Monday, February 17, 2020
Read by Ruth Reichl
Published April 2019 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library
When Condé Nast offered Ruth Reichl the top position at America’s oldest epicurean magazine, she declined. She was a writer, not a manager, and had no inclination to be anyone’s boss. Yet Reichl had been reading Gourmet since she was eight; it had inspired her career. How could she say no?
This is the story of a former Berkeley hippie entering the corporate world and worrying about losing her soul. It is the story of the moment restaurants became an important part of popular culture, a time when the rise of the farm-to-table movement changed, forever, the way we eat. Readers will meet legendary chefs like David Chang and Eric Ripert, idiosyncratic writers like David Foster Wallace, and a colorful group of editors and art directors who, under Reichl’s leadership, transformed stately Gourmet into a cutting-edge publication. This was the golden age of print media—the last spendthrift gasp before the Internet turned the magazine world upside down.
Complete with recipes, Save Me the Plums is a personal journey of a woman coming to terms with being in charge and making a mark, following a passion and holding on to her dreams—even when she ends up in a place she never expected to be.
I am, by no means, a “foodie.” Let’s be honest (you’ve seen my weekly confessions about the kind of food we eat), I’m certainly no gourmet. Heck, I’m not sure I’ve ever even touched a copy of Gourmet magazine. Still, I do like the idea of great food and I love a good memoir so I figure I’m qualified to weigh in on this one, right?
Guys, I’m now a huge fan of Reichl. The lady not only has a really interesting story to tell but she’s terrific at writing about it. I felt every bit of the stress she felt when she was thrown into the job of Editor-in-Chief at Gourmet with absolutely no background in working for a magazine and even more so the stress of being at the helm of that iconic publication as the internet, a global recession, and some questionable management decisions took it down.
Reichl picked up her first copy of Gourmet magazine when she was only eight years old and she opens and closes the book talking about a story she read in that issue that impacted her love of food and her desire to be a part of the food world. But Gourmet had, from the time she was growing up until the time she was offered the job, morphed into a stodgy grand dame of a magazine that no longer interested someone who loved to explore, literally, the whole world of food. In fact, once upon a time, they had even turned her down for a writing gig. So, even though it was a magazine she’d grown up loving and even though her son was desperate for her to stop being a restaurant critic so that she could be home with him in the evening, she turned down the offer when it was first presented to her. But Editorial Director James Truman was not taking “no” for an answer. He convinced Reichl to meet with Conde Nast’s chairman Si Newhouse. Obviously, Reichl was convinced, in no small part because she was given free rein to make any changes she saw fit with staff and the magazine. And boy, did she make changes. Gourmet must have been one of the all-time great places to work when Reichl was in charge and magazines were king.
I was particularly impressed with Reichl as a person. She is a woman who truly loves food, who was truly passionate about making a great magazine that championed great food. But she is also incredibly down-to-earth. It took her a long while to get used to the idea of having a clothing budget, use of a car service, and eating at only the best places and staying in only the best hotels. But a trip toward the end of the magazine’s life, meant to showcase reasonably-priced options in Paris for food and lodging, reminded Reichl that she had lived more modestly before and that she could do it again. Not only that, she was good with that.
Did I mention the writing? If you don’t want to, at the very least, go buy some great cheese and French pastries by the time you finish this book, I don’t think we can be friends any more. Reichl is superb at writing about food – the smell, the taste, the texture. I’m pretty sure that she might not be able to sum up the words to describe the delicious tater tot casserole I made recently, but I think she’d be proud of me for at least not using canned cream of mushroom soup in it!
Even though I knew how the story of Gourmet magazine was going to end, I’d become so enamored of it by the end of the book that it would be fair to say that I was truly sad. It reminded me that I was one of those people who used to subscribe to a number of magazines and don’t any longer; that I’ve contributed to the failure of magazines. I’m going to fix that. I can’t go subscribe to Gourmet but I can again subscribe to other magazines I love. Thanks for that kick in the butt, Ruth. And thanks for a great story. And now I have to go find a truly delicious recipe to cook. But not from the Epicurious website. Read the book and you’ll understand why.
Oh, and while I highly recommend the audiobook with Reichl reading her own story, there are recipes in the book so at the very least make time to copy those down as you listen. I ran out of time before the book had to go back to the library. There's a reasonably good chance I'll check this one out in print just to get my hands on those!