Back in 2009, news broke that the then-current issue of Gourmet magazine, its Thanksgiving edition, would be its last. Since we were hosting the holiday for Jan’s extended family, some twenty or so folks, I decided that, for the first time in my life, I would try to cook an entire meal as put forth in a magazine. If this was the end of Gourmet, a magazine I’d come to admire under editor Ruth Reichl’s tenure, I was going to make the most of it by cooking (most of) their final Thanksgiving dinner. It required a fair bit of preparation: first, a detailed email to the family laying out the plan and the menu, in order to ensure that no unapproved appetizers would destroy the rhythm of the carefully orchestrated meal. Instead of the potluck vibe that informed most of our holidays, I assigned very specific food-contribution options to various family members, mainly wine or bread.
The shopping would take more planning. The Golden Onion Pies would require the purchase of new kitchenware, specifically springform pans. And the Toasted Sweet Corn Pudding called for Cope’s corn, which I would have to mail-order from Pennsylvania. (This almost turned disastrous when I expanded my order with some other Pennsylvania treats like Tastykakes to spread the shipping charge over more items. When it arrived, everything was intact EXCEPT my corn. Thanksgiving was just days away and a frantic call resulted in the company FedExing my corn, just adding to the over-the-top mystique of the occasion.) Though my mother-in-law secretly brought a backup turkey, the meal was a great success, a befitting sendoff to a magazine I’d come to love over its last few years.
I came to Gourmet late in its nearly seventy-year life, inspired to subscribe by the appointment of Ruth Reichl as its editor-in-chief. Reichl is my favorite writer about food, and I’d devoured her memoirs dating back to “Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort Me With Apples.” Her most recent gig had been chief food critic of the New York Times, which resulted in another delectable memoir, but with a magazine, she’d be sharing her talents at a whole new level. She did not disappoint, infusing the magazine with a heightened literary relevance to go alongside its lush photos and alluring recipes, publishing the likes of David Foster Wallace in his legendary “Consider the Lobster” essay.
Reichl’s intuitive mastery of the magazine form could not overcome the transformative tsunami destroying much of the media business, and on her watch, publisher Condé Nast pulled the plug. In her new memoir, “Save Me the Plums,” she chronicles her decade at the helm, as she learned the trade in a company infamous for its low tolerance of inexperienced rubes (see: “The Devil Wears Prada”), charming her way into the hearts of many of her collaborators and, in other cases, replacing them with the likes of her trusted friend Laurie Ochoa and Ochoa’s husband, the future Pulitzer Prize-winning (and now deceased) food writer, Jonathan Gold. Reichl’s book, which she will discuss on her forthcoming Chicago visit, chronicles all of this against the backdrop of the end of the era of the great American magazine as nurtured by publisher Si Newhouse. In spite of its rather disappointing final course, it’s a delicious read anyway. (Brian Hieggelke)