‘Save Me the Plums’ is a tantalizing insider memoir

Ruth Reichl, the last editor-in-chief of Condé Nast's iconic Gourmet magazine, spins a fascinating tale of her time in magazine publishing.

‘Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir’ by Ruth Reichl, Random House, 288 pp.

Ruth Reichl assumes if you are reading her new memoir, Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, then Gourmet magazine “touched your life” in some way. 

The magazine, where Reichl was editor-in-chief from 1999 to 2009, touched many cooks from its founding issue in 1941 to its abrupt cancellation in 2009. 

And yet “Save Me the Plums” is only an incidental Gourmet history, covering the Venn pie wedge where it intersects with Reichl’s own life. That’s OK – abundantly so. For readers who enjoyed Reichl’s earlier memoirs, including about her life as restaurant critic for The New York Times, “Save Me the Plums” is like a dinner date with an old friend. (It’s also an unintentional companion to Reichl’s 2015 cookbook “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life,” describing her difficult year after Gourmet was shuttered.) 

As usual, Reichl gives us a front-row seat to a glamorous world, though it’s harder here for readers to relate to the heights she’s reached. In her restaurant critic days, we felt like her co-conspirators – everyone’s a critic, as the saying goes – but editing a glossy magazine is something else. Reichl’s Gourmet salary was six times her New York Times pay, even before counting the clothing allowance and the limo service. Eventually, she learns to fit into a world where she was “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.”

That world of wealth is the one that Reichl’s mother, whose mental illness forged Reichl’s childhood, always longed to enter. As she settles into the job, Reichl realizes that “for the first time in my life I was doing something that would have pleased Mom, made her proud. And for the first time in my life, I liked that.”

At Condé Nast, Reichl braves a culture where all the players – including secretaries and limo drivers – know more than she does about the expectations, the politics, and even the quotidian office abbreviations. 

Reichl’s tenure transformed the august food magazine, adding daring voices and deeper perspectives. She perceived that food trends were starting to work their way up from the streets rather than trickling down from stuffy restaurant kitchens. 

For subscribers who saw her expand Gourmet’s horizons, it’s satisfying to hear the inside story of recipe tests and designs, or decisions like running David Foster Wallace’s groundbreaking bioethics story, “Consider the Lobster.” Some catnippy gossip is served up too, like that of billionaire owner Si Newhouse’s annual birthday party, where the buffet is bland country-club fare that “seemed to have been designed primarily to avoid staining the carpet. ...” 

Ultimately, though, even fans may not care about the ins and outs of art directors and editors and office politics. Reichl’s in a tough spot; she can’t tell the Gourmet story without devoting space to such particulars, yet they’re just not as gripping as the bigger-picture chapters, from two enchanting trips to Paris to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

Sadly, by the time Reichl feels seasoned in her job, its era is almost over. She recounts the pressure on Gourmet’s finances, the missteps of its internet presence, the need for her to become a media personality and money-attracting brand. 

There’s no big reveal at the end; Reichl doesn’t know any more than we do about the bitter mystery of her tenure and how and why Newhouse decided to close Gourmet. There’s still room for someone to dig into that story as a final course, just as there’s ample room to reunite here with Reichl, whom we’ve missed at our virtual dinner table.

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