A car and driver, a clothing allowance and massive expense accounts. The life of an editor-in-chief during the golden days of publishing looks very different than it does today, and Ruth Reichl, whose new memoir, “Save Me the Plums,” just came out, brings it all to life on Milk Street Radio.
She spills on working with David Foster Wallace, all-staff trips to Paris during Gourmet magazine’s heyday and why closing up shop wasn’t just emotional, but physically challenging, too. For a taste, read the excerpts below, and then listen to the full interview here on Milk Street Radio.
On working with David Foster Wallace
We had a hard time finding something that David Foster Wallace was willing to do, and finally he agreed to go to the Maine Lobster Festival. I could never in a million years have imagined that he would choose to write about the ethics of eating. Lobsters are the only food that we bring alive into our kitchens and kill ourselves, and he goes into a whole meditation on if it’s correct for us to kill sentient beings purely for our gastronomy pleasure.
The piece is brilliant and I read it and thought, “We have to publish this, but oh my god people are going to cancel their subscriptions in droves.” It was a real lesson to me because despite my fears, two people wrote in to cancel their subscriptions and literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of letters came in applauding the decision to publish this letter. I realized that the worst thing you can do as an editor is underestimate your audience.
On the glory days of the publishing industry
As an editor-in-chief, you had a clothing allowance, you had a car as well as a driver, which was garaged for you. Should you be so inclined, hair and makeup people would show up at your house every morning and fluff you for the day...One of the great moments for me, we started to do a Paris issue, and my wonderful managing editor who saved my life on a daily basis said, “You know what would be really good for morale? If instead of hiring freelancers to work on this, the whole staff goes to Paris.” So, the entire staff went to Paris to write this issue.
On the magazine’s final hours
Somebody shouted, “How long do we have?” After all, there were many people on staff who had literally worked at Gourmet for their entire careers, so closing up was not only emotional but also just physically complicated. S.I. [Gourmet’s publisher] said, “Oh, it’s immaterial.” We all heaved a sigh of relief because we thought, “Oh, this is going to be slow. We’ll have time.” And he said, “Your key cards will work today and tomorrow until 5:00 pm.”
On the meaning of Gourmet’s tagline, “good living,” then and now
Gourmet was started by Mr. MacAusland, basically for rich white men. “Good living” to them meant being a gourmand, traveling in high style, eating in fine restaurants. When I was talking to [editorial director] James Truman, that was one of the things I initially said to him: My idea of good living is very different than that notion.
I believe eating is an ethical act, so if we're talking about good living, we are including all of that. We’re including the life of the mind, we’re including morals. I think that that’s where we are in food today. I think we have very much redefined the notion of what good living means. It means living in a world where everybody has access to good food—good, healthy food.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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