‘It Was Kind of Magical’

Ruth Reichl on Gourmet, Anthony Bourdain’s “vomit draft,” and what her ideal magazine would look like in 2019.

Reichl, at Atla in New York City. Photo: Scott Heins
Reichl, at Atla in New York City. Photo: Scott Heins
Reichl, at Atla in New York City. Photo: Scott Heins

When Gourmet magazine ceased publication in 2009, the New York Times reported that “after a short rest,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Ruth Reichl, “plans to write a book about her years at Condé Nast.” In reality, it took a decade, but today, that book — Save Me the Plumsis out. In it, Reichl takes readers through her decade-long tenure as one of the publishing world’s star editors: reluctantly embracing Condé Nast’s luxury lifestyle, learning to be a boss, and struggling to save an ultimately doomed magazine.

Why do you think people are still interested in Gourmet? It’s been ten years since it folded, and lots of magazines, big and small, have closed up shop in that time. Yet Gourmet still seems to have this almost mythical reputation.
Gourmet stands out in the history of American magazines. Gourmet and The New Yorker both occupy similar spaces, where people thought of themselves as that family. My father bought The New Yorker every week, even if he didn’t read it. We were a New Yorker family. And I think Gourmet was like that. People bought five-year subscriptions, people bought lifetime subscriptions. When it was gone, people didn’t just lose something to read. They really felt like it was a piece of themselves. Literally, there is not a day in my life that goes by that somebody doesn’t come up to tell me that they miss the magazine. And I want to say to them, Did you even read it?

People definitely read it. We should say here that I worked for you, as an assistant editor at the magazine, and part of my job was handling reader calls. There were some very passionate callers.
When I got there, the last page of the magazine was a recipe column, and I wanted to make it an essay. Two years later, people were still writing in asking us to bring the recipe column back, so we did.

Cologne ads in a food magazine were a big point of contention.
I can’t blame people for that — I hate those perfume strips. But people could ask for subscriptions without them. We had a special list of people who demanded it.

I would get calls about every kind of detail you could imagine, like readers who wanted to know the backstory of certain photo spreads and actually tracked down our number to call and talk through it.
The cupcake cover was the perfect example of that. One woman said that it was so horrible that she had to rip it off! But she didn’t throw the magazine out — she just ripped off the cover.

The magazine had different covers for subscribers and for the newsstand edition. When did you implement that practice?
I had people on my first two covers, and the readers really hated them. I found out that people were papering their bathrooms with Gourmet covers, and hanging them in their kitchens. They really wanted food. Newsstand covers are an advertisement. They’re meant to make you want to buy the magazine, not to be beautiful, quiet pictures of food. I always felt like the magazine wasn’t ours; it was theirs. If that’s what readers wanted, we should give it to them.

Reading the book reminded me how fun it was to work at Gourmet. It was my first “real” food job, and I probably took that for granted at the time. But it sounds like you didn’t have much fun.
The beginning was rocky because I really didn’t know anything. I had no idea what an adjacency was. I didn’t know what it was like to manage people. It got much better when Larry [Karol, Gourmet’s managing editor] came. Larry really taught me a lot about being a manager, and then it was fun, once I felt in control and like I knew what I was doing.

It was a little weird to me to read the book because it was like having access to a boss’s inner monologue, ten years after the fact. In the book, you write a lot about your struggle — which I certainly never saw — with navigating Condé Nast’s corporate climate.
I’m not a naturally corporate person. I thought that my struggle to learn to be a boss would be useful to people, and it’s been really interesting. I’ve talked to a lot of 30-something young women in media who are going through a lot of the same things, and do find this useful.

The book is really different than it would have been if I’d written it right after the magazine closed. My editor, who was wonderful, really felt like she didn’t want it to be for the industry or inside-baseball. There were lots of chapters at one point about doing various issues, and it’s fairly hard to make putting an issue together into compelling reading. So you end up hanging it on characters, and there were so many great characters at Condé Nast.

It was such a uniquely weird world.
That’s why I wanted to write this book. It was kind of magical.

Gourmet’s energy was very nonintimidating. It never felt like working at a place where somebody would cut you down or hold their own expertise over you.
I hope that’s true. Literally people just wandered into my office, which is what I wanted. When people weren’t wandering into my office, I thought part of my job was to walk around and get people to tell me what they were thinking.

I mean, pitching you a story was still a little intimidating. But sometimes you read a memoir and it’s told through rose-tinted glasses, and you wonder what things were really like down in the trenches. But my experience, anyway, was that it sounds like it was better in the trenches.
I made it into the workplace I wanted to work in. I just didn’t know any other way to do it.

Even the weekly line-up meetings were kind of fun.
Those meetings were really fun! At one point, there was a chapter in the book called “The Vomit Draft,” which was a line from Nanette [Maxim, Gourmet’s senior features editor]. Our interns had to turn in diaries of their experiences, and one of our interns, who was lovely, gave me her diary when she left. The chapter in the book opened with her hilarious writing about one of those meetings, what everybody said, and how we were all laughing throughout the meeting.

And Nanette coined “vomit draft”?
Tony Bourdain had turned in something, and Nanette had called him to say, “This is your vomit draft. You had to get this out. Now go write the real one.”

I remember seeing his pitches, which feels so crazy to me, to think that he had to make the case to write about anything. He was already famous, but he hadn’t become totally iconic yet.
His mother had been one of my copy editors at the Times, which is how I met him. He did all kinds of things for us. He went to Vegas. He went on some cruise that very rich people bought into, like a condo that just kept going around the world.

There was always a balance of established writers and new voices — an essay from David Foster Wallace, but also a story from someone like Francis Lam when he was just starting out.
Do you know how Francis started writing for us? He walked up to me at a food conference and said, “Would you read this?” I gave it to our executive editor and said, “Sign him up!”

How much of the magazine’s closing felt like it was because of factors that were out of your control?
I think it was almost entirely out of my control.

Are there things you would have done differently if you had known that the closing was a foregone conclusion? Or were there things you did to try and save the magazine that you wouldn’t have given the time to?
In an effort to keep the magazine alive, I was pretty much gone the entire last year shooting Adventures With Ruth. Doing ten TV shoots at the far corners of the world, it’s really time-consuming. If I had known that effort to save it was going to be futile, I would have put all my energy into making the magazine. We would have taken even more chances, and done the most far-out things I could possibly think of.

I’ll tell you what I still do not understand: why, if they were going to close the magazine, they didn’t announce it. If they had said January, February, March, or whatever, was going to be the last issue, ever, do you know how fat it would have been? Every advertiser would have known that people would hang onto that issue forever. They left all this money sitting on the table.

The last issue was November, but there was also a December issue that was basically done, right?
It was totally done! It was at the printer. Somebody from corporate had to fly around and apologize to the people who advertised in the issue because it would never run.

Do you still have ideas and think, This would be so perfect for the magazine?
All the time. Someone will tell me an idea and I think, If I still had a magazine I would run that in a heartbeat. So many really great writers are thinking about food as a possible subject. When I edited The Best American Food Writing last year, I saw there was such a huge group of interesting thinkers who write incredible stuff. You think, If I could get them in a room and have a meeting and start throwing ideas around, the kinds of issues you could put together would be so great! It breaks my heart!

Would you still be at Gourmet if it were still around?
I can’t answer that. I really can’t. I just don’t know. At the time, I was so torn. I really felt like, in the last year, the magazine was not what any of us wanted it to be. The problem is the way magazines are made. The publisher says, “There will be x number of pages, and this is the ratio of advertising to edit,” so you design the magazine around that. Say it’s 100 pages of ads, and then, in the last couple of days, the publisher comes back and says, “Well, there are only 50 pages of ads.” So you say, “Okay, we’ll take this out,” and they say, “You can’t take that out because I sold an adjacency against that.” It’s never the articles you love the best. They don’t sell adjacencies against David Foster Wallace. They sell against “Six Fun Things to Do in Mexico City.” So you end up with this perfectly planned magazine that’s really balanced with wonderful recipes, but the magazine can’t be balanced anymore because you’re now stuck with the things that they’ve sold, and it becomes a lesser creation when you have to move everything around.

One of the benefits of the move to digital is that one choice doesn’t affect the entire enterprise in the same way.
This is a non-magazine example, but Netflix just bought Comfort Me With Apples, to do an eight-part series. I was working with the writer, and asked how long she envisioned each segment being, and she said it really doesn’t matter, because people binge-watch them, so the first one will be an hour, and the next one can be 40 minutes. They’ll be as long as they have to be. The way we consume media has changed what media is.

But nonvisual forms of storytelling, like literature, feel like they’re less marginalized by the web. You can’t recreate certain experiences online.
This gets into what I think magazines can be now. If I had a magazine now, I would never do service stories in print. As far as I’m concerned, that would all go digitally — there’s no point doing that. But I think of people consuming magazines, sort of alone, in bed at night. You want something to fire your imagination, wonderful long-form stories. You want those gorgeous photo shoots that we did, because you imagine yourself into them, and then you start thinking, “How would I do this?” Magazines started out as utilitarian, and that has all gone to the web.

Do you think Gourmet could even exist now in any form?
I do. I think there’s more interest in food than there’s ever been. Look at the success of Lucky Peach when it was around. It’s a different demographic, but it was necessary. Look at Cherry Bombe. They produce this great magazine, time after time, and I think readers want that peaceful space.

Were there times at Gourmet when you thought, This is when we got everything exactly right?
I never thought we got everything right, but there are a lot of stories I’m really proud of. Nina Teicholz’s piece about the problems with trans fats. I was really proud of the Edna Lewis issue. And I had a lot of favorite covers. Romulo [Yanes, Gourmet’s staff photographer] shot a great pomegranate cover, but the mistake I made was that there were no pomegranates in the whole issue. It was very early. I was also proud of our produce issues. It shocked people that we were talking about what happened on the farms.

Looking back at the coverage of the magazine closing, I was struck by the fact that people still viewed it as an elite enterprise for wealthy readers, when you would run stories designed for a mass audience. How hard did you fight to try and change the conversation?
It had that aura of being a magazine for rich white people, even as we ran Barry Estabrook’s amazing piece about the plight of the Immokalee tomato workers. Barry did the first piece about the problem with fish farms, too. People would say, “Yeah, but it’s Gourmet, and your recipes are too complicated.” And they weren’t complicated — we had recipes that only took 15 minutes. But we couldn’t get beyond the idea that it was still your grandmother’s Gourmet. That was both the magazine’s burden and its saving grace.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ruth Reichl on Her Memoir and What Gourmet Meant to Readers