In 2009, Condé Nast shuttered its premiere food magazine Gourmet after 68 years in business. It was a shock to readers, food lovers, media world watchers, and restaurant industry reporters. 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.
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 Nast, with its notoriously exorbitant salaries, clothing allowances, black cars on demand, and generous operating budgets. It is also the story of the evolution of the modern food world and media’s place within it.
In this excerpt from Save Me the Plums, Reichl recounts the difficulties she had finally launching Gourmet’s website, something she had been asking for since she arrived, and the internal rivalry with recipe site Epicurious. —Amanda Kludt
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.
Cooks embraced the Internet from the very start, immediately appreciating the ease of googling an ingredient and finding dozens of different ways to use it. They treasured the ability to comment on a recipe and warn other cooks away from a dud or to suggest alternative methods. Instant communities sprang up, as cooks asked and answered dozens of questions. The Internet literally transformed the way we cook.
The possibilities the Internet held for Gourmet were so exciting that I began fighting for a website from my first day on the job. But Si [Newhouse, then the chairman of Condé Nast] was wary of the Web; while other media companies invested in technology, he sank a reported one hundred million dollars into a new print magazine. “Sank” is the appropriate word: Portfolio, his flashy business magazine, flamed out after two years. Meanwhile, he pursued an Internet strategy that involved shoveling the contents of his many magazines into super-sites like Epicurious and style.com.
But having Epicurious as our only online presence made me miserable, and for years I tried to persuade Si that Gourmet deserved a standalone site. I presented data about recipes being the most wanted content on the Web. Si didn’t care. My talk about Web advertising strategies interested him not at all. After each session I stomped back to my office to sit by, impotent and angry, as Epicurious siphoned off our recipes.
I did not fume alone. Everyone at Gourmet hated Epicurious. They were our archenemy. “We’re getting robbed!” Zanne [Stewart, Gourmet’s executive food editor] once complained. “And what’s worse is the way our recipes get tossed in with all the others as if there was no difference between us and Parade, Self...” Morosely, she listed all the other publications whose recipes lived on Epicurious. “At least Bon Appétit has a test kitchen,” she said darkly, “but some of the others...” I thought of our insane testing process and the vast amounts of money we spent ensuring that our recipes were absolutely foolproof.
When I complained to Chuck [Townsend, former Condé Nast CEO], over yet another bland lunch, he sighed deeply. “I hear the same thing from Anna Wintour,” he said. “You both want to support your brands with standalone sites. I certainly understand, but Si won’t budge.”
I don’t know what made Si change his mind, but when he finally did, he came in person to deliver the news. “I want you to create gourmet.com as quickly as possible,” he said as he sat down.
In my excitement, I began to babble. “You won’t be sorry; we’re going to create the best food site on the Web. We’ve got so many ideas! We’re going to hire a videographer and put webcams in the kitchen so readers can get to know the cooks; I was thinking we might even script a little show and call it Soup Opera. Just a few minutes from the kitchen every day. And we’ll create an online course: ‘Learn to Cook with Gourmet.’”
Was that a smile? Hard to tell. “That could be lucrative,” he said cautiously.
“We’ll go behind the scenes of all the restaurants we review,” I rushed on, “take cameras right into the kitchens. We’ll get our foreign correspondents to send daily dispatches from every corner of the world. We’ll put up episodes of our television show, Diary of a Foodie. And then of course there’s all the great content from the past. . . .”
Si’s face told me I was talking too fast, that he found my enthusiasm frightening. I reined myself in, tried to slow down. “Our recipes alone should quickly build traffic; everybody knows they’re the best-tested and most reliable recipes in the world.”
Si fidgeted, looking more uncomfortable than usual. “No,” he said.
“You can’t have your recipes.”
“Excuse me?” I struggled to understand what he was saying. “Every recipe published in Gourmet belongs to Epicurious. That will not change.”
For a moment I was too stunned to speak. When I’d mastered my emotions I squeaked, “Are you telling me you want us to create a website without recipes? I’m sorry, but that’s insane!”
Si drew himself up. “Epicurious,” he said with regal deliberation, “is the oldest recipe site on the Web. It is very successful.” He rose, ponderously, from the chair. “It will continue as in the past.” He turned toward the door; the audience was over.
“Wait!” I couldn’t not try. “What if we put the recipes up on both Epicurious and gourmet.com?”
“That risks cannibalizing their traffic, and we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize our most successful website. When readers want recipes, we’ll just redirect the traffic from Gourmet to Epicurious.” He had reached the door now, but he turned to throw me a bone.
“Any extra recipes you create,” he said graciously, “anything that hasn’t run in the book, are yours to use as you see fit.” His smile suggested I should be grateful for this gift.
“It’s a disaster!” Doc [aka John Willoughby, Gourmet’s executive editor] was appalled.
“Worse than that,” said Larry [Karol, the managing editor] gloomily. “It could destroy us. Building a website and staffing it is going to cost a fortune; I’ve been working on the figures. How are we supposed to make it back if the recipes live on Epicurious? They’ll get all the ads.” He darted out of the office and returned with a handful of documents.
“Do you want to know how much we spend on creating the recipes?”
“No,” I said. He didn’t have to tell me that the meticulous Gourmet system ate up a small fortune.
Larry ignored me. “The kitchen budget is huge. Salaries for twelve cooks, three dishwashers, a photographer, and his assistant. Food costs alone run more than a hundred grand a year. Props for photographs. Corporate charges for the kitchen. Not to mention copyediting the recipes. And we’re supposed to just hand them over for free?”
“Epicurious should at least share the costs,” said Doc. “If the recipes are going to live on their website, it’s only fair.”
“It would be simple to do,” Larry pointed out. “Just bookkeeping; no actual money need change hands. All they’d have to do is shift some of the costs on paper, put some of the expenses on their budget instead of ours.”
But when we presented the figures to John Bellando, the chief financial officer, he laughed as if we’d told a hilarious joke. “That,” he said succinctly, “is not going to happen.”
“I blame myself,” I said as we gloomily left the office. “I kept pushing for our own website. I never dreamed they’d handicap us like this.”
“It’s not your fault,” said Larry. “How could you have imagined this? How could anyone? Of course we should have our own website. Food sites are huge.”
“Yeah,” I said glumly, “but what people want are recipes.”
“We can’t have a website without recipes,” Larry agreed. “And unfortunately I can only think of one solution. The kitchen’s going to have to create twice as many.”
“That’ll be great for morale,” I muttered.
“Not to mention the budget,” he added. We stood there, the two of us, envisioning the huge piles of food the cooks were now going to require.
Looking back, I should have just said no. But, reluctant to be a squeaky wheel, I drove on like a good girl, devoting more and more resources to a money pit that could never be solvent, a hungry maw that could never be sated, a future we could never quite reach. I knew I was tilting at windmills, but I loathe confrontation and I kept hoping that somehow it would be okay.
There were high points. We were the first print magazine to hire a full-time video producer, and through her work readers came to know — and love — all the cooks. We were able to demonstrate techniques — boning fish, icing cakes, sharpening knives. We created crazy recipes for ingredients that would never have made it into the magazine: offal, insects, corn silk, and carrot tops. Best of all, for the first time we had the luxury of space. Now, whenever someone came up with an offbeat idea, it was easy to say yes. “We can always put it on the Web...” became our mantra.
And that is exactly what I said when Ian Knauer and Alan Sytsma approached me about the goat.
Ian Knauer was our most unorthodox cook. A talented chef, he was also a farmer, forager, and hunter, and this unique set of skills set him apart from everyone else in the kitchen. You never knew what he’d show up with: a deer he’d shot over the weekend, the season’s first chanterelles, a slew of ramps he’d stumbled across in Prospect Park. Ian came to us as a backup recipe tester, and when I told him we were promoting him to full-time food editor, he stared at me for one shocked second and then said, “Shut the fuck up!”
Now he was poking his head into my office. “Alan and I have an idea—” he began.
Alan picked it up. “We just saw this cool documentary called A Son’s Sacrifice—”
“Slow down,” I said.
Ian gestured to Alan to continue. “It takes place in a halal butcher shop filled with live animals; you choose your beast and then they slaughter it.”
“So,” Ian picked up the thread, “we want to do a story about how it feels to watch an animal make the transition from living, breathing creature to something that you cook.”
Five years earlier, this story would have been too gruesome to consider. Now I hesitated, wondering if Gourmet readers were ready for this.
“It could be very powerful,” Alan pleaded. “The meat movement is starting to take off; people are really interested in butchering.”
He had a point. The artisanal food movement had turned butchers into heroes, and nose-to-tail classes were selling out. Maybe this was worth doing?
“We can always put it on the Web,” I said.
They returned from Queens carrying two huge black plastic sacks, and you could smell them halfway across the building. The reek of the abattoir was so intense it seemed they had brought the entire contents of the butcher shop with them. The goat’s body was still warm, and as they drew closer the primal scent grew stronger. By the time they reached the kitchen door, the animal funk was overwhelming. Up close, the sharp metallic smell of freshly spilled blood made the hair on the nape of my neck rise; despite my strong wish not to, I put my hand over my mouth. For a moment I stopped breathing.
“I can’t believe the guards let you in.” I cautiously lowered my hand.
“They didn’t seem happy,” Ian admitted. “But we flashed our employee passes and ran for an elevator before they could stop us. The doors were just closing.”
“I hope it was empty.”
Ian and Alan exchanged a glance. Ian heaved his plastic bag onto the kitchen counter. “Anna Wintour was in there.”
I stared at him, fascinated and appalled. “What did she do?”
“What could she do? She just kept backing into the corner until she couldn’t go any farther.”
I watched as he removed sundry bits of bloody goat from the bag. “Goat tacos,” he said, “are on the menu.”
I eyed him suspiciously — did Gourmet readers want goat tacos? Briefly, I envied Anna; she didn’t have to dream up ridiculous ways to generate traffic for her website.
Later, reading the story, I was ashamed of myself. There was nothing remotely ridiculous about the article Ian and Alan had written.
The halal butchers they introduced were proud men who had invested every penny they had in their shop. After September 11, they said sadly, everything changed and their once-thriving business began to struggle. Faith kept them going: They sincerely believed they had a God-given mission. Their goats were humanely raised on a rural hillside, and they were convinced their customers would appreciate how much finer spoke they were than ordinary goats, how much more delicious. “It is this food” — the butcher said reverently — “that can help the rest of America accept Islam.”
As Ian and Alan waded among the flock of goats, trying to select the finest animal, the butcher stood to one side, sharpening his knife. He prayed over the chosen goat, thanked him for his life, and dispatched the beast with a single slash to the throat. As he delivered the carcass into Ian’s hands, he said quietly, “I know you guys will treat him well.”
It was a solemn moment, for the goat represented something much bigger than food to these butchers. It was hope for the present — and a prayer for the future. Looking back, it occurs to me that it was the perfect metaphor for gourmet.com.
Copyright © 2019 by Ruth Reichl, excerpted from Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, to be published by Random House.