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Books Ruth Reichl’s new book Save Me the Plums revisits ‘the last golden age of magazine-making’

Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, is photographed at Bar Buca in Toronto on May 26, 2014.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ruth Reichl’s latest book, Save Me the Plums, chronicles her tenure as editor-in-chief of Gourmet, North America’s oldest epicurean magazine.

In this memoir, she allows a rare peek into the over-the-top glamour of Condé Nast’s magazine world from the perspective of someone who had been writing about food since the early seventies. Having discovered the allure of old-school Gourmet at the age of eight, Reichl guided it into a new era of culinary exploration, changing the way we consume – and think about – food.

Why did you decide to tell the story of your time at Gourmet after writing My Kitchen Year – a book that began with the closure of Gourmet?

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It was pretty organic. I hadn’t intended to do that book; I had always intended to do this one. But I was in such a bad place after Gourmet closed. I was feeling so guilty – to my staff and to the readers (we still have these Gourmet reunions) – and Bill Sertl [Gourmet’s travel editor] said to me one day, “You’ve always talked about how you want to get people back into the kitchen; why don’t you write a cookbook?”

I hadn’t thought about it, but the minute he said it … and that book was so easy to write. It just happened. And writing this book was really hard. I owe so much of it to my editor, who really held my feet to the fire and kept saying, “It’s not good enough.” I tried very hard to write about the process of magazine-making, and there were lots of chapters about special issues we’ve done, and my editor, Susan, kept saying, “We need more of you.” She really kept pushing me, kept saying, “We’re not publishing this until it’s right.” I thought this was going to be a piece of cake, and it wasn’t.

As a writer, how do you keep track of the details of daily events and quotes that took place 20 years ago?

With this one it was really much easier, because I went into that job knowing I would be writing a memoir about it one day. The world of Condé Nast was so fantastic to me that I kept very good notes. With the others, it wasn’t quite so easy. From the day I got to Gourmet, every day before I left at night, I printed out three to four e-mails that came in, so I would always have them when I left. I knew I wouldn’t be at the magazine forever. I also knew it would be a good story.

I had to ask myself, what is this book about? How is it going to be useful, and what do I really want people to take out of this? With most of my other books, it took me years after I had written them to figure out what they were about. With this one, I decided as I was writing it what it was about. It’s about a few things – it’s about the last golden age of magazine-making and the privilege of working for someone like Si [Newhouse], who really did believe that quality counted. It’s also about learning to be a boss and working in corporate culture without losing your soul.

Did you ever figure that out?

I think I did. You really have to have a clear sense of what’s important, and one of the great things about living in the silly frivolousness that was Condé Nast in its heyday was … you had to realize how stupid it all was. Ultimately what I came away with was how important it was to have a happy shop. There’s a real responsibility when you have 65 people working for you to make it as good a workplace as you possibly can.

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How has food writing changed since you began in the industry in 1972? Where do you see food media going from here?

What has happened in America in my lifetime is we’ve gone from a nation that didn’t care about food, didn’t understand where it fit into our culture, to a place that really does understand how important it is. And food media has changed enormously with that. We now have a generation of young people who really do understand that their food choices matter. As a result, every food-media outlet has to ask itself, “What is my purpose now?” Because one of the things that has happened is that mainstream publications have understood that food is part of their purview as well. The New Yorker, GQ – all suddenly understand that they should be thinking about food and food topics. Which means that dedicated epicurean publications have to stand back and say, “What do we do now?”

Restaurant critics have to ask themselves that too; what does it mean to be a restaurant critic at a time when restaurant criticism is really cultural criticism? And it’s not just telling people where to spend their money; it’s actually having an impact on this particular aspect of culture. I don’t think we have all the answers yet; I think people are starting to ask these questions. And they’re really interesting questions. We were running stories about gender and race at the time, but we were tiptoeing into it. Now it’s front and centre.

What does it mean that social media has levelled the playing field for writers?

I am truly a populist now. I love the fact that everybody is weighing in, and I think it means that the people who get paid to do it have to do a whole lot better than the people who aren’t being paid to do it. And I also think it means the public has to be smarter consumers of media. I still think it’s a problem – the anonymity – in this age of everyone having a phone. Just the idea of people being called influencers is ridiculous to me. Just the notion that “influencer” is something you can monetize. People go out and get hundreds of thousands of followers, and people are paying them. It’s going to be interesting to see where all that goes.

In the food world, we’ve seen huge cultural shifts with the arrival of the internet, and then social media and concern for environmental issues that have led to changing attitudes toward food choices. What do you see as the next big disruptor?

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The one thing people still aren’t paying much attention to – or as much attention as they should be paying – is social justice for food workers. The farm workers are still being exploited – more now than they ever were in the past – and I really think’s going to be the next big movement in the food world. People are not only going to be asking, “Was this a happy pig?” But, “Were these tomatoes picked by happy workers?”

This is one of those things that’s going to have to be a grassroots social movement. We’re going to have to care more about these people than we do now. What’s happening in the meat-packing plants is horrific. We know it, but we don’t do enough about it.

What’s next for you?

I owe Random House two novels, and Netflix has bought Comfort Me with Apples to do an eight-part series. It’s a wonderful team of women, including the woman who is the producer of The Crown. Anne Hathaway is supposed to produce and star in it. If it happens, it will be great. The writer is absolutely wonderful, and I’m really excited about it. But you never believe it’s going to happen until it’s actually on the air. I deeply miss the people I worked with at Gourmet. But besides that, everything is fine.

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