Ruth Reichl On Her Gourmet Days

Book review: Save Me the Plums, by Ruth Reichl (Amazon / Book Depository)

Chef and restaurant critic Ruth Reichl was surprised to find herself being offered the position of editor-in-chief at the storied Gourmet magazine, tastemakers in the foodie world. She felt like an unlikely candidate for a number of reasons, including that as a former hippie on a Berkeley commune, she wasn’t sure what to do with a generous clothing budget.

But remembering how much she’d loved this venerated food and cooking bible in her childhood, discovering an old issue when she was eight and still recalling how it had shaped her love of the kitchen, she accepted. She wrote in her first memoir, Tender at the Bone, about her mother’s less-than-gourmet cooking, and credits the magazine with showing her what possibilities existed.

I opened it to find the pages filled with tales of food in faraway places. A story called “Night of the Lobster” caught my eye, and as I began to read, the walls faded, the shop around me vanishing until I was sprawled on the sands of a small island off the coast of Maine. The tide was coming in, water tickling my feet as it crept across the beach. It was deep night, the sky like velvet, spangled with stars.

She would be Gourmet’s last editor before its closure in 2009. Reichl’s tenure at the helm caused a shake-up in the magazine’s staffing and structure. About the former, she was quite upset — Reichl didn’t want to clean house upon arrival, but higher-ups insisted on it in places and Gourmet was desperately in need of a revamping. At her interview she mentioned how staid and stuffy and elitist the magazine had become, even moving away from the public’s increasing interest in food towards more luxury shopping items, for example.

Gourmet cried, “Let them eat cupcakes!” and our readers got the message. The exclusive little world of food was growing both larger and more inclusive, and those who’d thought they’d owned it didn’t like it one bit.

But she never comes across as cutthroat or self-centered, rather she’s clearly sensitive and empathetic, and her management style involves creating a sense of camaraderie and letting people’s talents shine where they’re meant to, while moving the magazine into a new modern era. It wasn’t without its challenges or setbacks, but she has a knack for perseverance and finding unconventional ways of problem-solving that seem to benefit the most people. There’s a lot to learn here about leadership attitudes and behavior.

What I love about her storytelling style, and noticed having read two of her previous memoirs, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples earlier this year, is that with hindsight and perspective, she can mine the kindnesses and positive elements from her toughest experiences. She’s like the embodiment of that cheesy quote that if it’s not okay, it’s not the end. But her tellings don’t come across as saccharine. It’s reassuring and even inspiring to see someone who’s been on top, suffered falls, climbed back up and tumbled again and still had the drive, energy, and passion to keep going and undertake new endeavors. She’s a remarkable woman.

She also finds the magical in the little things, and for that this felt more relevant and inspiring than I’d imagined it would be. When someone comments on what an amazing working world she inhabits, she observes, “Every world has its extraordinary side. It’s just that so few of us know how to find it.”

These are vignette-like and impressionistic, and although it’s fairly linear it doesn’t feel all-encompassing. I like memoirs told more in bite-sized pieces like this, but I found myself more interested in the day-to-day of what her job entailed than I expected to be. It didn’t cover as much of this, focusing primarily on significant events, changes she made, turning points, and highlights from her personal life that happened simultaneously. I would’ve liked to hear more about what running Gourmet actually entailed.

I hesitated to read this without having some background understanding of who she was from her other memoirs, but that wasn’t necessary at all. She eloquently reveals enough  to impart who she is and where she came from, even for readers who are unfamiliar. Like about her complicated relationship with her mother, whose bipolar left Reichl unsure what she’d find on the other side of their apartment door each day when she came home from school.

But on the other hand, her mother, despite her penchant for cooking things like roasts doused in ketchup and canned mushroom soup casseroles, was an influential figure in Reichl’s life, one who remains a looming presence even after her death. Sometimes, unable to believe her position in the elite world of magazine publishing, Reichl would think of how much her mother would’ve loved it. “This was the city she had longed to inhabit, and she would have loved knowing I had breached its walls.”

Her memoirs include recipes, and these haven’t been of too much interest to me in the previous two I’ve read, but I found the ones here much more appealing. Her recipes for spicy Chinese noodles, cheddar scallion biscuits, and Thanksgiving turkey chili are all on my try very soon list. The last one is connected to her post-9/11 experiences, when she mobilized Gourmet‘s test kitchens to feed firefighters and first responders at Ground Zero with massive batches of chili and brownies. This was one of the most moving stories here, one that clearly still affects Reichl, and the reader, strongly.

At a Gourmet reunion, one person commented that it was his “last fun job” and Reichl “hugged the words to me, cherishing them. When all is said and done, that is what makes me proudest. We should all have fun at work.” This is a warm, happy, and heartening story about making the best of personal and professional challenges, including the ones we set ourselves, and finding a way to love and celebrate the work we do. An immensely valuable and completely fun read.

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
by Ruth Reichl
published April 2, 2019 by Random House

Amazon / Book Depository

20 thoughts on “Ruth Reichl On Her Gourmet Days

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  1. Oh, I was so glad to see your review in my mailbox!!! I mentioned how much I enjoyed Tender at the Bone in my comments for the last book you reviewed of hers. I actually checked out Gourmet magazine because of that book!

    I laughed at her Mom’s bad cooking possibly influencing her career direction. Maybe because my mother was such a great cook I never tried to compete? (I’m looking for an excuse for my lack of interest😏)

    Excellent review, Ren💜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so happy you were excited to read it!! This might’ve been my favorite of her memoirs I’ve read. It was so heartwarming and I didn’t expect that. I also had heard so many good things about it that I was getting overhyped vibes but I thought it was completely deserving.

      I never actually read Gourmet! It closed back when my cooking repertoire only consisted of coffee and toast 😂 I wonder if I could see old issues at the library or online. She took it in a really interesting direction, with smart, literary essays on culinary culture and features on budget travel and dining, it sounded not at all like what my impression of it had been!

      You and I were in the same boat, my mom and grandmother were incredible cooks and both liked doing it, so I never had any motivation to learn. I guess others would’ve wanted to know how to do the same but I just enjoyed it without any thought otherwise. When I went to college it was such a jolt, like how do I feed myself?!

      Glad you liked the review, I can’t recommend this one enough. It was a bright spot in my reading year for sure 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lol! I think we’re on to something. I went to college close to home and my Mom sent food via an aunt who lived 10 minutes away. And, the person in charge of our cafeteria services was outstanding. EVERYBODY ate on campus. When I graduated, I roomed with my sister in NY & DC for the next five years and she’s a fabulous cook. So, I was quite old when I had to feed myself for the first time. By then, I had menus from a host of good restaurants that delivered. It wasn’t until I got married that I was forced to cook.

        My exploration into Gourmet magazine was simply an intellectual exercise😏

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh that’s so sweet that she did that for you! Such a mom thing. And great that you had good campus food – I can’t even imagine what that would be like! I loved my college but we had a terrible cafeteria. I shouldn’t complain because it was in Manhattan so not like there wasn’t food nearby, but nothing close enough that you could grab it easily on a break or eat there for dinner and not have to plan something on your own.

        I had so much trouble getting past any mistakes I’d make cooking, whereas now I feel like I learn from every one. I was living in NY too and there’s just SO much good takeout and delivery everywhere that was always infinitely better than anything I attempted at home, so the impetus was lacking for me for the same reason. I was fairly old when I learned to cook too, and it came from living in foreign countries and missing things I couldn’t get from home, like good Mexican food. Then one thing led to another and now it’s something I actually enjoy and love learning about. That’s so funny that we had such a similar path to it 🙂 I love hearing people’s relationships to food and cooking and how they developed, thank you for sharing with me! 🤗

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Good review. Pretty hilarious that Ruth’s mum cooked a roast with ketchup. You mean that’s wrong? … 😉 I would have done that in my undergraduate non-married days. (Luckily, I married a guy who loves to cook!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, I could imagine it being something I’d have done in my early experimental cooking days too. Pot roast with ketchup is even pretty mild compared to some of her mother’s other creations from her first memoir. You’re so lucky to have a husband that cooks!! Mine can when he has to but overwhelmingly prefers not to.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ok, am sold, am going to read this and Tender at the Bone. And maybe buy as present for my mother. How are you? Did you mention you were moving countries??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This book would make such an excellent gift. It just made me happy so often while reading it. It’s fun to read but there’s also a lot of deeper meaning there. I’m not one who looks for stories that are necessarily heart-warming but this one really did it. She knows how to tell a good story.

      I’m doing well, how are you?? I’ve been meaning to write you on Instagram! Yes, moving home in a few weeks 🙂 Very exciting but also stressful, even a bit scary, honestly! Cross your fingers for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, I’ve been looking forward to seeing your thoughts on this! You somehow captured everything I felt while reading it. It’s such a shame, though. Gourmet closed down while I was still in high school, but after reading Reichl’s recollections, I want to work there! You really hit on how engrossing her explanations of the day-to-day operations were. I’m the same as you—while the big events and vignettes were fascinating, I could have read an entire memoir made up of her just talking about choosing cover photos and what goes on in that kitchen.And the recipes! I hardly ever try recipes from books, barring cookbooks. But those spicy noodles? Perfection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That makes me so happy to hear! I love that we both enjoyed this one so much, thanks for giving me the push to get around to reading it. Some of my favorite new book recommendations this year were from you, like this one and The Perfect Predator. I owe you so much!

      I was surprised that I ended up being interested in her day-to-day work, I thought going into it that would be the dullest part. Other people’s office jobs just aren’t that interesting to hear about. But the way she described it was so compelling and made me realize how little I know about that world. The test kitchens! So fascinating. I kind of wonder if part of her leaving that out was just the time that’s passed. It closed 10 years ago, she’d been working there dating even further back, maybe she was highlighting just the specific incidents that stood out most in her memory.

      And same, I love when I can get a good recipe from a food memoir but they’re kind of few and far between, honestly. These ones sounded so appealing though. I’m excited to hear the spicy noodles are as good as they sound, I can’t wait to give them a try!

      Like

  5. I also really appreciate how positive Reichl was in this memoir! I didn’t notices missing more details of her day-to-day life, but I’d definitely have read more. This seemed like a fascinating job and I deeply enjoyed her perspective on the challenges facing women in the workplace and how that’s changed over time.

    This is the first of Reichl’s memoirs that I’ve read and I’m terrible at actually going back to author’s previous works, but I would like to with hers. Even without having read anything of hers previously, I didn’t feel at all lost in this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m usually really bad about reading author’s backlists too, I can’t remember why I was so set on reading some of her previous ones before this one, and you’re right, it didn’t feel necessary at all. Tender at the Bone is her first and an excellent one if you do end up getting around to her older ones!

      Like

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