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Q&A: Ruth Reichl on breaking through the machismo of restaurant and publishing worlds

Food author Ruth Reichl for the book SAVE ME THE PLUMS.
Ruth Reichl’s latest memoir, “Save Me the Plums,” covers her years as editor in chief of Gourmet, from 1999 until the magazine folded, without warning, a decade later.
(Michael Singer)

Ruth Reichl’s latest memoir, “Save Me the Plums,” covers her years as editor in chief of Gourmet from 1999 until the magazine folded a decade later. It’s a chronicle of Reichl’s conflicted feelings about success: her ambition to remake a legendary food magazine that had become out of touch, and her disconnect as an ordinary, subway-riding New Yorker seduced into a world of limos, luxury travel and Anna Wintour–grade privilege that marked Condé Nast’s years of glory under media baron Si Newhouse.

Reichl, 71, has held some of the most prestigious jobs in food writing. She was the restaurant critic for the New York Times through most of the 1990s. From 1984 until ’93, she worked at the Los Angeles Times as food critic and eventually as editor of a remade food section. (Reichl hired Laurie Ochoa and her husband, the late Jonathan Gold, for the L.A. Times. Both followed her to New York to work at Gourmet; “Save Me the Plums” is dedicated to them. Ochoa is currently The Times’ arts and entertainment editor.)

Yet Reichl has long written in the voice of the ecstatic everyperson: someone uncomfortable with the trappings of luxury, but with a devotion to beautiful food. It’s this ambivalence that’s always made Reichl’s persona relatable. She’s the everlasting Berkeley radical [Reichl helped run a co-op restaurant there from 1973 to ’77 while writing about food for New West magazine], declaring deliciousness as the ultimate political act. And even as she swooned over foie gras ravioli at Le Cirque in Manhattan in 1997, she clung to her outsider persona.

“Don’t be seduced,” she tells herself in her review for the New York Times, seated in one of Le Cirque’s velvet high-backed chairs. “You don’t really belong to this club.” Even though, at that moment, she wielded more power and influence than any other food writer in the country.

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The one time I saw Reichl in person was in 2014, at David Chang’s Má Pêche in New York City, at an after-party for the James Beard Journalism and Media Awards. Reichl had stationed herself at a narrow pass through the now-shuttered Midtown restaurant, where she could see (and be clocked by) everyone coming in. I was too shy to introduce myself that night, but I noticed how awkward she looked, as if she were both queen of the revels and someone, like me, who felt out of place. As much as anyone there that night, Reichl belonged. I talked to her by phone recently about guilt, Gourmet, the state of food writing today, and her pride in what she, Ochoa, and Gold created, long ago, at the L.A. Times.

First I have to ask you about the title, “Save Me the Plums,” obviously a reference to the William Carlos Williams poem “This Is Just to Say” (“I have eaten/ the plums/ that were in/ the icebox,” etc.). That poem became something of a Twitter meme. Is that what brought it to mind?

I have loved this poem for a long time. It makes you see a plum differently than you’ve ever seen it before. And I remembered my father — he was a book designer — designed “The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams,” a Random House book [from 1951] that included the poem. So it’s a book that had been hanging around my house my whole life. The poem, you read it and think, well, food had a bigger meaning for Williams than just, “Oh, it’s delicious.” It’s what I was trying to do with Gourmet: Take it to a place where it was more than just, “Make these dishes and travel to these fancy places.” It’s also the spareness of Williams’ writing. One of the other things I wanted to do with the magazine was get “writerliness” in there. So the poem worked for me in all those ways, and for the notion that Gourmet was a plum job.

Clearly, you felt guilty about taking this plum job, about selling your soul to food at a big fancy magazine. Did you write this memoir to come to terms with your guilt?

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I feel like I’ve spent my whole life trying to reconcile that urge to pleasure with food and the whole side of food that is life-affirming with the other side, which is what does it mean for us to be eating all the plums when half the world is starving? Don’t we have to think about that? For me, food has always been a way, literally, of seeing the world, but what does it mean that I’m telling people to go out and spend a lot of money on food? We’re in a moment now when food people are actually thinking about these issues, and I think that’s great.

Just like you in the book, trying to come to terms with the excesses of life at Condé Nast in that era, with all its juicy perks. It took you a couple of years to even take advantage of having your own company-supplied car and driver.

Yeah, I don’t want to be that person. I never have wanted to be that person. So yeah, I was really reluctant. I mean, it was nice to not to have to think about money for the first time in my life. The thing you come, ultimately, to realize is that the biggest luxury in life is feeling safe and not worrying about money. It’s the only luxury that really matters.

Food author Ruth Reichl for the book SAVE ME THE PLUMS.
Ruth Reichl’s book, “Save Me the Plums”
(Random House)

I wanted to ask you about your time at the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s and early ’90s, as critic and food section editor, and how it shaped what you did later at Gourmet.

It’s probably the thing I’ve done in my life that I’m most proud of. And I was really lucky in that I didn’t do it alone. There was a staff there, but mostly it was me and Laurie [Ochoa] and Jonathan [Gold], but mostly me and Laurie going in there and really thinking, “What should a food section be?” We had this section that brought in $32 million a year in advertising. It was another time, when supermarkets were still in competition, so Vons would take 10 pages, and then A&P would take 10 pages. It was just this giant cash cow. And we had this kitchen, with this staff of three and a photo studio — I mean, we had incredible resources. And we really did set out to explore the city from the point of view of food. It was like, “Look at your neighbors!” Let’s walk every block of Chinatown and go in and out of the stores and talk about what you do with all the stuff that’s in there. It was amazing. I mean, we really had fun with it. We were young, just a different generation from the mostly women who had been putting that section together. We didn’t know that there was anything we couldn’t do. And the supermarkets were furious with what we’d done, because suddenly we were running real articles. Before us, they had owned the food section, pretty much.

And you stole Jonathan Gold away from L.A. Weekly to do “Counter Intelligence” in the L.A. Times.

Well, it wasn’t too hard. Laurie and Jonathan were living together. And really, I had hired Laurie because Jonathan said, “You should hire my girlfriend.” I think it was very much all of us, together, and we were all excited about food. Jonathan had the L.A. sensibility and I had the Berkeley sensibility. I came at it with a real political interest in food, and Jonathan’s was more local — he’d already been eating up and down Pico! And so I think it was the three of us putting our joint but different ideas about food together.

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I have to ask you about the new generation of food writers, women of color like Tejal Rao, the L.A.-based food writer for the New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Soleil Ho, among the current stars of food writing.

And the L.A. Times’ food critic Patricia Escárcega, who’s great too. I edited “Best American Food Writing” last year, and I was so excited by all the stuff I read. It’s like, this new generation of people who are thinking about food in a fascinating way that encompasses everything in the world. It makes me ashamed that I didn’t move farther faster. I hope they push the envelope as far and as fast as they possibly can. I think this new generation, it’s what we always dreamed of, that people would take food really seriously, and that means thinking about who’s picking your food, who’s cooking your food, who’s doing the dishes. Thank God people are thinking about that. I think it’s hard for younger people to understand how little interest there was in food in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s — it was a niche thing. Now, it’s a real part of popular culture.

You say that you feel ashamed for not going further. Do you feel complicit in perpetuating the face of whiteness and maleness in food culture?

Well, I had Gourmet and I didn’t try harder. We didn’t put a lot of chefs on the cover, but we only put one woman. I should have tried harder. We didn’t do enough women chef profiles. Everybody was thinking: “We should have more coverage of chefs of color.” They were hard to find in 2000, but I should have tried harder. I have felt the responsibility that maybe it was up to me to make sure they weren’t so hard to find.

In “Save Me the Plums” you have a scene with Mario Batali at a Gourmet party, and you have a moment of reflection about the #MeToo movement.

I’ve done just about everything you can do in a restaurant. I haven’t been a chef, but I’ve worked in restaurants a lot, and I’ve worked in newspapers and magazines a lot. I never found the restaurant culture one bit different than the publishing culture. We all knew about this macho culture in restaurants, but there was macho culture in newsrooms too. And one of the things that I’m ashamed of is that I accepted it — we all did, all the women of my generation. It was transactional, right? You just took it for granted that men were going to come on to you, talk dirty to you. We accepted it, and we should never have, but it was just the way of the world. It never occurred to us. I’m so happy that women aren’t accepting it anymore.

::

Save Me the Plums

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Ruth Reichl

Random House; 288 pp., $27

Ruth Reichl at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: Reichl appears at noon April 13 in conversation with Lucas Kwan Peterson, Jonathan Kauffman, Ted Lee and Matt Lee.

Birdsall is a James Beard Award-honored writer working on a forthcoming biography of James Beard.


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