Reichl is a legend in the food world, serving as editor of the Los Angeles Times' food section, restaurant critic at the New York Times, and editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine for a decade.
Though she had authored seven other books, this was the first I'd read.
I was immediately struck by the incredible way she describes food. Here is just one example, from a morning she wandered into Gourmet's test kitchen, where the bakers were working on a cake for an upcoming issue, "Then the fork met my mouth, and my body was flooded with sensations as the dark, dense, near-bitterness of the cake collided with the crackling sweetness of the praline. The flavors tumbled about, a sensory circus that was finally tamed by the rich smoothness of the frosting. It was all I could do to keep from reaching for a second bite, extremely hard to hide my smile."
Reichl's love of food (and New York City) was awakened through Saturdays spent with her dad. She writes, "That was how I came to love my native city. Dad and I began wandering the city's ethnic neighborhoods, discovering them through food. I loved La Marqueta, a tropical swirl of color that smelled of bananas, pineapples, and coconuts up in Spanish Harlem. Tito Puente's music was always playing as we moved through the crowded stalls, munching on fried plantains from a cuchifritos stand and offering mofongo for the pure pleasure of saying the word."
As an adult, she served in many prestigious roles. However, when Si Newhouse, the head of Condé Nast, approached her about becoming the editor-in-chief at Gourmet, she was hesitant. She had never worked in the magazine world and despite her fantastic writing chops, she was intimidated.
For me, reading about Reichl's experiences with Newhouse was fascinating, as I had recently finished Tina Brown's The Vanity Fair Diaries, in which Si is a major character.
Before accepting the position at Gourmet, Reichl details an early account with Newhouse, meeting him for lunch at the Condé Nast cafeteria. As they stroll by each of the options, Reichl learns that Newhouse has banned garlic from the entire cafeteria, because he is allergic. If he can't have it, no one can. She reacts, "My mouth dropped open. I couldn't wat to tell Michael and Nick. What else, I wondered, had this eccentric man banished from his kingdom? Carnations? Trench coats? The color purple? How strange working for him must be: I imagined him decreeing that my hair was too curly and must immediately be cut, or that Gourmet should devote an entire issue to bacon or some other favored ingredient. I was positive now: I did not want the job."
Well, she did take the job, and it wound up being rather rewarding. Reichl hired non-food photographers to jazz up the spreads, she encouraged writers to travel the world to uncover new gems, and she invited distinguished authors to contribute to the magazine, upping the quality of writing.
One of her first big gets was David Foster Wallace. He wrote a controversial piece about how eating animals requires us to end their lives. Reichl was quite nervous to publish something with such a strong point of view (not just a recipe for home cooks), but once it was out in the universe, the response was overwhelming positive. That bold move sparked a new chapter for the magazine. Reichl shares, "It was DFW who gave the courage to publish 'Some Pig,' David Rakoff's extremely controversrial piece on the tortured relationship between Jews and bacon. Would I have dared, before DFW, to publish 'The Taste of Home,' Junot Diaz's essay about how his love for Asian food is inextricably linked with his yearning for his absent father? Probably not. And I'm pretty sure before DFW I would have run, fast, in the other direction when I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 'Too Hot to Handle,' a feminist food piece about growing up in Africa. Everyone of these articles took food writing into a deeply personal, psychological direction, and every one of them was edgy and uncomfortable. But DFW proved that our readers appreciated a challenge, and we were all eager to stretch the traditional boundaries of food writing."
I was also intrigued by the chapter "Dot Com," about Reichl and team diving head first into the world of digital with Gourmet.com. Condé Nast also owned Epicurious.com, so creating a unique offering for visitors was a challenge. As someone who works in marketing and communications, I related to this immensely.
Save Me the Plums brings you behind the scenes at Gourmet for all 10 years Reichl was at the helm. It's a story about bravery, leadership, risk-taking and best of all, incredible food.
I've been chronicling my dining out adventures here on Pop.Bop.Shop. for over 10 years, and reading Reichl's wonderfully visual and textured descriptions of food was inspiring. If only I could conjure up her adjectives!