Ruth Reichl was the restaurant critic at The New York Times when she received a phone call that would change her career. The caller was James Truman, editorial director of Conde Nast. He was in charge of 19 of the company’s publications and was looking for a new editor in chief for Gourmet magazine.
For foodies, it was the first and many claim the best of the “good living” magazines. Gourmet with its fancy recipes and beautiful photographs was first published in January 1941 and ended its reign with the November 2009 issue.
Reichl had a love affair with the magazine that dated back to her childhood. Her father, a book designer, would take her along on his trips to bookstores. During one of their many trips around New York City, she found a stack of dust-covered, vintage Gourmet magazines in a used book store. She loved everything about these publications — the stories by well-known writers, recipes with exotic ingredients and the advertisements that transported her to faraway places.
She learned to cook following the recipes on its pages. Through the publication, she fostered a love affair with food that has never ended.
You can imagine how remarkable it was for Reichl when Conde Nast came calling.
At first she dismissed the idea out of hand, but the more she thought about it and after meetings with Truman and Si Newhouse, owner of Conde Nast, she accepted the position in 1999, replacing Gail Zweigenthal, who served the magazine for 34 years.
In addition to a six-figure salary, Reichl’s office, which she decorated, was the size of a loft. Other perks included eating in the company’s private dining room, a car and driver, a clothing allowance, expense account and first-class travel and hotel accommodations.
Reichl readily admitted that it took her awhile to adjust to this new level of employment. She was used to working in a pod with several other journalists. Conde Nast offered luxury on a whole new scale.
Things changed for media companies when the internet arrived. Cooks embraced the internet quickly, using it as a source for recipes, cooking demonstrations and as a place to connect with other like-minded folks. As with many media companies, Conde Nast management wasn’t interested in launching websites while the rank-and-file staff advocated for it. Eventually, they launched a Gourmet website but without recipes, which were run on the Epicurious website.
While it might have survived the internet, Gourmet was hit hard by the 2008 recession. Who needs luxury brands when you’re losing your job and home?
Reichl was on a book tour promoting Gourmet’s new cookbook when she received a message to immediately return to New York. She expected to be fired, but was shocked when all the staff was called into a conference room and told by Newhouse they were closing Gourmet. Staff had 24 hours to clear out their desks before their key cards were deactivated. There would be no December 2009 issue.
Reading this book was a walk down memory lane. I was a subscriber of Gourmet magazine, so for me it was interesting to discover the stories behind the stories. In this book, Reichl does a great job of sharing what it was like to work at a high-end, luxury magazine. She writes about their trips to Paris and what it was like working with writers such as David Foster Wallace.
There’s a chapter about the impact of Sept. 11. Reichl worked in New York City, so she was near Ground Zero. She writes about leaving the city and heading to her vacation home. To help, she opened the kitchens at Gourmet and started cooking to feed the many volunteers.
She also included recipes in this memoir. I think it’s great to be able to make the recipes she talks about. Of course, I probably won’t, but I like the idea that I could. How about Jeweled Chocolate Cake, Gina Marie’s Cheddar Scallion Biscuits or Thanksgiving Turkey Chili?
If you’re looking for a summer read with bite, pick up “Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir.” It’s available where books are sold and it can be borrowed from the Hutchinson Public Library.