Sunday, October 18, 2009

An elegy for Gourmet Magazine.

Every once in a while we have the melancholy privilege to witness the vanishing of something beautiful from the world. I had only just received the most recent issue of Gourmet in the mail when I learned from my wife that the magazine would be folding after sixty-eight years. My first response was denial: “That’s not possible!” I said. “October just came in the mail. Are you sure?” Anger was quick to follow: “Damn those Conde’ Nast bastards!" Bargaining: “What if we take out a few gift subscriptions?” The fourth stage of grief is, of course, depression. This post is my attempt to get from depression to the final stage, acceptance.

If you were not a reader of Gourmet you might find this all a bit hyperbolic. Surely the world can go on without a food magazine? It will certainly go on, but not in quite the same way. Gourmet was unique. Sure, there were plenty of beautiful photographs, some famously so, of abundant produce and picturesque agricultural landscapes, but what raised this above the level of so-called “food porn” was the content. Gourmet was meant to read as well as ogled. The folks who worked for Gourmet were writers and journalists as well as foodies, and this was the great difference. A typical Gourmet article delved deep into the history and culture surrounding a particular cuisine or dish. In an hour or so, one could learn the story and lore of any number of places and come away with some spectacular recipes to boot. The end of Gourmet is, I think, a small symptom of a growing American discomfort with complexity. There is not much patience out there these days for detail. So what if you don’t care to explore the intricacies of Calabrian sausage-making from the Twelfth Century to the present? That’s fine, but what about the intricacies of American foreign policy? What about the intricate realities of trying to prop up governments in countries whose social structures go back to way before the Twelfth Century? It’s complicated. Who has the time?

There was always a copy of Gourmet lying around the kitchen or office of my family’s small restaurant. It was there, as a child, among the food and the clatter that I first picked up the habit of flipping through Gourmet’s glossy pages. It began with the magazine’s many images but did not end there. Good writing does not require an education so much as it is an education, and that is the great problem with our present cultural moment. We are being quietly and constantly warned away from things that are difficult. We are being told every day that thirty-minute meals and thirty-second sound bites are all we busy people have time for.

The 2005 film Good Night and Good Luck resurrected Edward R. Murrow as a founding hero of broadcast journalism and held up his integrity and refusal to pander to his audience as an archetype for the present day. The more recent film Julie and Julia, serves as a similar reminder that America’s food renaissance began in much the same vein. Julia Child and Edward R. Murrow represent an old-fashioned adherence to truth despite difficulty. They didn’t back down in the face of pig-intestines or McCarthyism. America loved Julia Child in much the same way that we love our favorite schoolteacher. She was good to us, but not necessarily easy. She made us work hard and never suggested that difficulty was a good reason to stay away from anything. Gourmet was a sort of Julia in print, never pandering to our ignorance, and always encouraging us to new heights of understanding. Like many good things it was temporary.

The Urban Luddite


  1. Well a cooking magazine won't go far in a world where books aren't even about reading. Have you been in (that big box store) Barnes and Noble and wondered at the proliferation of books that are really yoga bands, paint sets, origami paper, and WW2 airplanes in miniature? I guess book marketers feel that books need a little umphh to get them off the shelf . . . so poor Gourmet, if it was about reading and cooking complex recipes and not even a set of teaspoons shrink-wrapped to the cover.

  2. Every time I wander into a Barnes & Noble/Borders, the "bargain books" section seems to have grown larger. I imagine it's just a matter of time before this stuff devours the entire store.