As someone that used to cook but now writes about food for a living, I’m embarrassed to admit that aside from her association with Gourmet, I knew little to nothing about Ruth Reichl. Gourmet, for some reason, always struck me as a bit fussy and inaccessible—and so, by extension, I mistakenly assumed the same of Reichl’s writing.
In a somewhat meta-fashion, the first chapter—titled “Magic Door”— of Reichl’s just-released memoir Save Me the Plums, pulled me in, not releasing its hold until I was nearly through. I was surprised by what Reichl and I share in common: We both are only children to older parents, and have revered food magazines and cookbooks from a young age. We cooked anything our curious mothers brought us (her, a whole pig; me, a whole duck), and kept cooking because of the closeness it afforded us with our reserved fathers (“...he rarely talked about himself, and I was afraid if I uttered a single sound he would stop speaking”).
But, most surprising of all, is the fact that Queen Reichl was—perhaps even continues to be—riddled with similar existential questions: Are we to bring our passions into the corporate sphere? How do we, as women, take up more space—and be comfortable in that space?
The book chronicles her time leading up to, at, and after Gourmet. Below is an excerpt from chapter seven, “Adjacencies,” in which we follow Reichl on her first day as the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief.
I stood at home, in front of the mirror, rehearsing the speech. It was short and filled with bland platitudes, which I went over and over again in my mind as I rode the subway. I’m so excited about this opportunity! We’re going to do great things together! What else could I possibly say? I wouldn’t really start working at Gourmet until May.
The subway was crowded, the floor a slippery sludge of melting snow, the air steamy from all our wet wool coats. The man behind me was wearing an enormous backpack that kept jutting painfully into my ribs, no matter how much I squirmed about trying to keep from being poked. The woman sharing the metal pole with me had folded her newspaper lengthwise in a vain attempt to read it and my eye caught my name. REICHL GALLOPING . . . was all I could make out, no matter how I twisted and turned. It was hopeless.
Outside, I stopped at the first newsstand and bought a copy of the Post. And there it was—Keith Kelly’s column. Maurie hadn’t been so crazy after all.
Reichl Galloping to Run Gourmet
In yet another stunning editor shift at Condé Nast, New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl has been tapped as the new editor in chief of Gourmet.
The 51-year-old critic, who takes great pains to guard her anonymity at the Times, will take over in April from Gail Zweigenthal, who is stepping down after 34 years with the magazine.
I scooped up all the other papers, but the only other mention I found was in an advertising publication. The editor of a competing food magazine was quoted as saying, “What does a restaurant critic know about running a magazine? We’re going to eat her lunch.”
Oh, great, I thought, we’re off to a fine start.
Gourmet was still in the ugly brick skyscraper I’d visited so long ago, and as I pressed the elevator button I remembered the way the editor had sneered at my ideas. I exited to find an elegant blond receptionist who might be the very same woman who’d told me to take a seat back then, and when I gave my name she regarded me with similar disdain. “This,” her face said very clearly, “is the new editor in chief ?”
“They’re waiting for you.” She pointed through a glass door to a large sitting area, and I stood making nervous small talk with Si and Gina as the staff moved slowly into the room, jostling for abetter view. They looked slightly shell-shocked, and they stared at me as Si began to speak, his soft voice making no concession to the size of his audience. We all leaned in to hear his words, which were punctuated by long pauses. “The mayor called to congratulate me this morning. Mayor Giuliani said the magazine’s gain was the city’s loss.” He gazed around with a satisfied smile.
He went on to say a few more complimentary things and to underscore his high hopes for the future of Gourmet. Then he turned to me. “And now Ruth would like to say a few words.”
I looked at their frightened, expectant faces, and the perfunctory speech I’d memorized vanished from my head. What an idiot I was! It hit me for the first time that not one of these people knew if they still had a job. “You might have to clean house,” I heard Truman saying. They were terrified, and it was up to me to reassure them.
My mind went blank, and I began to be afraid I was going to have a panic attack. The nightmare of my first job interview suddenly came back to me—it was at Esquire magazine, just a few blocks from here, and I was sure I’d forgotten how to breathe. Dizzy and unable to focus, there was such a buzzing in my head that I almost passed out and completely blew the interview. Now my head was filled with the same sounds, and my heart was beating so loudly I was sure everyone could hear it. The silence became thick. People shifted awkwardly. I remember the sound of a fire truck racing down Lexington Avenue, sirens shrieking, and the way the blare filled the room.
I looked around, hoping to catch the eye of the one person I knew at Gourmet; it would be heartening to see a friendly face. But the magazine’s executive food editor, Zanne Stewart, was nowhere in sight. The room was too warm. It was a nightmare. A bead of sweat began to inch its slow way down my back. And still I could not find a single word.
The room began to sway, and it occurred to me that I needed to breathe. Si shot me a worried look. Gina looked distressed. I forced myself to open my mouth, praying a word would come out. Any word.
Finally I managed: “I’m very happy to meet you all.” A little frisson of relief zoomed around the room.
“This has all happened very quickly, and I know you’re as stunned as I am.”
There were nods. I must be making sense. Connecting.
“For the next few months”—they all leaned forward again, eager to hear their fate—“I’ll continue to be the restaurant critic of The New York Times.”
An angry rumble traveled through the group. Heads swiveled. They looked at one another in undisguised horror. A few months? “But what about now?” Did someone really say that?
“In the meantime...” The room went quiet. “I hope to get to know you all. I want this magazine to be a group effort, something we create together, so although I’ll still be working at the Times, I’ll be coming in every day, trying to get started.”
Had I really said I was going to do two jobs? I’d been hoping to please them, but it did not seem to be enough. They stood, unmoving, waiting for more.
“Please come by and introduce yourselves.” I took a step backward to indicate that the show was over, crossing my arms so no one could see how badly my hands were shaking.
Si slipped away and Gina went to her office. Nobody else moved. At last a small round woman detached herself from the crowd. “I’m Robin.” She tapped my arm. “I’m the editor’s secretary. Would you like me to show you Gail’s office?” She went red and quickly corrected herself. “I mean your office.”
...Nick was still awake, and I was absurdly happy to see him. A better mother, I thought, would be worried about his losing sleep, but just the sight of him made all the other stuff seem small.
“I’m hungry,” he said when the babysitter had gone. “Didn’t Anisa make dinner for you?”
“Yes. But it wasn’t as good as the food you cook.” My son has always known exactly how to play me.
“It’s kind of late.”
“Please.” He looked up at me. “Please.”
What the hell, I thought; end the day on a high note. “How about spicy noodles?” They could be ready in a flash. 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 [luxury health food] restaurant [I’d reviewed earlier that evening] 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. “I’m really going to like it,” he said, “when you’re home every night to cook dinner.”
- 1/2 pound Chinese noodles, dried egg noodles, or spaghetti
- Peanut oil
- 1/2-inch-long piece of fresh ginger
- 2 scallions
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons Chinese black bean paste with garlic
- 1 tablespoon Chinese bean paste with chili
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- Sesame oil
- Cook the noodles in boiling water until al dente (the time will vary with the type of noodle). Drain, toss with a half tablespoon of peanut oil, and set aside.
- Peel and mince the ginger (you should have about two tablespoons). Chop the white parts and slice the green parts of the scallions.
- Mix the sugar and the two kinds of hot bean paste, and set aside.
- Heat a wok until a drop of water skitters across the surface. Add a tablespoon of peanut oil, toss in the ginger, and stir-fry for about half a minute, until the fragrance is hovering over the wok.
- Add the pork and white scallions and stir-fry until all traces of pink have disappeared. Add the bean sauce mixture and cook and stir for about 2 minutes.
- Stir in the green scallions and noodles and quickly toss. Add a drop of sesame oil and turn into two small bowls. This makes a perfect snack for two.