Breaking bread, family meal before dinner service, indulging in the buttery goodness of a rich dessert–they are all moments in time that carry flavor triggers. When we smell the aroma of bacon grease from bed in the morning, when we sniff the hearty smell of cheese melted into a relative’s signature dip, when a cloud of the unique scent of smoke that comes from a brisket slow cooking all day hits our noses. Food connects people and great food is sensual. When we taste something decadent, we tend to inhale sharply, close our eyes, enjoying a moment of sensory pleasure unique to dining.
I am a foodie. I enjoy food and I live for a meal shared with people I care about coupled with the best (read: best within a certain price range) red wine I can find on the menu. I am someone who loves receiving a text that reads: “happy hour?” or “brunch?” or “I’m craving Thai, want to go?” In short, I live to eat, and I am not someone who eats to live. I often feel utterly out of place when I sit across from someone who moves their food around for minutes upon minutes and then, ever so daintily, takes such a small bite it’s hard to discern if any of the meal actually entered their mouth. So, when I read about food, I get a hunger in my gut that isn’t actual huger, but rather hunger for the opportunity to share in the moment, in the discovery of flavor.
In 2016, I read Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. The first line reads: “You will develop a palate.” I loved how Danler weaved the discovery of oneself into the discovery of taste. I just finished Save Me The Plums by Ruth Reichl. This book was, put simply, fabulous. I picked it up once Grace Atwood of the The Stripe.com and Bad on Paper podcast devoured it (pun intended). Ruth Reichl’s writing is at once immersive and reflective. We feel as if we are in the Gourmet kitchen, sniffing a sauce and trying to discern how to improve the recipe but we also feel Reichl recalling something long passed. Juxtaposing Sweetbitter and Save Me The Plums, I found a curious difference between fiction and nonfiction. Namely, with fiction we are exploring and learning along with our protagonist. As Tess, Danler’s heroine, tastes oysters for the first time, we explore their saltiness right along with her and have to try to anticipate where they will lead her. As Reichl learns the ropes of being an Editor-In-Chief, we know that she will forge ahead and persevere until Condé Nast pulls the plug on the incredible, long-running magazine as though the magazine is a freezer that no longer keeps the plums sweet and cold. We know our ending. And yet, the journey to the final page is still captivating.
The style of the memoir is linear and clear. We watch Reichl rise as Editor-In-Chief, only to watch the magazine crumble. Slowly at first and then all at once. With each moment that becomes a dot in the trajectory of her journey, Reichl includes notable recipes throughout the book, and I am now determined to try them all. While they may not create a cohesive meal together, they tell a story. I used to shy away from nonfiction, convinced it was a genre I didn’t enjoy. I suppose I didn’t like knowing the ending. However, lately, I cannot get enough. Last summer, I read Educated by Tara Westover, a nonfiction book that many reviews said read like fiction. Now I think that what makes good nonfiction is a good storyteller. In an interview, Danler said they key to good writing is the voice. Without a voice, a story becomes an apple crumble instead of an apple tart. Good nonfiction, as Danler said of fiction, equally depends on the voice of the writer. Nonfiction must have a voice so clear, so distinct, that regardless of whether you know the ending, you feel as though someone is sitting with you, sipping a glass of wine, telling you a story you can’t eat up fast enough. Okay, okay, enough with the food references.
All of this to say, I thoroughly enjoyed Save Me the Plums. The title is an allusion to William Carlos Williams “This Is Just to Say,” a poem about the narrator eating plums someone was saving for a later date. I read the poem in college, and, frankly, thought it was bland. It didn’t evoke anything particularly strong and I remember thinking, “this is why I don’t read poetry. I much prefer novels.” However, after reading this memoir, and reading the poem a few times subsequently, I think I get it now.