CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — In Ruth Reichl’s 10 years as the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, her most-requested recipe was cheesecake.
“It’s so easy,” she said. “Everybody loves it. It takes five minutes to make.”
Those five minutes provide a lasting sustenance for Jews embarking on an all-night Torah study session on the first evening of Shavuot. And with the holiday coming up this weekend, Reichl shared her Big New York Cheesecake recipe with The Times of Israel.
New York was the setting for Reichl’s distinguished career at Gourmet, the storied food magazine she oversaw from 1999 until its closure in 2009, a victim of the economic crisis and a media trending from print to online.
As editor, legendary Jewish-American writer and New York native Reichl chronicled a transformative era in American food while promoting innovative, sometimes-controversial content — including two separately memorable articles about two non-kosher staples, lobster and bacon. It’s all part of Reichl’s new book, “Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir,” published earlier this year by Penguin Random House.
It’s been a busy few months for Reichl. She edited “The Best American Food Writing 2018” and contributed entries on rye bread and lamb for “The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List,” which was released this March. (Rye bread was her father’s favorite food, and she shared a Passover lamb story.) She visited Israel on a tour for celebrity chefs (she said the country has “such incredible products, and really talented chefs using them in fascinating ways”).
And then there is her memoir, which became a bestseller on its first week of release. Poignantly, it is dedicated to Jewish-American food critic Jonathan Gold and his wife, author and editor Laurie Ochoa, who were both part of Reichl’s staff at the Los Angeles Times and Gourmet. Gold died last year of cancer.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Reichl said, “I never had this kind of response to anything I’ve written. Somehow, this book hit a vein with so many people. People keep saying, ‘I don’t really care about food, but it really resonated with me.’”
She said that “many 30-something working mothers find the book helpful to them,” noting that it addresses being the editor of Gourmet while raising her son Nick with her husband, television news producer Michael Singer. And she marveled at being part of a top-selling trio of current autobiographical authors — “Michelle Obama, Melinda Gates and me.”
Reichl’s book conveys a world of photo shoots in test kitchens; luxurious parties hosted by Gourmet’s late owner, Si Newhouse, the billionaire head of the Conde Nast magazine empire; and visits to France. “I tore off a hunk of bread and scooped up a slab of pâté,” she writes of a Paris restaurant. “The flavor filled my mouth — strong, rustic, a pâté with conviction. ‘God, this is good.’”
In April, Reichl told a standing-room-only crowd at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square that being editor of Gourmet “really was a plum job.” (Her book is named after the famous William Carlos Williams poem in which the tasty purple fruit represents a guilty pleasure.) Reichl’s book is “a sort of homage to Gourmet and what it meant to me,” she said.
Founded in 1940, Gourmet has a special place in many Americans’ hearts. As Reichl explained to The Times of Israel, it was the first epicurean magazine in the US, and “decade by decade, Gourmet really chronicled American food, all of its history,” with an additional focus on international cuisine. “You watched the world open through the pages of the magazine,” she said.
That happened for Reichl as an 8-year-old growing up in Manhattan. Her father, a German-Jewish immigrant and a book designer, enjoyed visiting used bookstores on weekends, taking his daughter with him. On one such visit, she was entranced by a Gourmet article, “Night of Lobster,” in which Pulitzer Prize winner and Maine poet laureate Robert P. Tristram Coffin wrote evocatively of New England seascapes and crustaceans.
“Suddenly here it hit home in such a wonderful way that real life could be as magnificent as any fairy tale,” Reichl said. “It gave me another way of understanding not just food, not just writing, but the world. I realized that if I paid attention to what was happening to me on a daily basis, what an extraordinary life I could have. I’ve had a few ‘aha’ moments. This was one of them.”
“This was, of course, before the #MeToo movement tore down the curtain and exposed the ugliness behind the kitchen door,” she writes in “Save Me the Plums.” “How much did we know? I’d been writing articles since the ’70s about the rise of the woman chef, and I’d heard the stories about the old days. But I’d thought that was behind us.”
She adds that over her “many years in restaurants as a waitress, cook, and writer, I can’t say that the chefs I met were any worse than the men I encountered in publishing or the art world. In retrospect I feel like a coward for having put up with any of that, but it was what we all considered the way of the world. I hope my granddaughters will live in a better one.”
Reichl went on to become the editor of the LA Times food section, the New York Times restaurant critic and the author of bestselling books such as her previous memoir “Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table.” Yet when invited to lead Gourmet, she hesitated.
As she told her Cambridge audience, she felt the magazine had grown stuffy, and she was ambivalent to join the corporate culture of Conde Nast and its 20-plus publications, but she ultimately accepted because “I really did have a vision of what a food magazine should be.”
The book details that vision and how it sometimes conflicted with old-guard readers — including a decision she made over a cupcake photo.
“I don’t think we were completely aware how much many of the older readers of Gourmet thought of themselves as kind of guardians of high culture till we put a cupcake on the cover,” she told The Times of Israel. “It seemed completely anodyne to me. Why was it so upsetting to so many people?”
Although Reichl described the image as “a beautiful cupcake,” angry letters kept coming from readers who called it “the most disgusting cover I’ve ever seen.” One wrote, “I had to tear the cover off.”
“I realized that many thought food belonged to a very small club of people, haute cuisine,” she said. “They were suddenly upset. Food suddenly belonged to a much larger group of people. Instead of [food] currents trickling down from the tables of wealth, [now there was] food-cart food, street food, tacos. Flavors were trickling up to the tables of white-tablecloth restaurants. They did not like that one bit.”
Some of her other innovations went over better than anticipated — such as “Consider the Lobster,” noted writer David Foster Wallace’s exploration of a Maine seafood festival that, let’s just say, was much different than the Gourmet lobster piece Reichl read as an 8-year-old.
“I never expected in my mind that [Wallace’s article] would be a bioethics piece about the morality of eating a living creature,” she said.
The disquisition even contained a reference to infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. She told her Cambridge audience about back-and-forth discussions with Wallace in which she urged him to remove the Mengele reference, among other things.
“I was positive half of our subscribers would cancel their subscriptions, that I would lose my job,” she told The Times of Israel. “It was a great lesson: Never underestimate readers. Two canceled. One hundred wrote, ‘Thank you for such a terrific piece.’”
That inspired Reichl to explore other challenging subjects, including “Some Pig” by David Rakoff, in which the Jewish-Canadian writer delved into the relationship between Jews and bacon.
“It was very controversial,” she said. “It was wonderful. It really annoyed, and also delighted, a lot of people. He found out at one point that a Reform rabbi in Chicago was trying to say it was okay for Jews to eat bacon, sometime in the 1860s. It ended up being a piece about more than just Jews and bacon — the morality of food.” She called it one of her favorites.
By pursuing her vision and encouraging colleagues to pursue their ideas as well, Reichl was able to transcend feeling like an out-of-place newcomer to Conde Nast. She bonded with her staff — a bond that showed its strength during the 9/11 attacks. Conde Nast closed its offices after the terrorist attacks took down the Twin Towers, but Reichl learned of the emergency workers going to Ground Zero and invited her staff to join her in preparing and serving meals to them.
“I think on the part of all of us in New York, there was a huge desire to do something, to try to help in some way,” Reichl said. She recalled “a revealing moment” when she gave a bowl of chili to an emergency worker who said it reminded him of home. “I think we all felt how restorative food can be for people who cook, people who eat,” Reichl said.
Seven years later, New York faced a different kind of test in the global financial crisis, which ultimately led to the closure of Gourmet. Reichl was in Seattle on a book tour for “The Gourmet Cookbook” when she received a phone call summoning her back to New York.
“I thought it was what I had been expecting all along — that I would be fired,” she told her Cambridge audience. “I was stunned to discover they were not firing me but closing the magazine. It was a really horrible moment.”
She has respectful words for the late Conde Nast head Si Newhouse, whom she calls “truly a visionary, one of the last publishers putting out a quality product [readers] will appreciate.”
She has kept herself occupied with projects such as compiling a list of recipes that saved her in her first 365 days away from Gourmet into the book “My Kitchen Year,” and editing “The Best American Food Writing 2018.” But the magazine she was part of for so long, and what it represented, remained in her thoughts.
“I wanted to celebrate a golden moment for magazines,” Reichl said. “I was fortunate enough to be there, part of this moment. It’s over. It will never come again.”
Ruth Reichl’s Big New York Cheesecake
1 package Famous Chocolate Wafers
1½ pounds cream cheese
1 pint sour cream
1 5/8 cups sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter (melted)
2½ teaspoons vanilla
Serves 8 to 10
Cheesecake is about the easiest thing you can possibly bake, a completely foolproof recipe that relies on supermarket staples. Most people adore it: at Gourmet, cheesecake was our most requested recipe. Show up anywhere with one of these and you’ll be welcome.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
To make the crust, crush chocolate wafers until you have about a cup and a half (that will take about 6 ounces of wafers). Mix in a quarter cup of sugar, a pinch of salt, and the melted butter. Using your fingers, pat this mixture into the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan, making it even all around. Put the pan into the freezer for 15 minutes (it will keep here, covered, for a couple of months). Bake for 10 minutes, just to crisp the crust. Remove the pan and turn the oven down to 300 degrees.
Beat the cream cheese with a cup of sugar, the eggs, and 1½ teaspoons of vanilla until you have a completely smooth mixture. Pour it into the crust and bake for about 50 minutes, or until the cheese is set on the edges but still a bit wobbly in the middle. Remove the cake from the oven (leave the oven on) and cool for about 10 minutes on a wire rack.
Meanwhile, mix the sour cream with 2 tablespoons of sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Spread this mixture evenly over the cooled cake, then return it to the oven for about 12 minutes until the glaze is glossy and set.
Cool completely, then chill for at least 8 hours.
From “My Kitchen Year” by Ruth Reichl, published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.