For including Monsoon Diary with the food writers I admire most.
Ruth Reichl’s New Memoir Is a Delicious Insider Account of the Gritty, Glamorous World of Food Culture
The food icon details her years at Gourmet magazine, and offers recipes to accompany her story—joining a literary lineage that includes Nora Ephron and Gabrielle Hamilton.
BY KEZIAH WEIR
APRIL 12, 2019
When Ruth Reichl was eight years old, she curled up on the floor of a used bookstore with a pile of vintage Gourmet magazines and fell in love. It was “Night of the Lobster,” an article set in Maine, that did it. “I could hear the hiss of a giant kettle and feel the bonfire burning as the flames leapt into the night. The fine spicy fragrance of lobster was so real to me that I reached for one, imagined tossing it from hand to hand until the shell was cool enough to crack,” she writes in her new memoir, Save Me The Plums, out this month from Random House. “I had always been an avid reader, but this was different: This was not a made-up story; it was about real life.”
So begins Reichl’s eighth book, which details the decade she spent as Gourmet’s final editor in chief. It’s a succulent, insider gambol through cloak-and-dagger meetings with various corporate members of Gourmet’s (and V.F.’s) parent company, Condé Nast, leading up to her appointment; wild years of alternately wooing and battling art directors and managing editors; lavish trips to Paris; and, finally, the iconic magazine’s sad and harried final days. But scattered throughout—in fitting and charming fashion—are simple recipes that correspond with major moments in Reichl’s life.
Food is a writer’s friend, an ample canvas onto which one might project philosophy and humor in equal measure. What’s at once more mundane, more universal, more sensual and intimate than the food we eat? It’s obviously a concept that’s captivated other artists, too: painters from Wayne Thiebault to Pieter Bruegel have centered paintings on food, and there are glorious film scenes that depict cooking and eating so vividly one can almost taste the spaghetti sauce—Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s piquant Big Night; Peter Greenaway’s somewhat more scatalogical The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. But while it’s true that we use verbs for eating to describe our engagement with other artforms and entertainments—we mindlessly consume social media and binge-watch television (an uncomfortable expression that calls to mind disordered eating and remorse)—we devour books. Devour! A lush, needful expression that has words built right into one definition: Devour, verb. To read quickly and eagerly.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the list of great recipe-plus books—memoir/novel-plus-recipes; recipes-plus-personal essays—is long and rich. There are, like Reichl’s, the insider accounts by food world icons: James Beard’s classic 1964 Delights and Prejudices: A Memoir With Recipes, Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly, Gabrielle Hamilton’s 2011 Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Chefs first, writers second. And then there are the stories by writers-first-cooks-second that are just particularly well-illustrated through food. Shoba Narayan’s 2003 Monsoon Diary describes growing up in Madras, India and summering in Kerala on the South Indian coast before making her way to Mount Holyoke—she fell in love with such new delicacies as blue corn nachos and salsa, but stayed devoted to the food she grew up with, like yoghurt rice, her preferred late night dorm snack. Boris Fishman’s Savage Feast, which came out earlier this year, describes the novelist’s childhood in Soviet Belarus, and centers on Fishman’s relationship to his grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, and their relationship to food.