Do you want to know my deep, dark secret? Are you ready?? Here it goes: I read the endings of books first. Is this bad? Probably not but I’m not one for surprises (and, I won’t get into my morbid reasoning for reading endings before beginnings). What my confession really means is that I wasn’t sure how to start Ruth Reichl’s newest book Save Me the Plums because I already knew how it was going to end. So, I just did what most regular folks do — started on page one — but my review is going to focus on the middle.
Gourmet magazine meant so much to so many. For myself, it was a gateway into a world that could be both safe and daring, as Reichl describes how the magazine pushed boundaries with particular articles or certain covers. There is something about reading her account of the people she worked with that really emphasizes that behind the magazine was a real family and that the loss of the magazine was the loss of this type of work family. Her book offers a special kind of access to the inner workings of this beloved publication, but at no point is her memoir a tell-all.
Am I so different than anyone else who enjoys Reichl’s writing? She has a way of writing about food and life that I wish I had — she gives substance to the intangible. When she first goes to meet James Truman at the Algonquin Hotel, she describes the smell: “roasted beef, hothouse flowers, and nostalgia.” The first two I can surely imagine as they are recognizable scents but nostalgia? Somehow as Reichl writes I can understand the scent of nostalgia because it is one of the heart. This is the way of her writing — intelligent and heartfelt. These events are particular to her, but her writing invites us to understand them on a sensory-level. Even as she writes the recipes, they’re not your everyday recipes. In her recipes you can “shower” the thinly sliced apples in lemon juice and you will know the apples are cooked enough when they “smell impossibly delicious.” Reichl’s way of storytelling is quite special — I was taken in by it’s magic when I read her first book, Tender at the Bone.
Would you believe that I think the most important chapter in her book is Pull Up a Chair? The chapter focuses on her Letter from the Editor entitled: Teach Your Children Well from the March 2007, in which she talks (or “rants” as she puts it) about how the opening of a Manhattan store that focused on “children’s food” which she saw as the problem with kids and their palates; stores like this were sending children (and their parents) the wrong message about what they should and shouldn’t be eating. I’ve held onto this issue of Gourmet partly because I feel passionately about family dinners spent around the table and what gets served at mealtimes. But I also keep it as a reminder that feeding my child is all about showing her the joys of both cooking and eating.
Reading through the book chapter I smiled when Reichl describes how her own son went through a phase where he refused to eat anything that wasn’t white! On the surface one can see how as parents we struggle with children and mealtimes but what “pull up a chair” does is illustrate the greater meaning of the book (and of the magazine). In the beginning, Reichl describes how in finding an old box of Gourmet magazines something magical happened — she was “enchanted by the writing.” Like nothing she’d read before, it shaped who she would later become. She relished in the fact that life is endlessly delicious and I think what she wanted to do with her time at Gourmet was to get readers to “pull up chair,” open the magazine to be comforted, inspired, sated, surprised, and open to new culinary experiences and ideas. “Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.” Which is why the shuttering of Gourmet seemed like an end to this magic world Reichl discovered as a child. Where are we going to pull our chairs up to now?
But is her memoir meant to be maudlin? I don’t think so. Through it all she has given the reader a sense of how working at Gourmet shaped her life — even through the difficult times, such as the September 11th attacks, her work gave her genuine purpose. With the final image in the book — of the flaming pan of German Apple Pancakes — that the reader can understand what Reichl’s personal nostalgia looks, smells, and tastes like. The magic of Gourmet, like the flames: quick, bright and hot. Once gone we are left, in the end with a warming dish. Sweet and tart, the comfort of warm apples wrapped in a custardy pancake. Nothing is ever meant to last but as Reichl finds, the journey can be fulfilling.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Appetite by Random House for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.