Gourmet No More: Join the Faster Times Food Team to Reflect on the Fallen
No food writer can ignore the news, announced last Monday, that Condé Nast is pulling the plug on what may well be The Biggest Food Magazine ever. Our Death correspondent memorializes the mag’s “easy-awesome” recipes geared to home cooks. As for us, the Food team, we’re still processing. See below for some of our thoughts, and please add yours in the comments.
Zoe Singer (Eating & Writing):
In responding to the harsh news that Gourmet’s run is up, it’s hard to avoid the urge to play favorites. Was this my favorite glossy food mag? Was it yours?
They all had their moment with me. What Gourmet always, reliably, offered was an uncanny barometer of my cooking mood. Though magazines are planned and finalized at least a couple months in advance of publication, when I opened an issue I invariably had a few of the recipes in mind already. Roast chicken, say, or eggplant parmesan, or chicken and dumplings. That’s what a cooking magazine should do, and Gourmet did this well. It also featured literary food writing that I truly enjoyed reading and Food Politics coverage that was both relevant and independent.
But I don’t think that’s why I saved stacks of the magazine (until a week ago, when, telling myself there would be plenty more, I put them all out on the curb!). It had more to do with the photography. Gourmet’s aesthetic tended to super-saturated, textured, patterned, Bohemian-rich, West-Coast-hippie-turns-cultured-East-Coast-foodie (hmm). Its full-page, deep-hued, caption-less spreads were works of art that I always imagined framing on my kitchen cabinets. Like the seemingly endless progression of recipes, the art in this monthly was an embarrassment of riches: too good to be considered disposable, too plentiful to fully savor. As the model of pouring funds into a test kitchen and art department gives way to the editorially-driven, increasingly ephemeral web format, the loss of Gourmet is a reminder of how much pleasure we stand to lose. Sure we’ve got a democratizing of recipes and content, and yes, there were always way more recipes to sift through than any ordinary, life-living, food-eating mortal actually could use. But the food world just got a lot less elegant, and I am afraid that my life will follow suit.
Dave Wondrich (Annals of the Bar):
When I heard the news about Gourmet I had just got in from running errands, one of them being, ironically, to drop an envelope into the mailbox containing a signed contract with the magazine for an article on hospitality. So my first feature for them, an article on Gin Punch I wrote a couple of months back, turns out also to be my last.
As a freelancer, you always hate to lose a good gig. Gourmet paid promptly and well and was, obviously, a venerable and well-respected place to have your writing appear. But what makes it even worse is the fact that they were so pleasant to work for. Smart editors, the kind who respect your prose and don’t monkey with things just because they can. Fact-checkers who were enterprising enough to nail down most things on their own and diligent enough to catch your cut corners and make you do things right. Recipe testers who would streamline your procedures without wrecking the recipes. A class act all around. We were already suffering from a distinct class deficit in the food-mag world. This sure as hell doesn’t help things.
Rachel Wharton (Food Trends):
When I was little kid, Gourmet magazine represented everything I wasn’t – and I mean that in a good way. It was totally refined (if not quite cool, back then) – hence the elegant script of the title. Hell, hence the title itself. It’s freaking called Gourmet, after all, and what 15-year-old in Raleigh, N.C. feels like one of those? It was darkly intelligent, filled with low-lit photos of meals—terrines, paellas, gnudi and other exotic sounding delights–I should know had I eaten in places I’ve still never been. In fact, some naysayers have made mention of the dark photography style of the mag under the current editorial regime, but to me, that’s always been part of the appeal.
Now that I think about it, actually, Gourmet was always in the living room on the coffee table – never in the kitchen or in the den. Because we (me and my little sister, I suppose I mean) weren’t good enough to hang out with it, naturally. Us plebians got the food section of the Mini-Pages and “I Can Cook it Too!”
Back then, I wanted to get to a point where Gourmet spoke to me. And by and large over the last few years, that’s exactly what it did. (It even got cooler, not that I did.) Of course, it didn’t hurt that by now I know some of the names hand-making those pastas or trekking Croatia for some nigella seed flecked bread. But the recipes that filled its stories – these days, everything from Mexican cemita sandwiches to fancy cook stalwarts like country paté – and the stories that filled its pages – these days, everything from street food to Vermont country picnic – were still often what I wanted I wanted to eat or to cook, or at least what I wanted to pretend I did. Now what will my children (who will all obsess over food as I do, naturally) dream of? Epicurious.com just doesn’t have the same aspirational appeal.
Dalia Jurgensen (Sweets):
In high school and college, I read Gourmet to feed my lifelong obsession with food and cooking. In suburban New Jersey and later, in small town Indiana, Gourmet was my porthole to the larger world of food outside of my own that I so eagerly wanted to devour. After making the jump to professional kitchens, I scoured its pages not just for inspiration, but to keep up with my peers-Gourmet championed not only food and ideas, but the people behind them. My real fear is that the demise of Gourmet is only part of a shift away from committed and informed food media, to the more mass market, cooking-from-a-can ethos of, well, I won’t name any names. My fingers are crossed.
Scott Gold (Meat):
Like almost every food writer, restaurant critic, devoted home cook, or culinary enthusiast I’ve met, I first encountered the pages of Gourmet as a child. My mother would lay out the two or three most recent issues on the glass coffee table in the living room, past editions collecting in a small library in a dedicated space beneath two end tables, and back issues dutifully cataloged and boxed for reference. Leafing through the pages on a bored, rainy summer afternoon, I noticed two things: First, that nearly every issue seemed to have a section or two studiously removed from it with a pair of scissors; and second, that there was something entrancing, bordering on hypnotic, about the photography. Like poring over my cousin’s Playboys later in life, I wasn’t in it for the articles, but for the glory of those images. And just like those naked pinups, everything seemed hot, glistening, artfully posed and impeccable, so that the effect, in both cases, was that it made you immediately hungry. Lustfully so.
Later in my life, of course, I realized that Gourmet was more than just a pretty face. It was elegant, smart, funny, and often erudite, but never quite to the point of exclusivity. It was in those pages that I learned about ceviche and sushi, about Chateaubriand, Moroccan injera, and countless others. And when I began writing about food, it was a de facto mission of mine to have my by-line in the front of that book. For one of my Faster Times food columns, I proudly linked to a beloved Gourmet recipe that I incorporated into my lamb merguez cupcakes. I even got so far as writing for their website, and had been planning an onslaught of substantial pitches when the hangman’s noose — at the hands of merciless, uninspired, penny-pinching consultants and bureaucrats — pulled tight. It’s like having the prettiest, smartest, most interesting girl in town, the one you’ve loved since you were a child, move away before you can ask her to the big dance. My heart broke instantly, and I knew I wasn’t alone.
I don’t think I realized it back when I was a kid, but many of the same dishes I’d hotly ogled in those back issues were ending up on my family’s dinner table, courtesy of my mother. Sure, their appearance never had quite the professional zazz found in those glossy photos, but the flavors, my god… I’d always known Mom to be a good cook, but she’s always insisted on humility. “If you can read,” she claims to this day, “you can cook.” My mother read Gourmet. And man, can she cook.
Sarah Karnasiewicz (Street Foods):
Three weeks ago, while undertaking a blitzkrieg cleaning of my apartment (and momentarily shamed by my hoarding tendencies), I finally forced myself to tie up a half dozen stacks of old Gourmet magazines and haul them to the curb. The piles spanned the past decade: exactly ten years ago, I graduated from college, got my first place — and my first subscription. The connection there is no coincidence: somewhere along the line (maybe when I was still reading over my mother’s shoulder) and without articulating it, I’d decided that Gourmet was a magazine for adults. I didn’t feel like an adult in 1999 and I was still years away from a career in food, but still I sensed that — like a world wise, rich, widowed aunt –Gourmet might teach me a few things to get me on my way, some practical (how to trim an artichoke) and some more intangible (how to be a hostess). It did. Like shiny hardwood floors and house plants, the artful travel essays, seductive recipes and sophisticated design I found in its pages symbolized the best I might hope for from the world I was just inching into. When I was still subsisting on tea and powdered packets of Lipton chicken soup, Gourmet reassured me that the world was in fact still full of simple, sensual luxuries — and even better, they were ones I could access, with some butter and flour, and yes, a paper and pen.
I took the news on Monday badly. Because, now ten years later, I count many of the magazine’s editors and writers as mentors, colleagues, and friends. Because I believe that people still crave beauty and simple luxuries, and I don’t buy the Monday morning quarter backing I’ve been hearing about the magazine being too elitist and fundamentally out of touch with American cooks. I won’t ever be able to go back and get my stacks from the curb: they’ve surely been shredded to bits by now. But Monday afternoon, I went to my local used book store and climbed through yards of musty magazines, pulling out Gourmets one by one. In the end, I was left with about 50, spanning 1963-1980. Baroque and inventive and thrilling, thirty years later, each one is worth a small memorial. So, thanks and farewell (for now) to The Magazine of Good Living, for inspiring me, and so many others, to imagine just what the good life could mean.
Sarah Sliwa (Home Ec):
Forget the articles. Forget (most of) the recipes too. I subscribed to Gourmet for the pictures, and I don’t mean the food porn. The images were aspirational in ways that W and Vogue could never be. The magazine lured me with its effortless hosts and their attractive friends and rustic homes. For one dollar a month, I was privvy to family gatherings where everyone charms and nobody shoots raspberry Schwepps into the tablecloth mid-joke. There are no disclaimers and the host never says ‘I got this recipe from the Sunday times and simply had to try it’–the food just arrives and it looks beautiful.
With fashion magazines, I know that I can mimic the looks off the racks at H&M, but I also know that the details will be off. Patterns rarely line up at the seams. Linings don’t come in fabulous colors, stitched with contrasting thread. There’s no love in the garment and it saddens me to know I’ll likely never afford the real thing. But I can string white Christmas lights on the porch and serve dinner by candlelight to illuminate the feast and the features of my friends, who are probably laughing–and that’s as close to a glossy spread as I dare get.
Bon Appetit seemed too stuffy and Saveur, for all its scenic wanderlust, failed to convey the social intimacy I found so compelling. A March story on Korean food evoked Wong-Kar Wai on a layover in Seoul. We were invited to the dinner party too, as flies on the wall, our wings barely cutting the tension and the thick aroma of short rib and vegetable stew. This past April brought me to an Easter party where tumbling pyramids of Lillet flavored marshmallows were offered as nibbles. I stood in the corner, humming along to Yves Montaud while I contemplated the most demure way to eat a giant marshmallow. Would people be offended if I dunked it in my coffee? Gourmet doesn’t advise you on floral arrangements or how to handle the unruly, the tasteless, or the late. It never wastes time on etiquette or decor: Gourmet assumes that we already know what to do. I don’t. But I appreciate the generosity and figure that I can take pointers from the pictures.
In recent years, the photography turned increasingly bold, bright, and absurd–much to my delight. Giant baubles adorned tea saucers, where the sugar cubes should be. A sheep ran through the photo shoot at a summertime reunion. Christmas cookies became geometric prints. These spreads revealed a tongue in cheek appraisal of Good Living: the staff could embrace the ridiculous. In recent months, the magazine knew we were financially troubled, and showed us how to eat roast chicken all week without getting bored. Gourmet, if only I had known that you were stressing too, I’d have given gift subscriptions to my friends. I’ve been hoarding cards with the $12 annual rate for years.
Hannah Wallace (Food Politics):
I’ve read Gourmet on and off over the years but only began subscribing to it earlier this year. One of the things that instantly set it apart from the dozens of other magazines I subscribe to is its lack of cover lines (for subscribers only-something no other U.S. food magazine does). Classy and timeless, the succulent full-bleed cover photos (a fuzz-covered quince against a black background, a red wine caramel apple) were unmarred by desperate-sounding proclamations about “ten top recipes” or “four perfect meals.” It calmed me to glance at these artful issues (always visible on our coffee table), and made me (perhaps ironically) more eager to peek inside.
Within, I found the kinds of articles that I find less and less frequently in today’s consumer magazines. Yes, there were photo-driven stories with nothing but recipes and captions; and recently, there tended to be more service (no doubt a bid to capture more newsstand readers if not subscribers). But then, in every issue, there were the gems: essays by writers like Cynthia Zarin (on how her repertoire shifted from tuna melts to Elizabeth David), Aleksandra Crapanzano (on her relationship with “the other woman” in her husband’s life), or Dan Barber (on the stress of having a NYT restaurant critic in the house). The kind of writing that transports you, that makes you laugh out loud in sympathy, and that you can actually read (not skim hurriedly for dishes, recipes, or addresses).
And where will we read about the not-new, not-trendy restaurants of the world? Whether in Jane and Michael Stern’s inimitable “Road Food” column or articles such as Francis Lam’s recent account of apprenticing with a master of Chinese BBQ at a nondescript restaurant in Toronto strip mall, Gourmet was unafraid to cover the authentic dives, not just the next hot restaurants.
I subscribe to Saveur, and no doubt I will be receiving Bon Appétit and Food & Wine soon. These magazines would be lucky to inherit Gourmet’s regular writers (and perhaps editors-turned-writers) and I hope they do.
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