Spring sets out to prove that the six writers he chronicles — Julia Child, M. F. K. Fisher, Alexis Lichine, A. J. Liebling, Richard Olney and Alice B. Toklas — were responsible for making “the age-old French dialogue surrounding food, wine and the table” part of the American dialogue. I’m not convinced he’s done that, but he has achieved something much more interesting: offered us an entirely new perspective on a group of people we thought we knew.
John Birdsall’s telephone interview with Reichl published today in the LA Times:
I wanted to ask you about your time at the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s and early ’90s, as critic and food section editor, and how it shaped what you did later at Gourmet.
It’s probably the thing I’ve done in my life that I’m most proud of. And I was really lucky in that I didn’t do it alone. There was a staff there, but mostly it was me and Laurie [Ochoa] and Jonathan [Gold], but mostly me and Laurie going in there and really thinking, “What should a food section be?” We had this section that brought in $32 million a year in advertising. It was another time, when supermarkets were still in competition, so Vons would take 10 pages, and then A&P would take 10 pages. It was just this giant cash cow. And we had this kitchen, with this staff of three and a photo studio — I mean, we had incredible resources. And we really did set out to explore the city from the point of view of food. It was like, “Look at your neighbors!” Let’s walk every block of Chinatown and go in and out of the stores and talk about what you do with all the stuff that’s in there. It was amazing. I mean, we really had fun with it. We were young, just a different generation from the mostly women who had been putting that section together. We didn’t know that there was anything we couldn’t do. And the supermarkets were furious with what we’d done, because suddenly we were running real articles. Before us, they had owned the food section, pretty much.
And you stole Jonathan Gold away from L.A. Weekly to do “Counter Intelligence” in the L.A. Times.
Well, it wasn’t too hard. Laurie and Jonathan were living together. And really, I had hired Laurie because Jonathan said, “You should hire my girlfriend.” I think it was very much all of us, together, and we were all excited about food. Jonathan had the L.A. sensibility and I had the Berkeley sensibility. I came at it with a real political interest in food, and Jonathan’s was more local — he’d already been eating up and down Pico!
Thanks for the pointer! Now I want to read this book. I was both inspired (mostly) and infuriated (sometimes) by Gourmet when Ruth Reichel was at the helm. (I recall the perspective of certain articles came across as elitist to me. That’s subjective, I know.)
One thing was certain: I couldn’t stop reading the articles. I miss the well-researched, long-form writing about the food that comes to our tables.
Reichl also recounts the ins and outs of human resources: the revolving door of publishers, the firing and hiring of staff, and how she lured talent to the magazine — including brilliant writers like Ann Patchett, who puts a turtle on her expense account to save it from certain death in a market on the Amazon, and David Foster Wallace, who delivers 10,000 controversial words on the Maine Lobster Festival. Magazine makers will appreciate Reichl’s recipe-like telling of how the art director Richard Ferretti reinvented Gourmet’s covers, infusing them with cinematic clarity and drama.
When the stock market plunges in 2008 and the housing crisis threatens newsstand sales, Reichl and her staff take a counterintuitive path and head for Paris, jettisoning the Condé Nast ethos of spending as they create an entire issue devoted to budget travel and food.
Q: What is the meaning behind the title “Save Me the Plums”?
A: The title is taken from a poem by William Carlos Williams called “This Is Just To Say,” which is not only my favorite poem, but one that is very well known by many food people. You say the word “plum” to a food person, and instantly they’ll go, “I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox.” It’s become a meme on Twitter, where people will often paraphrase it for other things.
I love William Carlos Williams too - but that poem is so clearly a note left by a selfish asshole, basically a straight-up statement of theft, or you might say appropriation. No wonder I suppose that it’s such a favorite among professional “food people.”:
Lots of writers who aren’t food writers have beautiful passages about food in their work. Lawrence Durrell. James Joyce. T. C. Boyle (“Sorry Fugu” is one of the great short stories focused on food). And of course Joseph Mitchell, for whom food was a constant theme. But I suspect you’re asking me about food writers. Last year, when I edited “The Best American Food Writing,” I realized that the current generation is really wonderful. Ligaya Mishan and Tejal Rao are both poets of food. Francis Lam. Mayukh Sen. Michael W. Twitty. Khushbu Shah. Wyatt Williams. As for the previous generation, I’ll read anything by Calvin Trillin, A. J. Liebling or Joseph Wechsberg. But to my mind, nobody has yet eclipsed Mary Frances Fisher. (If you don’t believe me, go read her passage about tangerines.)