Untangling My Purpose: How Ruth Reichl Taught Me To Think Big
This essay is part of a feature, Food Writer Friday, which highlights a significant food writer and explores the ways they have shaped us as writers, thinkers and cooks. Tag us online with #foodwriterfriday to share your greatest influences.
Ruth Reichl has big hair, like me. I started subscribing to Gourmet magazine when I was twelve years old. At that time, my big hair wore me. My puff-bangs cast an aura of awkward around me, a smart, middle-class girl. I was reared for an achieving, white-collar life, not a career in the food industry. But I was hopelessly attracted to food.
Reichl had learned how to manage her wild hair, she had also managed to make a career in food. She was, in other words, earning enough to have a very good, very expensive haircut.
Four years into reading her, I knew that Reichl had a courage I lacked. Sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor in a suburb of Allentown, Pennsylvania, I ate Little Debbie’s Oatmeal Cream Pies as I worked on my college applications. I professed my love of law, and my desire to practice it. The crumbs of cookie gathering around me as I wrote.
I was sure that responsible, respectable (and solvent) adulthood was a state in which the practical had to eclipse whimsical, creative pursuits like writing and cooking. Passion, after all, doesn’t pay the bills.
But Reichl, who had grown into her coif, and wore it with a kind of triumph, begged to differ. Month after month, her editor’s letter celebrated a passion-based life. Even as I crafted college applications, copies of her magazine were stacked at the edge of my peripheral vision. Reichl was there, on the sidelines. The fun, wacky aunt giving me a knowing wink.
I forgot Little Debbie just reading about Thomas Keller in Reichl’s magazine. His recipes were far beyond my novice skills. Other recipes—hazelnut biscotti, pillowy meringue cookies, nutty, browned-butter cookies stuffed with apricot jam—were within reach. Especially if I had a professional looking, gunmetal gray stand mixer. I requested and received one for my 16th birthday.
I had to leave my beloved mixer behind when I moved into my college dorm. But I did change the mailing address for Gourmet. Double majoring in Economics and Philosophy, practicing how to think with numbers and with language, to cover all of the bases. I spent hours lying on the lumpy bed, reading about a tiny village in Italy, the coast of Maine, the south of France and even more hours studying recipes for semifreddo, creamy risotto and impeccably balanced pesto.
In law school—between highlighting case law, interning in social justice offices and training for the mock trial team—I learned about cheese, wine and really good bread. As ever, Reichl nodded, and gave me a wink. In one of her monthly editor’s letters, she extolled “the importance of breaking bread together even at the most terrible of times.”
Five years into practicing law, I was paying the bills (the ones I amassed while studying to practice law) and had a kitchen of my own. It was small, galley-style, but it’s white cabinets and slate-grey formica were the perfect match for my mixer. I could cook! I could really cook. That joy cast the misery of my working days into stark relief.
At the same timeI hadn’t finished paying my law school loans and I was bedeviled by doubt. I was microplaning anti-anxiety meds over my morning oats like nutmeg. As ever, Reichl was there. She described how she had “agonized over two...articles,” “worried...for weeks” about one and been rendered “sleepless” by the other. She believed in those two articles, but feared she would be rejected by her readers.
I was agonizing over two visions of my future. I believed in one: food. The other: not so much any more. I was rendered sleepless by images of myself, a bag-lady who had given it all up for food. My parents would die.
Reichl counseled me. In For You Mom, Finally, she wrote, “go ahead into life, full-blooded, courageous and leap for the adventure… [y]ou are not a watercolor. You are carved out of life—and there can be no petty hesitancies about you.” I left law. But I hesitated. I taught math for a couple years in public schools. Then I tutored math at night, privately. I tutored enough to afford a very good haircut. And interned for a food photographer by day. After six months, somebody gave me a job.
Today I spend my days in Manhattan studios, styling food for its fifteen minutes of fame in front of the camera. I’m not always sure what my take home pay will be, or when the check will land. I am, on the other hand, entirely certain that the dark brown hues of the truffles and chocolate tartlets that I made for today’s shoot compliment the jade green of the ceramic plates I’ve chosen.
Plate. Adjust. Brush crumbs aside. Click.
I don’t know why the sound of a camera is more satisfying than a judge’s gavel. But it is.
Tomorrow I’m shopping for lychee nuts, purslane and sunchokes. Maybe I’ll see Reichl, and her hair, in the Union Square market or the narrow streets of Chinatown.
Kristin Stangl is a writer and freelance food stylist working on cookbook and product shoots in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn, with her husband and their very well fed French Bulldog, Ralph.