In 2009, Condé Nast shuttered its premiere food magazine Gourmet after 68 years in business. It was a shock to readers, to food lovers, to media world watchers, to restaurant industry reporters (hi). It was a shock to Ruth Reichl, the woman at the helm. “A world without Gourmet was unimaginable,” Reichl writes in her new memoir Save Me the Plums, where she recounts the full story of her decade at the magazine for the first time. As the recession hit and revenue plummeted at a magazine dependent on luxury advertisers, Reichl figured change was coming. “I’d fortified myself against the pain of being fired, but this was worse: They had murdered the magazine,” she writes.
Almost 10 years later, she says on the Eater Upsell today that she still finds the decision “unfathomable,” noting that Condé’s owner S.I. Newhouse refused to sell the publication to the many people who reached out hoping to take it on.
Of course, the memoir centers on more than the magazine’s demise. Reichl’s story is one of learning how to manage a staff and run a magazine after a career in newspapers, juggling demands at work and at home, and living through the golden era of Condé, with its notoriously exorbitant salaries, clothing allowances, black cars on demand, and generous operating budgets.
Listen to our full interview with Reichl and see some highlights below:
Why she wrote the book: “I felt like I had the extraordinary privilege of being in at the end of the golden age of American magazines and I thought people should know what a wonderful time it was. Condé Nast, when I was there, was run by S.I. Newhouse who was a strange and wonderful man but really one of the last publishers in America who believed that if you give people quality they would pay for it. He literally handed me a magazine and said, make it great. Spend whatever you need to spend to do that and then left me to do it. Who does that and who gets to do that?
...I also thought that my experience of learning to be a boss might be useful to people because my way of running that magazine — and it’s to Condé Nast’s credit that they let me do it — was very non-hierarchical and I think very much the way women do it as opposed to the way most men do it. I also thought that my experience as a working mother which is difficult, might be useful to people. I loved being a mother and I loved my work and those things shouldn’t be in conflict but in America today, they are.”
Why she waited a decade: “I was so depressed after the magazine closed. I really felt that I had failed the readers of Gourmet ... I felt that I had failed them and above all that I have failed my staff, that somehow, I don’t know how, but somehow I should have prevented them from closing the magazine. For the first at least year after the magazine closed, I was in not a great space, and it would have been a much less celebratory book.”
On not seeing it coming: “I thought I would get fired, I did not in a million years imagine that they would fold Gourmet ... I just couldn’t imagine a world without Gourmet and the truth is that I still don’t understand what possessed them to do that. There’s literally not a day that has passed since ... it’s 10 years now, almost 10 years, that someone doesn’t come up to me and say, ‘I can’t tell you how much I miss that magazine’ and to throw that away, that kind of connection that the magazine had with the public, it’s unfathomable to me.”
Why S.I. Newhouse didn’t just sell it: “I think he thought that at some point he would bring it back. He had brought back Vanity Fair ... I know he loved the magazine and I think he thought at some point, he’d bring it back.”
Why they closed Gourmet over Bon Appetit: I wasn’t the only one who was surprised but also I knew that they had not been hit as hard as we have been hit. The strategy for Gourmet in terms of ad sales had always been that we went for luxury ads and Bon Appétit, even though our demographics were exactly the same really, they had always accepted a lot of kind of ads we didn’t. The advertising strategy for Gourmet was you can’t have Tiffany’s and Campbell’s Soup. We are going to go for the high-end luxury ads and that meant rejecting the packaged goods. So if there’s a recession, if Tiffany’s suddenly decides they’re only going to spend half as much money on advertising this year, are they going to cut Vogue or Gourmet? And that was our situation across the board. Our biggest advertising categories were automotive banking, beauty, travel, high-end appliances and virtually that whole market was hit.”
On food magazines today: “It would be interesting to me today to think about the function of a magazine. Aren’t the recipes on the web in some ways more useful to people? What is it that an epicurean magazine should be today? I think it’s very different ... and I think magazine editors are struggling with that very much.
It hurts me that nobody is really doing those kind of great dreamy centerfold pieces that we did where we really did try and create a mood, and it was something where we’re trying to seduce you into cooking those dishes ... Increasingly, what you’re seeing are studio shots ... it’s just the food, and you can shoot a picture of a piece of cake and put it on the web as easily as you can do it in a print magazine, and it’s very different to create that space.”
On picking her battles with corporate: “I am so not a fighter, but I did spend 20 years in newspapers, and there are just some things that seemed really important to me. So when it’s really important, when you feel like you’re going to be a lesser person if you let that happen, when you wouldn’t want your kid to know that you did that, that’s sort of where you draw the line. I would actually think, if Nick knew that I had done this, would he be ashamed of me? You never want your kid to be ashamed.”
On regretting not managing up better: “Everywhere I’ve been as an employee, my best friends have been the secretaries, the copy editors, not the bosses, and stupidly when I was at the New York Times, I didn’t take the big wigs out to eat. It never occurred to me until I was sort of out of the job and I realized everybody else did that. They took the editor to dinner ... I spent a lot of time in Berkeley, what can I say? It doesn’t occur to me to try and make friends with power, and I later wished that I had become friends with S.I. — Graydon [Carter] and David [Remnick] and Anna [Wintour] all spent a lot of time with him, and he wanted to spend more time with me, but he made me so uncomfortable. I really admired him but he was a deeply uncomfortable person and I felt badly that I hadn’t sort of made that effort. I probably would have known more about what was going on.”