Save Me the Plums - Ruth Reichl Page 0,2
my native city. Dad and I began wandering the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, discovering them through food. I loved La Marqueta, a tropical swirl of color that smelled of bananas, pineapples, and coconuts up in Spanish Harlem. Tito Puente’s music was always playing as we moved through the crowded stalls, munching on fried plantains from a cuchifritos stand and ordering mofongo for the pure pleasure of saying the word.
Dad became almost garrulous on these walks, and I slowly began to know him; once he took me to the Lower East Side, to Russ & Daughters, where I discovered that he had a passion for herring. “When your mother and I were dating,” he said, “that’s how she seduced me.”
“But we never have herring!” I said.
“I know.” He said it ruefully. “After we were married she confessed that she hates pickled fish. And she never bought it again.” Another man would have been angry; Dad found it amusing, just one of life’s little quirks.
What I was learning, on those weekend walks, is how much you can find out about a person merely by watching what he eats. Food became my own private way of looking at the world. But although it was my passion, I never thought of food as more than a hobby, and it never crossed my mind that it might be a way to earn my living. Even after college, when jobs proved elusive in the depressed New York of the early seventies and I began baking pastries for a restaurant called Food (run by a group of artists in the scruffy neighborhood that would come to be called SoHo), I considered it a stopgap measure, just something to do until my real life could begin.
Then a friend said, “You’re such a good cook, you ought to write a cookbook,” and everything changed. From the moment I picked up my pen, I knew that I had found my calling; I was twenty-two years old. Mmmmm: A Feastiary was not a big bestseller, but it made me a food writer. I moved to Berkeley, California, and although I continued to work in restaurants to pay the bills, I began contributing articles to magazines, working my way up from a small throwaway newspaper called The East Bay Review of the Performing Arts to New West, Apartment Life, and Ms. magazine. I dreamed of writing for the magazine that had set me on this path, but I lacked the courage to approach Gourmet. I was waiting for the perfect story.
It came to me in a spoonful of soup. Sitting in a small Thai restaurant, I ordered tom yum goong, which turned out to be the shocking pink of a Technicolor sunset. I took a tentative sip and suddenly there were fireworks in my mouth. Chilies, lemongrass, ginger, and cilantro exploded in waves of heat, cold, and sweetness. It was the most exciting food I’d ever tasted and I inhaled one spoonful after another, hoping the bowl would never end. I knew I had to go to Thailand and find out what real Thai food was like. This, I thought, is my Gourmet story. The next time I went to New York to see my parents, I made an appointment at the magazine.
The offices were just off Park Avenue, overlooking the Waldorf Astoria hotel. As a proud Berkeley person I found the formality intimidating, and all I remember about the editor who agreed to see me is that she was wearing white gloves and seemed terribly ancient. She took one look at my clothes—I was wearing my favorite hand-crocheted green chenille suit—shuddered slightly, and offered a limp handshake.
But she listened politely as I made my pitch. Brimming with energy, enthusiasm, and all the naïve earnestness of a young writer, I cried, “Thai food is going to be the next big thing.”
“But our readers”—her voice was cool and distant—“have no interest in the next big thing. Other publications attempt to be timely; here at Gourmet we like to think of ourselves as timeless.”
“That can’t be true!” I replied. “I’ve learned everything I know about the food of other countries from the pages of your magazine. Gourmet has taken me to Mexico, China, India….Now you need to take your readers to Thailand.”
She regarded me with what I can only call pity. “We ran a story about food in Thailand a few years ago,” she said.
“But you only wrote about Bangkok!” I protested. I did not point out that the article had been written