Ruth Reichl’s new memoir, Save Me the Plums, is ostensibly about Reichl’s 10-year tenure as the editor-in-chief of Gourmet, the beloved Condé Nast food magazine that shuttered in 2009. But really, Save Me the Plums (titled after the William Carlos Williams poem) is like all of Reichl’s books, including her 2005 memoir Garlic and Sapphires, about her time as the New York Times restaurant critic, and her 2014 novel Delicious! It’s about food.
In a Ruth Reichl book, the stories might fun. The characters might be interesting. The glimpses behind the scenes of the media world might be compelling. But the food is the real reason to be there.
Reichl is one of the best food writers of our era. Her food descriptions are intensely evocative; you can feel the butter in your mouth and smell the garlic. And part of what makes them so distinctive is that Reichl always gives you a context for the food she’s writing about. It’s never there just to sound delicious. Instead, food in a Ruth Reichl book is a cultural tool, alternately a signifier of power or luxury or social cachet.
Here are eight of the best food descriptions in Save Me the Plums — and the role that food plays in each passage.
The home-cooked dinner
One of the big selling points for Reichl when she was offered the role of Gourmet’s editor-in-chief in 1999 was that she would no longer have to go out for every meal, which she did as the New York Times’s restaurant critic. Instead, she could have the occasional dinner at home with her family. Her son Nick is delighted by the idea, especially when Reichl cements the new world order by cooking some spicy noodles. This is food as home and all its comforts, food as the thing that knits a family together:
Nick nodded, happily following me into the kitchen, bare feet slapping against the floor. He hoisted himself onto the counter and, as the scent of ginger, scallions, and black beans rose around us, regaled me with tales of his day.
I boiled the pasta and tossed it into the wok, swirling it with a flourish. As I ladled noodles into Nick’s bowl, I inhaled the scent, thinking how much better this was than anything the restaurant had served us. I reached for another bowl, and we took them into the living room, sat down on the sofa, and slurped noodles together.
The palate-proving cake
One of the harder-to-swallow aspects of Reichl’s 2014 novel Delicious! is that the heroine is a food prodigy, able to identify all the flavor notes and secret spices of a dish just by tasting it. In fiction, the ability plays as a bizarre bit of wish fulfillment, but it seems to be a fantasy rooted in a real moment from Reichl’s life.
On her first day in the Gourmet kitchens, Reichl is presented with a cake currently in recipe testing and asked for her thoughts. It’s a recipe from a celebrity chef whom the cooks pointedly don’t reveal to Reichl, and Gourmet is trying to tweak the recipe to work in a home kitchen, but none of their changes are quite landing.
Due to a lucky coincidence, Reichl knows exactly which restaurant originated this cake — but she doesn’t let on to her new staff, instead letting them think that she just has a miraculous palate as she critiques the recipe. This is food as power game, food as a high-stakes cultural product with enormous prestige at stake:
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. I knew this cake.
The cooks’ eyes bored into me. “I’m guessing” — I tried to sound tentative — “that this cake has an English pedigree.”
The Parisian feast
One of Reichl’s first big issues of Gourmet is a Paris issue (“Paris sells,” her managing editor informs her), and to research the trip, she goes out to eat at some of the biggest restaurants in Paris. This lunch at Pierre Gagnaire, which she describes over multiple pages, is food as pure, voluptuous luxury.
A crimson sorbet arrives cradled in a small glass dish. I dip in a spoon and a tumble of tomatoes, herbs, and horseradish, terrible in its cold tartness, assaults my mouth. The sorbet buzzes against my tongue, shocking me into the moment. One more bite, and I am experiencing the food with psychedelic intensity.
A tiny onion tart, no bigger than a fingernail, is crowned with a single bright nasturtium; I stare at the blossom, thinking this the most beautiful food I have ever encountered. Airy puffs of pastry enfold bits of fish and slices of caramelized apples that crunch and crackle merrily inside my head. Adorable shrimp dumplings nestle into leaves of lettuce, the sweet pink meat peeking shyly from each jade wrapper. The flavor is delicate, tender, and so seductive I want to keep it in my mouth forever.
The networking lunch
During her six-year tenure as the New York Times’s restaurant critic, Reichl caused a stir by taking downtown noodle joints just as seriously as she did the haute cuisine of the Upper East Side. In Save Me the Plums, when she takes a job interview out for lunch — a candidate for executive editor who goes by Doc — she’s showing off those populist bona fides and the good taste that comes with them. And when Doc appreciates her choice of restaurant, he proves that he’s worthy of her respect.
(Although let’s just note for the record that Reichl’s selection is not exactly cheap, with most of the entrées clocking in at 28 bucks each. I guess compared to Le Cirque it’s a steal?)
When we walked into Pearl Oyster Bar, Doc studied the small, modest restaurant with its long marble counter and took a deep breath. It smelled like clams, like lemons, like lobsters. “I was afraid” — he sank happily onto a stool — “you were going to take me to some stuffy uptown restaurant. This is perfect.”
We started with fried oysters, and I plucked one from my plate, showered it with fresh lemon juice, took a bite. The outside crackled gently before yielding to the small, savory custard inside. It was like eating sea foam, and I closed my eyes to better experience the pleasure. When I opened them, Doc was watching me. I silently handed him an oyster.
“Wine?” I asked. He nodded, and we listened to the clear pale liquid rush into our glasses. We clinked, the merry sound a nod to the simple goodness of the food.
The fantasy magazine cover feast
For an issue of Gourmet themed around movies and food, art director Richard Ferretti plans a classical French menu for the cover, inspired by Gigi. Reichl’s description of what the Gourmet team is aiming for is so evocative that it wafts off the page. This is food as fantasy — which, after all, is the point of both Gourmet and the movies.
They’re thinking roast quail, perhaps with figs, in a voluptuous wine sauce. Those beautiful eggs, for starters, scrambled with cream, spooned back into the shell, and topped with heaps of caviar. A leafy little salad in a champagne vinaigrette. Camembert so ripe it drips. Great old burgundies.
The power dinner
As digital media begins to encroach on magazine sales, and as Gourmet’s profits decline during the recession, Reichl begins working overtime to try to sell the magazine to advertisers. One of her most successful ploys is a party she throws at Bar Boulud, where the food is — of course — to die for. This dinner is food as a battleground, with Reichl eating mostly “to fortify yourself for all the lies you’ll have to tell tonight”:
In the bar, a chef stood beside an entire leg of Serrano ham, holding the delicate black hoof with one hand as he carved with the other. “These Iberian pigs stuffed themselves on acorns.” As I bit into the sheer rosy slice, I imagined I could taste nuts in the soft lacy fat at the edge of the meat.
In the next room, Daniel [Boulud, who ran Bar Boulud] had set out salmon in a dozen different preparations. There were also little pink shrimp in bright billows of garlic-splashed aioli and octopus smoked until the lavender flesh was smooth as velvet.
The “Paris on a budget” feast
Since Reichl has already learned that “Paris sells,” she decides that a sure bet for bolstering Gourmet’s sales will be another Paris issue. But in 2008, in deference to the recession, she focuses on how to do Paris on a budget.
On limited funds, Reichl’s Paris meals are less luxurious than they were before. Instead, she writes about them with scrappy underdog pride. The food might not be elaborate, but it’s still perfect. Reichl doesn’t need the unlimited purse strings of Condé Nast to have a good time, and neither do her readers:
The air was filled with the soft melodic thrum of French, its cadence a kind of music. From the kitchen came the comforting thunk of pans and the scent of roasting meat, onions in butter, a hint of thyme. The wine was young, slightly sharp, but well made. The waitress kept our glasses filled.
The food was simple but very fine: a pile of petit gris, the tiny shrimp you find only in France, still in their shells. Fat white asparagus, simply steamed and drenched in sweet butter. A plump roast chicken with fresh morels and a sauce made of cream so rich it gleamed like gold. A handful of tiny strawberries, a cloud of chantilly, a wedge of Brie.
In the end, not even Paris can save Gourmet. Condé Nast shut down the magazine in 2009, leaving Reichl heartbroken. “I’d fortified myself against the pain of being fired, but this was worse,” she writes. “They had murdered the magazine.”
What got Reichl through the closure of Gourmet, she says, was writing and cooking: writing her novel Delicious!, cooking her way through the recipes of her most recent cookbook, 2015’s My Kitchen Year — and, now, writing one more memoir.
How lucky for us that food writing is what saved her.