The first time I ever encountered Ed Levine’s name, it was in a Ruth Reichl book. It was her 2005 memoir, “Garlic and Sapphires,” the volume in which she amplified and electrified her turn as the restaurant critic for the New York Times. Late in the story, Reichl replayed her white-knuckle car tour of Brooklyn with Levine as he dodged traffic — and his own mortality — to give the critic a taste of the borough’s finest bakeries, butchers and candy shops.
These scenes solidified everything I already loved, or would come to love, about Reichl and Levine: The latter’s bloodhound pursuit of the most delicious foods — and his puppyish affection for the artisans who make them — and Reichl’s lyrical voice and her ability to capture her movements through the food world, even when she fears she has been kidnapped by a madman.
“Ed was full of opinions: I should be buying this olive oil instead of that, my coffee should come from next door, and he did not approve of my choice of smoked salmon,” Reichl wrote in “Garlic and Sapphires.” “But his enthusiasm was so infectious that I couldn’t be annoyed.”
In the past few months, these two venerable food journalists — Levine, the cult figure; Reichl, the titan — have released books that lay out the vastly different paths they followed in the years after they shared that rollicking, invigorating trip in Brooklyn.
“Save Me the Plums” — an allusion to William Carlos Williams’s sweet stanzas — depicts Reichl’s own wild ride as editor of Gourmet magazine, back when its parent company, Condé Nast, still had clout, glamour and enough bank to hire Frank Gehry to design its cafeteria. “Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption” tells Levine’s story of launching Serious Eats with a $500,000 investment from his brother.
One is a tale about the perils of Old Media, the other is a tale about the perils of New Media.
Reichl and Levine began these new chapters under radically different circumstances. After a deal to launch a food channel imploded on him, Levine poured his energies into creating Serious Eats, so that he and his like-minded food hunters could turn their obsessions and passions into online stories, which they hopefully could monetize if enough eyeballs read them. Reichl, on the other hand, practically had to be dragged from the Times to edit Gourmet magazine. She had good reasons for not wanting the job (starting with a résumé thin on magazine experience), but apparently no one turns down Samuel “Si” Newhouse, then chairman of Condé Nast Publications.
Reichl’s job had perks that Levine could only imagine in his wildest dot-com IPO fantasies: a company car, with a driver. A clothing allowance. Country clubs. Hairdressers. “It’s kind of unreal,” Reichl tells her husband. “I worry about the money, worry it will change us.”
But money and power — or the lack of it, in Levine’s case — only distract from the larger narratives playing out in these books: that both Reichl and Levine found success, despite being in way over their heads. Reichl knew food, after all, but she knew little about magazines, let alone how to manage the staff at such a marquee publication, which Sullivan Street Bakery owner Jim Lahey once called the “New Yorker of food magazines back in the 1970s and ’80s.”
Similarly, Levine knew food, but he knew next to nothing about the Internet or the dark arts of venture capital. When David Karp, Serious Eats’s 19-year-old chief technology officer, tried to explain HTML to Levine, he just shrugged. “I was looking for the perfect bite, and David was looking for the perfect byte.” The page almost groans under the dead weight of that pun.
Yet something about their emotional makeup allowed Reichl and Levine to muddle through circumstances that would have felled more timorous souls. Maybe it was just their ego. Or maybe it was a learned skill to improvise like mad when necessary (Levine, in fact, studied music in college and produced jazz concerts in his early career). Or maybe they just possess some potent combination of traits inherent to boomers of a certain age: a defiance that comes easy to the protest generation, an unwavering belief in their own creativity and a willingness to stand up to the man, even if the man is Si Newhouse.
Whatever it is, Reichl and Levine summoned it at Gourmet and Serious Eats. Reichl undermined the status quo when she put cupcakes on the cover — essentially glorifying junk food at a magazine that catered to moneyed readers — and when she hired David Foster Wallace to ponder the moral ambiguities of boiling lobsters alive. Levine perhaps did something even bolder: He shifted the balance of power at Serious Eats away from food and dining guides and toward recipes, thanks largely to two gifted writers and cooks, Stella Parks and J. Kenji López-Alt. Still, it had to be a difficult decision for a man widely considered the best food sleuth in New York.
“Serious Eater” and “Save Me the Plums” almost cross paths at times, like when Reichl complains to a fellow editor about Gourmet’s lack of an online presence. (Its recipes were unceremoniously shoveled onto Epicurious, a major source of tension in Gourmet’s offices.) “Of course we should have our own website,” Reichl complains to her managing editor. “Food sites are huge.”
When you read this quote, you can’t help but recall Levine’s struggles. You’re basically back into the roller coaster with Levine as he watches his traffic numbers spike at Serious Eats — and his ad revenue bob up and down, and all over the place. Food sites may look huge from the outside, but from the inside they can feel small and perpetually on the verge of collapse.
“This content and revenue migration to the web spelled trouble and caused major agita for even the best of the old-media publishers, like the New York Times and Condé Nast,” writes Levine, as if he had an advance copy of Reichl’s book. “They were befuddled by the Internet, and rightfully so.”
As writers, Reichl and Levine are polar opposites. She is the author of tweets that read like verse, and he is New York’s culinary cartographer, whose prose sometimes comes across like a series of exclamation points. With “Save Me the Plums,” Reichl tells her story with one anecdote after another, some almost cinematic, and many featuring long quotes from loved ones, colleagues and even party guests. I can’t help but think Reichl must be a helluva note-taker. For his part, Levine writes as if he were allergic to anecdotes. His story, filled with genuine fears and regrets, reads like reportage from the psychiatrist’s couch.
As you reach the final pages of each book, you realize that only one of them had a classically happy ending. Levine sold Serious Eats and made a little money. It’s American Dream stuff. But Reichl was the editor in charge when Condé Nast killed off Gourmet in 2009, a victim of the Great Recession and a dramatic shift in advertising dollars. It’s a loss that still hurts a decade later, but at least Reichl’s memoir gives us a sense of closure. And that’s worth something, right?
SAVE ME THE PLUMS
My Gourmet Memoir
By Ruth Reichl
Random House. 266 pp. $27
A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption
By Ed Levine
Portfolio. 264 pp. $27
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