On the Side: For Gourmet's Reichl, book-tour show goes on

20091029_inq_FDRICK29Z-A
Ruth Reichl , of the late Gourmet.

Nowhere is it written how to comport oneself upon having been unhorsed right in the middle of a victory lap.

But Ruth Reichl, locks tousled and banged in that trademark Grace Slick cascade, tunic-and-pants outfit right out of the '70s, was giving it - on a book-tour stop here Monday - a chin-up and not uncharming college try.

"What's next?" she answered a questioner at a dinner at Supper, the restaurant at 10th and South: "Beats me."

She is (or rather was, for 10 years) the editor in chief of Gourmet, the 68-year-old dowager of food magazines she'd whipped into the 21st century, in her estimation shocking the fuddy-duddies with pieces on the "Tomato Slaves" broiling in Florida's fields, and Water (yes, a "Water Issue"), the Latino culinary revolution, and David Foster Wallace's unsparing essay on the final agonies of the innocent Maine lobster.

Yes, Gourmet had still relied heavily on luxury lifestyle and travel spreads, and luxury advertising, in a suddenly unluxurious moment. Yes, the ranks of the Rachaels and the Paulas were swelling. And, yes, serious and adventurous food journalism was proliferating, too.

But with a telephone-book-sized collection of 1,000 "Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen," Gourmet Today, hot off the presses, and Reichl's global cooking-school romp, Gourmet's Adventures With Ruth, set to debut on public television, it seemed an inopportune moment two weeks ago for Gourmet publisher Conde Nast to pull the plug.

Inopportune, maybe. But pull it Conde Nast did, abruptly terminating the magazine with its November issue on the newsstands (a turkey on the cover), and bonus stickers on the new cookbook offering free subscriptions to the instantly extinct title.

Reichl would have liked to say goodbye, she said. Have had a swan-song issue. Instead she was left unceremoniously rushing to have the doors locked to the unstaffed Gourmet library, determined to keep the 3,500-volume cookbook collection (and card file of unpublished restaurant recipes) - carefully pruned and artfully curated since 1941 - in one piece.

Adding humiliation, the publisher spared the decidedly middler-brow Bon Appetit. But that was only the start of Reichl's occasions of awkwardness and even injury.

"You have a good look," a woman complimented her near Sixth and Race. "But you still look your age."

"I hate it that everyone knows my age," Reichl, 61, said with a grimace. She has spared few details of her life, sex life included, in four acclaimed memoirs, her latest about her struggle not to become her mother.

After a taping earlier Monday for WHYY radio's A Chef's Table - riffing on wild turkeys ("The way they walk, the remind me of camels") and her son Nick's infatuation with the cookbook's pomegranate gravy - Reichl declined an invitation for a walk across nearby Independence Mall: Just a few days before, she said, she'd been rear-ended driving down the Saw Mill Parkway, giving her a painfully aching back.

For all the lamentation over Gourmet's demise, her tenure was also getting a going-over on the blogs and beyond. She'd lost focus; moved too heavily into fashion and travel, huffed one former editor at a competing magazine, who took special aim at Gourmet's "fat salaries and high expense accounts."

Another detractor complained that the current issue's look at Pennsylvania Dutch Thanksgiving fare was too cliched. A chef grumped that prolific New York Times columnist Mark Bittman's equally hefty recipe collections were far easier than Gourmet's to navigate.

A handful of the Gourmet Today recipes, as well as an appearance by Reichl, were on the menu at a $100-a-plate dinner at Mitch Prensky's Supper restaurant thrown by First Person Arts, the nonprofit group that promotes memoir and documentary. (Its eighth annual festival starts next week, www.firstpersonarts.org.)

Reichl regaled the tightly packed crowd of 138 with a tale of riding with fellow commune members on mattresses in her husband's van to her first restaurant review in San Francisco nearly 30 years ago. (She was later the celebrity restaurant critic for the New York Times for six years in the mid-'90s.)

Her favorite eatery? A hut on a hillside in Crete where the proprietor served wine and home-baked bread and onions, then went off to catch the fish that she grilled over a fire with wild herbs she'd picked.

She is a "starchy girl," she allowed, a sucker for pasta, rice, potatoes, "and butter." Her cookbook's favorite go-to dish for a dinner party? The lasagna bolognese adapted from restaurateur Mario Batali.

A thick smoked-butternut squash soup was served, and then a choice of a pasta dish with shaved Brussels sprouts, leeks, and hazelnuts (from Supper's repertoire), or wild salmon escabeche with bulgur pilaf (from Gourmet Today); then a choice of vinegar-braised chicken with figs and smoked bacon (Supper's recipe), or mustard-and-fennel-crusted pork loin with turnip confit (Gourmet Today).

Not everything went as planned. There were long gaps between courses. The Supper dishes tended to outshine the less-practiced Gourmet Today ones. In fact, Jennifer Petrisko, Reichl's publicist, had to grab a ham and cheese sandwich at Whole Foods across the street because she hadn't been allotted a seat.

But at the end of the day, the cookbooks sold like hotcakes, and gossip about the cutthroat, backstabbing world of big-city food publishing flowed freely (in contrast to Reichl's more lyrical remarks earlier about the sustaining bonds of shared family suppers).

Her review of her meal in Philadelphia?

Ah, she'd hung up those spurs long ago.

"I had," she said noncommittally, "dinner."

 


On the Side: Spiced Chicken

Makes 4 servings

2 teaspoons chili powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 chicken breast halves (with skin and bones) or 4 whole chicken legs, thighs and drumsticks separated if desired, rinsed and patted dry

1. Put rack in middle of oven and preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. Stir together spices, salt, and 1 tablespoon oil. Rub evenly all over chicken.

3. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a 12-inch ovenproof heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot, but not smoking. Brown chicken, turning once, 6 to 8 minutes.

4. Turn chicken, skin side up, transfer skillet to oven, and roast until just cooked through, 16 to 18 minutes for breasts, about 25 minutes for legs. Transfer to a platter.

5. Add 1/2 cup water to pan and deglaze by boiling over high heat, scraping up brown bits, for one minute. Transfer sauce to a bowl and skim off fat.

6. Serve chicken with sauce on side.

 

- From Ruth Reichl

 

Per serving: 487 calories, 48 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace sugar, 32 grams fat, 145 milligrams cholesterol, 738 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.