After years as a restaurant critic for the New York Times (the subject matter of her previous memoir) Ruth Reichl is offered the top position at America’s oldest epicurean magazine Gourmet. The story of Reichl’s time at the helm of Gourmet during the golden age and subsequent decline of print media and Conde Nast is a fascinating look into not just the magazine world, but the culinary world as its was rapidly changing in the early 2000’s. Pre-dating and then accompanying the rise of celebrity chefs, a new age in the New York food scene and the development of the internet, Reichl’s reflection covers the shifting terrain in the way American eat and engage in food culture.
In my early twenties, memoirs were my favorite genre. Why read fiction when real peoples lives are so interesting? I used to ask. But over time I fell out of love with the genre because I read too many memoirs that were premature, with minimal self-reflection or poorly written. But Save Me the Plums reminds me not only of why I fell in love with the genre but what it can deliver when it’s at its very best. Reichl creates a hard to achieve balance of humor, insight and honesty that is rare while also delivering something that was well edited. Stories are built and strung together deftly and without frivolity. There were enough details to put you in her experience in the Goumet test kitchen, in some of New York’s finest restaurants and at meetings with print media giants without being showy or long winded. It reminded me of Julia Child’s My Life in France and that generation of beautiful and focused memoirs.
Here’s the other thing, Reichl delivers something rare in more recent memoirs—there is leadership insight embedded in the story without the use of neon lights, strong declarations or the marketing labels that accompany so many memoirs these days of anyone who has led a business. There were several takeaways (aside from the recipe for cheese scallion biscuits) that were helpful as a leader in a creative field. The way she built her teams, how she drew out their talents, prioritized innovation and navigated tricky personalities were all fascinating, if subtle.
This is a memoir to savor, all the puns intended. I read it slowly and with pleasure the way that Reichl approaches food, as she sets the tone for appreciating the work of others and by extension her own. I will be tracking down Reichl’s other works to enjoy because she has made me a loyal fan in Save Me the Plums.