Our top pick in cookbooks and food writing for 2019 so far is Ruth Reich's memoir, Save Me the Plums. In fact, we love this book so much that we also put it in the overall top 10. Reichl is a magnificent writer, and this is the book many of us had been waiting for: her journey to becoming editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine, and a behind-the-scenes look at how she took a publication that had gone stale and made it relevant--and important--to our culinary culture again.
Reichl is funny, self-deprecating, and extremely candid in this memoir. I had a chance to meet her in person when she was in Seattle recently, and it was a highlight of my year. We chatted about the book (which we recorded for the Amazon Book Review podcast), then moved to Renee Erickson's insanely delicious doughnut place--General Porpoise, in the Amazon Spheres--for a nosh and a chat with another group of admiring fans. Reichl even let us in on her guilty pleasure food: onion rings. You see why I love this woman? Listen in, or sample a slice of our conversation transcribed below. You can find more author interviews and book-talk here.
Seira Wilson: This is your 12th book tour, and I think Save Me the Plums might be my favorite book of yours, but I also wondered if it was maybe your hardest to write?
Ruth Reichl: It absolutely was my hardest to write. My editor tortured me into this book. I am blessed with a really great editor and she just kept saying, more, deeper. I really wanted it to be about the magazine and she really wanted it to be about me. I tried very hard to make a lot of chapters about issues we were proud of, but that doesn't make really compelling reading, so they got left on the cutting room floor. Susan kept saying: we really want to know, what does it feel like to be someone who's never had a staff and come in and suddenly find out that 65 people's lives are in your hands, and how do you learn to be a manager, and what's it like to be a mom with a really hard job, and how do you balance that? We want that.
SW: And you'd done so much leading up to Gourmet as well! I really enjoyed reading about your journey...
RR: Well, that's the other thing. Susan kept saying to me, we know so much about you from your other books. And now we really want to know, why was this time different? And for me, going into Condé Nast--here's this world of unbelievable luxury, which...I literally did not know that that world existed until I got there. It was like going into the court of Louis the 14th with palace intrigue and the characters who were at the top of Condé Nast. They were such interesting, strange, people. I don't think there's ever been a more oddball institution.
SW: It was so fun to read about it through your eyes and from your perspective because, for the reader, I think it's such a Land of Oz situation...like the attire allowance--my eyes just popped out of my head over that.
RR: Actually, you know what I found out? I spent time recently with the woman who had been the PR person assigned to me at Condé Nast and she said her first job when I got there, they said: make her do something about her hair, get her some decent clothes, show her that makeup exists. It was all very new to me and suddenly there were hair and makeup people showing up my house at 6 o'clock in the morning before I went off to work so I could look like a Condé Nast editor.
SW: Had it not shut down, do you think you would still be at Gourmet, another decade later?
RR: That's such a hard question. I really don't know, because part of what I tried to make this book about is the changes that happened at Condé Nast, how it became much more like every other corporation in America. The bean counters came. And that wonderful oddball institution…suddenly I was spending all my time writing reports, and meeting with Ad people, and doing the work I really didn't love doing.
On the other hand, if I had left it would have meant that a lot of other people would have lost their jobs because when a new editor comes in--I mean, I didn't fire people when I came in--but most people come in and bring their own people. So I would have thought twice about breaking up that family.
And also, I do think in terms of media, this is such an interesting time, and figuring out how to deal with the internet age was fascinating to me and I'm sorry I didn't get to spend more time doing that.
SW: Would you like to do something like that now? If the right opportunity presented itself?
RR: I'm really interested in trying to figure out a publication that uses what the internet can do really well and does what print can do, and they're very different. And it seems to me like an enormous opportunity right now because you can put all the surface stuff online and so a lot of stuff that we wasted space on in the magazine can go online, and investigative pieces can go online, but the really wonderful, imaginative, dreamlike things that we did in Gourmet-- I thought of people taking the magazine to bed at night and dreaming themselves into these foodscapes that we created, and that's something that doesn't happen very well on the internet. So I'd love to figure out a way to balance these two things.
SW: What do you think about the advent of the celebrity chef? Do you think it's changed how chefs measure their own success or how the public measures success?
RR: I think the advent of the celebrity chef literally changed food in America. I think you can look at 1993--the TV Food Network starts, and the place of food in American culture changes very quickly from then on. It's because we are a celebrity culture and you had a whole generation of young people who were fascinated by these TV chefs. One of the things I love best about the food world is that the best of the celebrity chefs saw that as a bully pulpit and they didn't just want to be people who were cooking food for you. They really understood that they had a responsibility to try and change food in America. So you have chefs like Jose Andres who--it's amazing, right?--he goes to Puerto Rico with a credit card and says, I know how to feed people. And Tom Colicchio, who goes to Congress and testifies, and Wolfgang Puck, who pretty much invented the idea of chefs raising money for good causes. So I think that collectively that the celebrity chefs have had an enormous impact on our food culture.
You can listen to the entire podcast below, and if you're wondering what's next for Ruth Reichl: she's working on another novel, but can't say anything about it yet. You'll hear why at the end of the podcast.
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