Do readers need another memoir from Ruth Reichl?
The former Gourmet editor-in-chief, who is also the former restaurant critic at the New York Times, has published her sixth tale with a focus on her world, “Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir,” her seventh if you count the thinly disguised history found in her earlier novel “Delicious!” about a high-end gourmet magazine that goes under.
In the latest volume, she tells the story of Gourmet magazine wooing her away from the Times for the role at the Condé Nast publication, owned by S.I. Newhouse. Ten years later, in 2009, when the financial market tanked, the monthly magazine shut down and Reichl was out of a job.
Should we expect a memoir from her post-retirement years? Let’s hope not.
It may not matter to hard-core fans of the longtime food writer — especially those who are New York-centric, where her tale unfolds. They will gravitate toward all things Reichl, all the time, and savor the name-dropping of those in the rarefied food world (think David Chang, Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud and Anthony Bourdain).
But for those of us smitten by her first memoir, “Tender at the Bone,” a compelling tale of her earliest years, as well as “For You Mom, Finally,” a look at her mother and women of her era, which still offers a lot of Ruth, this latest volume brings one word to mind: enough. As in “you need new material” enough.
Yes, Reichl broke new ground at Gourmet, introducing stories on traditionally non-Gourmet subjects, such as migrant tomato pickers in Florida, not-so-sustainably farm-raised salmon and the cruelty of boiling lobsters alive, which may be of interest to not only food-centric readers of the magazine but to followers of those specific writers.
But at the end of the day, “Save Me the Plums” speaks of the demise of a publication, one in which hundreds of thousands of dollars were flung around like confetti. It’s the tale of the Newhouse empire of magazines, dripping in Big Apple excess until the economy and print world plunge into chaos. In the Midwest business world, this would have been considered to be financial irresponsibility. Too harsh? Well, Gourmet (along with many other Newhouse publications) went belly up.
The book reminded me of an article that novelist Ann Patchett wrote for the Wall Street Journal, called “Did I Kill Gourmet Magazine?” which appeared in 2010. In it she speaks of her experience writing for Gourmet for a decade:
“There are no words for how good they were to me. When I was writing a novel about an opera singer who was taken hostage [“Bel Canto”], I told them I really needed to go to Italy to tour the great opera houses. Never mind that the food in opera houses consists of boxed mints and tiny cups of espresso, they were behind me all the way. When I told [travel editor William] Sertl the trip should include Venice, he reminded me that the opera house in Venice had burned to the ground ten years prior. I said that I still thought it was important, you know, spiritually. He understood.”
Patchett continued, “Magazine work was a beautiful party and we all just figured it would go on forever. My husband and I took a cruise to the Bahamas. We chartered a sailboat in the Virgin Islands. Seriously, those articles were going to be written anyway. If I hadn’t done it they would have hired someone else. For my 40th birthday I asked rather petulantly to be sent somewhere nice. There was a new resort opening in Antigua that needed to be reviewed. I was just the reporter for the job.”
Reichl acknowledges as much in the epilogue of the book. “Like every other Condé Nast editor, I’d let Si [Newhouse] tie me up in golden strings. The money, the limos and the clothing allowance were just the beginning: He kept us so thoroughly insulated from ordinary life that for ten years I never balanced a checkbook, made a reservation or knew where I was meant to be at any given moment. Someone was always there to see to the quotidian details, and the job often seemed too comfortable to quit,” she writes.
As for the memoir, which should be shelved among business books rather than with food, given its teachable moments, the former editor tells, at length, how she learned to run a magazine, how she fed the 9/11 firefighters, how she expanded the brand, all done in the classic Reichl style, with plenty of conversational quotes and culinary flourishes, along with some surprising clunkers.
For the former: “The scent of fresh oranges perfumed the air, and biscuits baked in the oven. Bacon sizzled in the pan, filling the kitchen with the generous aroma of hickory smoke. The tantalizing promise of coffee and cocoa hovered in the background.”
For the latter: “ ‘This is very good,’ Robin breathed as she handed me the thickly embossed invitation.”
Enough with the plums, Ruth. We’re ready for something new.
The memoirs of Ruth Reichl
• “Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table”
• “Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table”
• “For You Mom, Finally”
• “Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Restaurant Critic in Disguise”
• “Delicious: A Novel” (thinly disguised fiction from her Gourmet years)
• “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, a Cookbook”
• “Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir”