Review: Ruth Reichl’s ‘Save Me the Plums’

She ate, she wrote, she conquered

Ruth Reichl /
Ruth Reichl / Getty images

For Ruth Reichl, one memoir is not enough. Her early years were covered in Tender at the Bone. Then came her career as an L.A. Times food critic in Comfort Me with Apples (where she also confesses to infidelity). In Garlic and Sapphires she chronicles her stint as the New York Times‘s often incognito restaurant reviewer. For You Mom, Finally grapples with Reichl's relationship with her mentally unstable mother. And now there's Save Me the Plums, which covers Reichl's tenure at Gourmet—right up to its untimely demise.

On the one hand, it's just another way to stretch copy and keep those royalties coming. If readers like one book, they'll want to read the rest. On the other hand, it's hard not to like her books. Reichl is charming and erudite (aside from working as a cook and a waitress, she attended the University of Michigan and earned a masters in art history). Notwithstanding the occasional humble brags—her decision to publish David Foster Wallace was a bold move!—her writing is colorful and compelling. Or at least colorful.

At a boarding school in Canada, Reichl befriends the daughter of a French diplomat. Upon discovering her love of food, he decides to give her a crash course in culinary delights such as pommes soufflé, ris de veau, and, of course, foie gras: "My mouth was flooded with so many sensations I could hardly take them all in at the same time," she writes in Tender at the Bone. "As the luxurious softness of the liver overwhelmed me I felt my eyes start to tear." It's practically a religious experience.

Speaking of which, here's Reichl's description of sampling fresh mozzarella in Save Me the Plums: "He handed us each a slice and we put them on our tongues, as reverent as if he were offering us Communion. The disk was rich, round, virginal, and as the flavor reverberated through my body I thought it had been far too long since I'd worshipped at this particular altar."

A bit much, maybe? Truth be told, there aren't that many culinary adventures to be found in her latest memoir. Save Me the Plums is primarily about the direction she took Gourmet, a magazine that had been around since 1941 but was in dire need of revitalization. The question was whether Reichl was the person for the job.

Condé Nast certainly hoped so. The publishing giant that owned Gourmet pulled out all the stops in a way that only the parent company of Vogue and Vanity Fair could: offering Reichl a salary six-times larger than her New York Times paycheck, an office designed and furnished to her specifications (including a private bathroom), her very own car and driver, a clothing allowance.

Reichl then recounts her meeting with Condé Nast's owner, the late S.I. Newhouse. "The great media mogul was small, wizened, and dressed in an ugly olive-drab sweatshirt," she writes. "He had a long, horsey face and gaps between his teeth." He had peculiar aversions. "No garlic will ever be served in the Condé Nast cafeteria," he promised her. (According to Reichl, the Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria is mediocre at best.)

There's no question Reichl made Gourmet interesting (if not great) again. And her decision to publish David Foster Wallace was, in fact, controversial. Assigned to cover the Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace used the occasion to address animal cruelty and find out if lobsters feel pain (lovers of lobster—the boiled variety—will not like his answer). The reader is taken through the grueling editing process, at least when it comes to Wallace. "He's very granular about the piece and he's arguing over every comma," one editor complained. "I think his attitude is that he'll do what he does and we can take it or leave it." Reichl's advice was to pick your battles and concede the small stuff. The result was "Consider the Lobster," a DFW classic even without the reference to Dr. Josef Mengele, which Reichl insisted on eliding.

But all the edgy pieces and flashy covers (like the one featuring celeb chefs as rock stars in a band) could not save Gourmet from the online threat. As for laying blame: "Si was wary of the Web; while other media companies invested in technology, he sank a reported one hundred million dollars into a new print magazine," Reichl writes. "Portfolio, his flashy business magazine, flamed out after two years. Meanwhile, he pursued an Internet strategy that involved shoveling the contents of his many magazines into super-sites like Epicurious and style.com."

It would've been interesting to see if Gourmet could've lasted had it kept its own recipes behind a paywall, similar to the Wall Street Journal or Cook's Illustrated model. Alas, we will never know.

Reichl got the call while on book-tour in Seattle. After being told to head to New York on the next available flight, she braced herself for the firing. Except she didn't get fired, per se. "After long deliberation, we have decided to close Gourmet," S.I. Newhouse told the entire office. First came the gasps, then disbelief, then the tears. When a staffer asks how much time they'll have to clear out, the owner replies, "Your key cards will work today. And tomorrow. Until five p.m."

S.I. Newhouse didn't mince words. Or garlic.

Save Me the Plums ends with Reichl describing the somewhat difficult transition post-Condé Nast: "I had worked with people all my life and now, alone at the computer, I missed my colleagues with a pain that was nearly physical." Not to mention the clothing allowance, fat salary, and Mustafa, her personal driver.

But something tells me she'll bounce back and crank out yet another memoir, this time about life after Gourmet. Hell, I'll probably read it.