Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, by Ruth Reichl

Are you old enough to have heard of Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic for the New York Times and former editor-in-chief for Gourmet Magazine?

If you haven’t read her work—which now includes a whole bunch of memoirs, a couple of cookbooks, lots of articles, and even a novel—you are in for a treat. She is not the only author to write passionately about food, but she’s one of the best. The subtitle of this work, My Gourmet Memoir, is a gentle pun, since it is mostly about her ten-year tenure at Gourmet Magazine, which ended when Condé Nast decided to close the magazine in 2009.

Save Me the Plums is partly about food, partly about business, but mostly about interpersonal relationships—relationships among staff, with outsiders, and with family. Reichl can be self-deprecatory and modest, open in her praise for others but cautious enough to pull her punches when she has negative thoughts about certain colleagues. Her passionate writing, unsurprisingly, shows up mostly when writing about food. For example, in a description of a meal in a restaurant in Paris:

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 it 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 enfolds 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.

Sounds irresistible, doesn’t it?

When she’s unenthusiastic, Reichl can still write passionately. For instance, when interviewing Doc Willoughby, whom she successfully lured away from Cook’s Illustrated, the interview included a visit to the Condé Nast cafeteria:

The cafeteria got so much press that the whole world yearned to visit Gehry’s soaring space with it sinuous glass panels and curving titanium walls. The fact that an invitation was required made it that much more enticing….

John slipped in behind the star and watched a cook toss tough nuggets of pre-cooked chicken into a wok, add some limp, overcooked vegetables, and smother it all with garlic-free kung pan sauce. Tugging on his apron, the cook gave the mess a listless stir. “That looks dreadful,” said John, easing out of line.

I herded him toward the sushi station, where “sushi chefs” were arranged presliced fish onto soggy seaweed….

John looked at the oozing tray and shuddered slightly. “But everyone says the food here is good!”

The cafeteria, of course, turned out to be a place to see and be seen, not a place for good food, gourmet or otherwise.

Save Me the Plums is replete with fascinating anecdotes, well-told and ripe for retelling to others. I couldn’t resist doing that over the period of days when I was reading this memoir. I just finished the book an hour ago, so now it’s my time to recommend it. Five stars from this reader!

Categories: Books, Food & Restaurants