I’m in a long-term project to read and give away all the books on my office shelves and then move out the shelves. It’s been interesting so far, since I bought these books over a long period of time, and my tastes and interests have changed. Or in some cases, I was in an airport, and I needed something, and whatever I chose seemed to be my best bet at the time.
I’ll be recovering from surgery for a while, so this is a great time to catch up on my reading. The book I just finished is the new release Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl, a memoir of the time she spent as editor of Gourmet magazine (she also had been the restaurant critic for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times). As a former small magazine and newspaper editor myself, I was particularly interested in this one.
When Gourmet hired Reichl, she had no experience whatsoever in magazine production, and she was terrified to take the job. But she was ready for a change and decided to accept the challenge.
She might have been woefully ignorant about how to run a magazine, but Conde Nast, the magazine’s owner and publisher, gave her money to burn. She hired famous writers, photographers, and designers, who not infrequently went to Paris or Thailand to research food sources, trends, preparations, or whatever the topic was. Seemingly, nothing cost too much. On a personal level, Reichl not only had a six-fold increase in salary from the Times, she also had a car and driver at her disposal, as well as a travel, clothing, and hairdressing allowance.
That kind of budget gave her the ability to run long articles about the food issues she was interested in and thought readers should know about—articles about sustainability, the morality of killing animals, the health dangers of trans fats, the plight of farm-workers, the issues of farm-raised fish, and so on. She turned the magazine into something people wanted to read, and not just for the recipes. Under her tenure, circulation soared.
Beyond talking about the magazine, Reichl talks about food. First and foremost, Reichl is an adventurous eater. There’s nothing she won’t try. As a child, she learned to eat all things from her German immigrant father as they walked the streets of New York, eating herring, tacos, and mofongo. (I looked it up: mofongo is a Puerto Rican dish made with plantains.) As editor of Gourmet, she mentioned eating a stew of pig intestines and cubes of congealed blood. I probably would have skipped that one.
She can make you feel and taste this food as you turn the pages. Don’t read this book while you’re hungry! Everything she ate, I wanted (well, okay, not the pig intestines). I opened the book at random, and this is how she describes eating a fried oyster: “I…showered it with fresh lemon juice, took a bite. The outside crackled gently before yielding to the small, savory custard inside. It was like eating sea foam.” Don’t you want one of those right now?
She also discusses how her long hours at Gourmet (and the frequent business trips of her husband) created difficulties in managing a household and raising her son. She poignantly describes how, after 9/11, the Gourmet staff halted magazine production to cook for the firefighters.
Reichl was the last editor of Gourmet; she was still working there when the magazine closed its doors during the 2008–2009 crash, just as the internet changed publishing forever. It’s an interesting read for its behind-the-scenes look at an iconic magazine and the woman who ran it. And there’s recipes!