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