Monday, October 26, 2009

Goodbye Gourmet, and Ruth Reichl, Don't Forget to Write

The November issue, the final issue, of Gourmet is on newsstands now. I picked it up today to read at lunch, over a ham sandwich and Coke Zero at the bookstore. The Thanksgiving issue has always been the star of the Gourmet lineup, and editor Ruth Reichl has said in the past that as long as she's at the helm, a roasty-toasty turkey will be on the cover of the November mag. I guess then it's fitting that this Rockwellian turkey, bosomy and burnished, is on the cover of the last Gourmet magazine.

It's been a couple weeks since Conde Nast announced it will pull the plug on Gourmet and the issues already in the can will not see the light of print. Some media observers say the final issue marks a sad day for foodies. I say it's a sad day for all who love a perfectly written declarative sentence, the kind that my quirky journalism professor with the geek glasses (long before they were considered coolly ironic), reading aloud a student's work would proclaim "it sings!" With evocative photography and spot-on recipes, Gourmet was a hat trick of words, pictures and food. Words, pictures and food better and distinct from its competitors. Not the brain candy of Paula Deen (bless her butter-basted heart) and some other successfully merchandised chefs/cooks I could name. Not the effervescent entertaining how-to's of Gourmet's kid sister, Bon Appetit. Not the precise execution of Cook's Illustrated, with its clipped narrative describing recipe evolution from disaster to culinary dynamite. Not the idiosyncratic appeal of Fine Cooking, itself newly renovated, hardly a venue for stirring prose, and until recently, not much of one for photographs and design, either.

Gourmet and I go back two decades, when as a newlywed, I decided that the magazine would teach me how to cook. I recently came across a couple issues from those days, and was astounded at the advertising and page count - December 1987 tops out at 278 pages. (I bet the ad staff's Christmas party was a blast that year.) Inside, the much-missed regular feature, Gastronomie Sans Argent, and Laurie Colwin's charming "How to Make Gingerbread." Colwin was one of those writers with a knack for pulling you into her world and making you feel like a cherished friend, one who would serve a cup of Darjeeling alongside a plate of fresh-baked gingerbread, and scribble the recipe on the back of a receipt, apologize for not having recipe cards, and press it into your hand as you left. Colwin departed this world too soon, in 1992, but her books on food are still in print 20 years later. The Gourmet columns are collected in two volumes, "Home Cooking" and "More Home Cooking," and just like Proust, deserve to be pulled from the shelves and re-read every couple of years.

Now to Reichl, a writer I first discovered through an advance copy of her memoir "Tender at the Bone," a fine entry into the "memoir with recipes" genre along the lines of Colwin. Reichl has a similar gift for sharing her life's story through the food that she eats and cooks and it was starting to look like she would always helm Gourmet. Under her leadership, Gourmet brought in even more fine writers, and broadened the scope of its mission to include the politics of food, for example, publishing a story on migrant workers in the tomato fields of Florida; and farm to table issues. For a time, the letters column had a bit of the rant and rave feel to it. I remember a particular letter writer commenting on an issue dedicated to Latin American cuisines stating that they didn't care to get their politics from Gourmet magazine. I say to any party, Democrat, Republican or Flying Purple People Eater, if there's food, set a place for me at that table, that's my kind of politics.

TV viewers watch Food Network for their favorite chefs. Gourmet's readers thumbed the table of contents to find their favorite writers: Calvin Trillin, Ann Patchett, John T. Edge; and at, scholarly Doc Willoughby, relatable new mom Lesley Porcelli, the enigmatic Francis Lam, (who we'll probably find out one day is Pynchon or Salinger or Harper Lee or some other reclusive novelist who desperately needs an outlet to write about food). Two issues of the past few years stand out: a slim but satisfying edition of food writing featuring the best from its quiver of authors, and the January 2008 tribute to Edna Lewis, the late doyenne of Southern cooks and writers (that issue also included a tribute to the town of my birth, Nashville, Tennessee, composed by novelist and hometown girl Ann Patchett.)

Two decades of Gourmet, and the one word that comes to mind is transcendent, that's my Gourmet experience. Sure, it's wrapped up in its own name-brand world, of Gucci and Baccarat and Rolex, Sotheby's and Chanel. That's not my planet and likely never will be. And maybe that was the problem all along, because magazines, no matter how excellent the editorial product, if they don't have advertisers, they've got bupkis. I've often wondered who the target audience of Gourmet really was, because the advertising, except for the promotions with Goya beans and M&M candies, is geared way out of my price range. It seems unlikely that the Louis Vuitton-wearers of the world would break a sweat over the origins of the tomatoes on their carefully composed salads.

I've always felt a little like the red-headed stepchild relating to this magazine. But I can't deny that the editorial product spoke to my soul. Maybe someday I'll eat a thin-crust apple tart in a bistro in whichever arrondissement one must tour, but for now, I'm content to make that scrumptious tart in my very own kitchen, thanks to the guiding hand of Gourmet.

So, Merci, Gourmet, for 68 years of good food and good living. And here's hoping that an influential someone, somewhere, realizes that Ruth Reichl was on to something important, essential, and life-giving and gives her another shot at culinary magazine greatness. Until then, I'll thumb through the Thanksgiving issue and be thankful for what we all had.


Anonymous said...

That's a stunning piece of writing, Lucy. Have you considered sending it to Reichl? From what I've heard about her, she'd be very appreciative.


Unknown said...

What a lovely tribute!

Susan aka Risottogirl