends who are aging.

She finds it disconcerting when people tell her they have been reading her work since they were young, or marvel that she knew James Beard, Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher. “I don’t feel that old,” she said. Still, Reichl is learning to enjoy the kind of emeritus status that comes with age and experience. She has a cadre of young friends, and was on the cover of the “girl crush” issue of Cherry Bombe, the indie magazine about women and food.

Like her good friend Alice Waters, baker Dorie Greenspan and Paula Wolfert, the cook with Alzheimer’s disease whose work is being turned into a cookbook thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, Reichl is a revered icon among younger cooks.

“We were present at the revolution,” she said by way of explanation. “There was that moment when there weren’t greenmarkets, and the only stuff you could get was in the supermarket. People are really fascinated by the notion that we witnessed the transformation.”

Younger food enthusiasts are drawn to less artifice and showmanship in cooking, which has led to an appreciation for old-fashioned cooks in a playing field that has been dominated by professional, celebrity-seeking chefs, she said.

“I am of a group that just learned by cooking,” she said. “You did it and you got better as you got older because you learned by doing, not by going to the CIA” — the Culinary Institute of America.

That means she still messes up dishes, and her knife skills are ridiculously bad. “It’s like if you teach yourself to swim and you do it the wrong way,” she said. “I don’t swim right either, but I swim.”

But here in her U-shaped kitchen in the country late in the afternoon, neither the future nor the past seems to matter much. Singer walks by and hugs her around the waist. The cats sneak onto the counter. Pâté made from the livers of local pastured chickens is set out next to cold salmon roe that will be folded into butter-soaked buckwheat blinis she is cooking on a pan that is nearly black from use.

A collection of writers and friends sit at her counter, drinking wine and watching her cook. Behind them, tall windows frame the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains.

“I realize,” Reichl said, “I gave myself the view.”