Reading Ruth Reichl’s new book, “Save Me the Plums,” you can’t escape the conclusion that her life has been rich with serendipity.
In this fourth memoir, the acclaimed food writer recalls the 10 years during which she helmed Gourmet magazine, whose sudden demise in 2009 stunned its loyal readers. Her connection to the publication, at the age of 8, makes her journey to its editor’s desk – along with so many other moments that propel the story – seem like an act of destiny.
Reichl, a precocious reader and adventurous eater, recalls encountering her first issue of Gourmet while accompanying her book-editor father to a New York City bookstore. The image of a glistening fish leaping off the cover of an old issue had caught her attention. Inside, she found rapturous writing, an artful blend of travel and recipes, that swept her from a dusty alcove to the shores of Maine, where rugged lobstermen made it possible for even the landlocked to savor a taste of the good life.
In the shell-shocked weeks that followed Conde Nast publisher Si Newhouse pulling the plug on the grand dame of epicurean magazines, a former coworker gave her his late mother’s carefully preserved Gourmet magazine collection.
Riffling through the boxes, she soon found herself holding the issue that started it all.
During a recent telephone interview with The News & Observer, Reichl felt the need to point out that this story and other stunning moments of kismet really happened. Like when she wandered into a Paris dress shop and the owner insisted she try on a vintage couture gown that fit her like a glove – and soon after met the original owner’s adoring widow in a cafe, only to meet him again years later on her final assignment for the magazine.
“I think we all live lives of extraordinary serendipity,” she says. “As a writer, I just pay more attention to it.
“I do feel like at every point in my life, I’ve fallen into the next thing,” Reichl adds. “I never went after any job. I didn’t try to get the job at the Los Angeles Times, or The New York Times, or even Gourmet. I didn’t even want them.”
Reichl’s book will be released April 2. The next day, she will be in the Triangle for two events.
She will participate in a Literary Luncheon on April 3, presented by McIntyre’s Books at The Barn at Fearrington Village. The three-course meal will include one of the recipes in the book, Jeweled Chocolate Cake.
Later that day, she will be at Quail Ridge Books at 7 p.m. for a conversation with Linda Watson, a local food writer.
The book is written in Reichl’s signature style, which suggests an intimate phone call with a friend you haven’t talked to in years but can pick up with right where you left off. Its title is taken from a poem by William Carlos Williams, in which an eater apologizes for being seduced by the the irresistible call of cold, juicy plums.
One also can view “Save Me the Plums” in the context of a plum assignment, a term for a highly desirable gig. Such were the opportunities that led Reichl from cooking in restaurant kitchens to editing and writing criticism of them at two of the nation’s major newspapers.
She loved those prestigious jobs until she didn’t, like when she was confronted by a cook who was fired after a negative review. When first courted by Gourmet, she thought they, too, wanted reviews until Newhouse invited her to run the magazine as she saw fit.
“Who else gets them to give them a magazine and say, ‘Here, make it great’ – and doesn’t meddle?” she says, still marveling at the creative freedom.
While Reichl writes about an almost desperate discomfort in ongoing meetings with Newhouse, and a growing sense of doom as advertising revenue slumped with the 2008 recession, she sincerely thanks him for allowing her to transform Gourmet with stories from leading writers willing to address uncomfortable food-related topics.
Perhaps that is what made its death so painful, not just for Reichl and her close-knit staff, but also the readers who still can’t fathom why Conde Nast closed Gourmet instead of its less refined sister publication, Bon Appetit. (When she was called to Newhouse’s office, thinking she might be fired, she refers to the end of Gourmet as “murder.”)
“I certainly thought they would fire me, but it literally never crossed our minds that they would close the magazine,” Reichl says. “We were too much in love with the notion of a Gourmet world.”
Since then, Reichl wrote her first novel, “Delicious!,” and “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life,” about how rediscovering home cooking helped her deal with post-Gourmet grief. She is working on another novel now and consulting with Netflix on an eight-episode version of her second memoir, “Comfort Me With Apples.”
“I don’t think I could have had my career if I was born today. There are a million other people like me,” says Reichl, who deflects the notion that few food writers are quite like her.
“How lucky was I to be a person interested in food,” she says. “Just as it was starting to have its moment?”
Jill Warren Lucas is a Raleigh-based freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jwlucasnc.
▪ A Literary Luncheon with Ruth Reichl is at 12 noon, April 3, at The Barn at Fearrington Village, Pittsboro. Tickets are $90 and includes a three-course meal and autographed copy of the book. Go to fearrington.com/events/ for details.
▪ She will be at Quail Ridge Books April 3 at 7 p.m. 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh. Seats are available without purchase. Advance purchase of the book, though, will ensure a reserved seat and priority signing line ticket. quailridgebooks.com
Jeweled Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Café Mezzo.
1/3 cup cocoa powder, plus more for dusting pan (not Dutch process)
3 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate
6 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup neutral vegetable oil
2/3 cup water
1 cup sugar
1¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds
1/2 cup blanched hazelnuts
1/4 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons of sugar
1 cup of mascarpone
To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Butter a deep 9-inch round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust it with cocoa powder.
Melt the chocolate with the cocoa, butter, oil, and water over low heat, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar.
Cool completely, then whisk in the eggs, one at a time.
Combine the flour, baking powder and salt, and whisk into the chocolate mixture. Shake the buttermilk well, measure, and stir that in.
Pour the batter into the pan and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for about 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn out, peel the parchment from the bottom, and allow to cool completely.
To make the praline: Toast the nuts in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes. (If you’re using hazelnuts with skins, put them in a towel and rub the skins off, but don’t bother being fussy about it. Whatever comes off easily is fine.)
Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Boil without stirring until it begins to darken, swirling the pan until the mixture turns a beautiful deep gold. It takes a while for the mixture to darken, but once it does it goes very quickly, so don’t walk away or it will burn. Remove from the heat and stir in the nuts.
Pour onto a baking sheet that you’ve lined with foil, parchment, or a Silpat, spreading evenly. Use an oven mitt — a burn from hot sugar can be very painful. Allow to cool completely.
Break into pieces, put into a plastic bag and smash with a rolling pin until you have lovely crushed pieces you can sprinkle over the frosting, adding both crunch and flavor.
To make the frosting: Mix 2 tablespoons of sugar into a cup of mascarpone. Spread the frosting on the cooled cake and heap the praline bits on top.
From “Save Me the Plums” by Ruth Reichl, published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.