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Save Me the Plums

May 17, 2019

I enjoy reading food memoirs; don’t you? And Ruth Reichl is a good writer, so I had to read her new book Save Me the Plums, about her time as editor of Gourmet magazine.

Reichl was the editor who sent David Foster Wallace off to the Maine Lobster Festival, where he wrote “Consider the Lobster” (evidently the first title proposed was “To Die For” and the first drafts referenced Mengele and PETA). I’m familiar with that essay, since it got famous after appearing in Gourmet, but I didn’t know that Reichl had persuaded “Pat Conroy, Calvin Trillin, Diane Johnson, Michael Lewis, Richard Ford, Julian Barnes, Jane Smiley, and…Ann Patchett” to write essays for the magazine and that after 2004, when the DFW piece appeared, she had published essays like “Some Pig,” David Rakoff’s “extremely controversial piece on the tortured relationship between Jews and bacon” and “The Taste of Home,” Junot Diaz’s essay about “how his love for Asian food is inextricably linked with his yearning for his absent father.”

Reichl credits old issues of Gourmet for getting her interested in cooking, and The Gourmet Cookbook as the way she taught herself how to do it. “Food became my own private way of looking at the world,” she says. Although I like to eat, thinking about this book and the dinner reservations I made for my recent trip to New York made me realize (this won’t be a surprise to you, readers) that my way of looking at the world is through stories, and so I’d rather eat in a place that I’ve read about than a place that has the best food.

When Ruth Reichl is telling the story, though, food is the focus, and she includes recipes, like one for spicy noodles and another for cheddar scallion biscuits. I never realized how much testing went on behind the scenes before a magazine published a recipe for home cooks to try.

The other wonderful part of this memoir is the stories. Reichl relates that when Ann Patchett was in the Amazon (a trip funded by Gourmet, although she seems to have been mainly doing research for what became her novel State of Wonder), she “found a turtle at some jungle marketplace and couldn’t bear to have it become somebody’s dinner. She wanted to know if she could expense it.” Reichl says that her new editor William Sertl replied that he “informed her of Gourmet’s policy…the one that permits writers to expense any animal that rhymes with the name of their editor.”

And she’s a woman of my era, which means I have stories like hers: “working women everywhere accepted casual misogyny. We were so accustomed to taking what men dished out that we thought it was up to us to find ways to deflect the advances of bosses and co-workers without hurting their feelings.” My attitude towards the internet is different from hers, however: “If you need inspiration when you’re planning a party, chances are you’ll leaf through cookbooks and magazines, dreaming up dinner. But if you come home from the farmers market with a bushel of ripe peaches or a fine cheese pumpkin, you’ll probably head to the Internet.” Actually, I head for the internet in either situation.

But I did learn things from reading this book. Did you know that mozzarella shouldn’t be refrigerated? “Refrigerate mozzarella and you kill it. When it gets cold the milk solids tighten, going from liquid to solid, and the cheese never recovers. It changes the taste and the texture.”

And I learned a little about how the other half lives. The part where Ruth writes about “slumming it” in Paris is hilarious. She discovers food that she would never have experienced otherwise: “the more stars in your itinerary, the less likely you are to find the real life of another country. I’d forgotten how money becomes a barrier insulating you from ordinary life.” She includes details like that the editor she’s with lies about it being their anniversary for no particular reason, like lying is just part of the fun, part of her big discovery that “luxury is best appreciated in small portions.”

Aside from the reminders that rich New Yorkers are really not like you and me, however, it’s a delightful book. Reichl is such a good writer that she sweeps you along with her wherever she goes, for a little while.

And now I wonder: do you own cookbooks? How many? And do you ever read food magazines (are there any left)?

IMG_2682I counted up our cookbooks and found that we have nineteen of them in the kitchen. A sample: The Joy of Cooking (inscribed by my mother with “happy 27th birthday”), Be Present at Our Table, Lord (recipes from members of the First Methodist Church in Jonesboro, Arkansas), The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, Boston Tea Parties (Recipes from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—this one has the best tea sandwich recipes), Simply Scones, The Surreal Gourmet (with surrealist illustrations), The Narnia Cookbook (from which we make The Beavers’ dinner), and Winnie-the-Pooh’s Teatime Cookbook.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2019 12:30 am

    We had a LOT of cookbooks, ones we used when we were younger. Then they gradually ended up in boxes in the basement. And now dinner is most often the purview of the staff at our new retirement community. Julia Child went to our oldest, in San Francisco – Julia taught me so much!

    Watched Julie and Julia last night – and reminisced.

    • May 17, 2019 11:13 am

      My mother had a lot of cookbooks and used them. I have a photo album in which I keep recipes she and my father wrote out for me (handwritten). It’s what I use when I get ready to make a holiday dinner.

  2. May 17, 2019 7:14 am

    What an interesting thought about looking at the world through stories or food. I am definitely in the food camp! 🙂 I love food. It’s one of the most… non-resistant things in my life. Partly, it’s the environment I grew up in—my grandparents loved food, and they were jolly good at its making! It was all Indian food but oh my, it was delicious. Their parties were legendary. They experimented with what now looking back I’d call techniques. One of the stories I tell myself (ha!) is that I have inherited their food genes—their ability to figure out and replicate flavors, their innate sense of what works well with what etc etc.

    Anyway, I’d forgotten about food memoirs! Thank you for this lovey reminder!

    • May 17, 2019 11:15 am

      We have a lot of books with afternoon tea recipes because we’ve collected them since the 80’s. Scones, tea sandwiches, and fancy sweets are the things we find most worth reading about and working on!

  3. May 18, 2019 7:15 am

    Never refrigerated mozzarella is indeed the best. But you have to eat it immediately.

    I have all the cookbooks. There’s a web service called Eat Your Books. You tell it what cookbooks you have, and it has indexed them all, so you can search YOUR collection for a recipe for what have you.

    • May 20, 2019 11:26 am

      That’s an interesting mix of online and book! I’ve always liked the process of going through my cookbooks looking for a recipe because I see other recipes I might like to make soon…kind of like looking up a word and only looking at the definition of that one word.

  4. edj3 permalink
    May 18, 2019 3:39 pm

    We pared down our cookbooks when we moved from Kansas City to Boston, knowing that our living space would be dramatically smaller. Then we lost some cookbooks when we flooded. We deliberately did not replace them because I’d rather have a few I use all the time than shelves of them.

    But I do have a private food blog that I treat as my own online cookbook. And I include little stories about how I got the recipe or any interesting family tidbits associated with that recipe. I know my younger son checks them out (he’s an avid and excellent cook).

    • May 20, 2019 11:29 am

      Interesting. I typed most of the recipes from my photo album collection into a google doc, which I shared with my kids.
      It’s much the same as a private blog, except we can add to it.

  5. May 18, 2019 4:11 pm

    We do have about 7 cookbooks but I bring home cookbooks from the library all the time… maybe about 50% of the time do we actually make anything out of one. We used to read Cooking Light magazine but it recently folded. My husband has Milk Street Magazine and he loves it. He’s the cook in the family. We also keep a binder of pages from magazines with our favorite recipes. I probably use that more than the cookbooks.

    • May 20, 2019 11:31 am

      We need a cook in our family! Of the four of us, Walker has the most interest and talent. I have a repertoire of recipes and manage to make most of our day-to-day meals. Ron cooks once a week or so, usually on the weekend when we have people over.

  6. May 27, 2019 10:18 am

    I own a few cookbooks but use none of them. It’s a disgrace. I think that I’m going to make a mid-year resolution to cook a proper dinner for myself at least once a month, and I’d like that to involve trying out new recipes. I actually got a cookbook at the library recently that was for like, recipes that are good for potlucks? And I copied out a few of those recipes to try, because they tend to be fairly simple and quick and, uh, friendly to low-skill cooks like me.

    Ooh, if I come visit, maybe we can try recipes together!!

    • May 27, 2019 3:12 pm

      We can…I can also share my google doc with you. It’s full of recipes for low-skill cooks. My mother and I didn’t get on well in the kitchen, so I taught myself to cook by reading when my kids were small. I might have quit learning any new recipes once they left home, except that in the past six months since Walker has been here with us, he and I have been trying out new vegetarian recipes. We have a couple of ones with zucchini and yellow squash and an excellent and very easy one for black bean enchiladas now.

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