Thursday, October 8, 2009

Gourmet No More

Back in May, in one of my periodic rants about the lack of "wake up and smell the coffee" change in response to the deepest recession since the Depression, I did a little commentary on Gourmet and bon apetit magazines. Click here if you want to refresh your memory. My feeling is that the recession has been masked and even packaged in a rather meaningless way, with a "budget/value" issue telling you how to make macaroni and cheese (with five kinds of cheese of course) and across the way an ad for culinary adventures in exotic locations. Basically, when golf courses close, I'll start thinking that we might not remain a superpower for long. The poor always get poorer, but the rich, well, when are they going to start to suffer? (I do hear a government program is being put in place to retrain all those folks displaced by layoffs in the financial industry.) I still feel that way, especially with the media united in saying the recession is over (more or less, at least not going to get worse, and on its way back to normal) even as the jobless rate is about to top 10%, and worse in some states. A jobless recovery is not really a recovery, is it? Were we only worried about Wall Street and nothing else? OK, but let me get to my point.

Then, in yesterday's newspaper, I gasped to read that Gourmet is closing its doors after the November issue. Has the advertising market for $10,000 ovens and Subzero fridges and exotic travel really dried up so completely that there will be no more Gourmet magazine? I quickly adjusted my thinking to seeing the move as more about the slow death of published media-- as newspapers and magazines struggle to keep afloat in a changing technological universe. Most people can get recipes online. (However, again Gourmet seemed so well-placed to capitalize on even this transition, with a popular and really well-designed and run web site.)

Gourmet was unusual. It wasn't just about the food porn-- it had great writing! It was in Gourmet that I encountered David Foster Wallace's amazing and hilarious essay, "Consider the Lobster," later the title of his collection of essays. The columns by the Sterns were always wonderful, and there were great essays about families in Spain and Italy and France and Sonoma with photos of sun-kissed outdoor eating or giant tables with half-filled carafes of wine. OK. It was more lifestyle porn.

bon apetit, which Conde Nast will continue to publish, has good recipes, but it is so, well, Hollywood. The back page always features some celebrity talking about their favorite cuisine (Italian, Spanish, French), where they like to travel (Italy, Spain, France) and what they cook at home. Soooo uninteresting. And there are no photos of food being served up in an actual ice palace on ice plates and bowl and cups in, where else, Iceland. I can see how that kind of photo shoot required a higher-than-average budget.

I have two small notebooks that I've filled with recipes from Gourmet over the nearly ten years I've been a subscriber, and other recipes stuck into the appropriate section of other cookbooks. Reading the magazine taught me easy and elegant ways to cook green beans and scallops and shrimp and potatoes and gave me the recipe for the mango salad that is the first sign of summer and red-and-yellow tomato soup. Much of what I know about combining herbs and various food, much of what I am as a cook, I owe to Gourmet. I have learned when you just have to use shallot or a sweet onion, and when a regular white or yellow will do. I am not afraid of curry powder, and have a much better understanding of the virtues of sage and tarragon. Reading this magazine over this many years, patterns emerge, and before you know it you actually have ideas of your own-- you know how to cook. I am not afraid of cranberries and know how to make an amazing turkey and stuffing.

So I'll read the November issue from cover to cover, and cut out more carefully the recipes from the remaining issues on my breakfront before sending them off to be recycled. And I guess I'll have to settle for that pedestrian alternative, bon apetit. But it just won't be the same... I'll miss you, Ruth Reichl, and your mane of hair and smiling, urban, aristocratic face that promised me that with ordinary things like chicken and potatoes, the good life was to be shared by all.

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