I was working on the frontlines in a bookstore when in 2009 Gourmet magazine had its last stand. I had been searching for the latest issue, for a customer, when the staff member who stocked the magazines informed me that Gourmet was defunct — one month here, the next month not. I was surprised that an established magazine with staunch readership could fold simply because the internet had become a major player as a publishing option. A decade after that demise Ruth Reichl, the editor at the time, has published Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir (Random House, 2019). It recounts her rise to fame in the magazine world, even as Gourmet was on the brink of its fall.
There are perhaps only a handful of people who have had more of an impact on culinary writing than Reichl; the upper ranks managing high-end magazines under the Condé Nast umbrella were well aware of her literary reputation when they offered her the editor-in-chief position at the prestigious epicurean magazine. Reichl had adored Gourmet as a child and credits her love of food, in part, to early editions she had thumbed through in used-book stores in her youth. When she became a writer she desperately wanted to be a contributor. Although she never did — it became too prissy and stodgy for her — she somehow found herself being asked to take charge of it at a time when it was in need of revitalization. Reichl would be coming off her six-year stint as The New York Times restaurant critic, and she justifies the change in profession by recognizing the time it would give her to have dinner with her husband and so — time she had lost eating at restaurants alone all those years. Adding the perks of a clothing allowance and an office with a private bathroom made it a hard offer to pass up.
Save Me the Plums provides glimpses into her personal life, like those more-frequent, home-cooked meals that her son delighted in, but it mainly focuses on her professional relationships with publishers, editors, artists, writers, photographers, test kitchen cooks, and marketers, while at the helm of Gourmet. The history of what went on during her tenure is directly linked to how the corporate bigwigs moved staff around or let them go in a flurry, forcing Reichl to manage HR issues that were not her forte.
Readers of the book will not be surprised by the story’s unfortunate conclusion, so Reichl presumably focuses on her colleagues (whether she liked working with them or not) to pay homage to their handiwork in regenerating an iconic magazine for a time. Even though she was dealing with the business of magazine editing more than tasting dishes or writing about them, there are still the requisite delicious descriptions she is known for from her previous books: taste testing a chocolate cake in the Gourmet test kitchen; sharing the Spicy Chinese Noodle recipe she makes for her son; describing bread from a neighbourhood bakery by writing it was “like tasting history, like savoring the first loaf of bread ever baked.” It is a Reichl memoir, after all, and she always comes back to the food.
I enjoy memoirs that are narrower in scope, not sprawling narratives from cradle to grave. Reichl’s career as a writer has many layers and Save Me the Plums covers a decade of her life when Gourmet became one more notch in her literary belt. Her contributions to Gourmet were transformational: she embraced the changes surfacing in the restaurant scene, tackled the rise of celebrity chefs by putting them on the cover in rock star poses (photographed by Matthew Rolston who did Rolling Stone covers), and commissioned cutting-edge articles from authors like David Foster Wallace. Amid these successes, what is most heartbreaking about her story is how Condé Nast shut Gourmet down when the high times of the print magazine world crumbled under the pressure of the internet. Reichl had to live through it and she reveals how the extraction of something that had touched her personal life and shaped her career so much was devastating. For Reichl, “A world without Gourmet was unimaginable.” She could not move forward by publishing more issues, but only be inspired by her collection of back issues, in the same way they had stirred her as a child.