Monday, October 19, 2009

Remembering Gourmet Magazine

Posted by Jennifer

I was a teenager and already interested in cooking when I first saw Gourmet. It was in my oldest sister’s kitchen. She no longer remembers why she not only had a subscription for many years, but kept every issue in the blue binders which had to be ordered specially from the magazine.

The food in the magazines which came to my childhood home every month--Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s - was all about speed. With a plethora of products from Kraft and General Mills along with your handy electric frying pan, dinner could be on the table in minutes. The advertising was as enticing as the editorial content.

Gourmet offered a whole different world in which time was definitely not of the essence. It seemed one often needed to know on Monday what one wanted to eat on Thursday given the shopping, marinating, and multiple preparations that one had to perform. The would-be cook really had to pay attention since the ingredients were not separated out from the body of the recipe. There were no miniature marshmallows
to be seen.  Like the New Yorker, the advertising was discrete. If I remember correctly, the photographs were all together in the centre of the magazine, proto gastroporn in all its glory.

At the time, Gourmet was as much about travel - Eurocentric travel - as food. In this alternate world, the chill of the Cold War, the Vietnam war, and racial upheaval had no place. Crisp linens and smiling service, perfect oeufs en gelee and iles flotante were, reassuringly, what counted. What I loved were the letters in which members of the new jet setter class begged the editors for the recipe of a dish they had sampled in some far off place, or, offered up their own recipes for admiration from the less affluent.

When I first started reading Gourmet, I did not dare try cooking anything. Many of the ingredients cited - clam juice, sweet butter - were not available in the grocery stores that served the rural community where I grew up. Instead, it showed me the possibilities of the world I might grow into, the world my sister, then a young faculty wife, already inhabited. Of course, she also never cooked anything from the magazine. I suspect just having it in the house gave her enough confidence to help survive the new milieu in which she found herself.

It was a whole decade later that I finally did start to cook from Gourmet’s recipes. By that time, I had picked up enough skills from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French of French Cooking to get a job cooking. The first dish I made was a zucchini pie, sort of a savoury clafouti, which I still occasionally make.

Gourmet was a magazine that changed gradually, often almost imperceptibly. It was a real revolution when the ingredients were broken out from the body of the recipes. The travel articles began to include Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, the world. It was where I first read Laurie Colwin. The editors recognized that their readers no longer had days to prepare a meal. Though recipes requiring painstaking preparation remained, there were many others that could be on the table within half an hour, without using convenience foods.

Hired as editor a decade ago, it was Ruth Reichl who really pulled Gourmet into the contemporary world  with younger writers, more attention to issues affecting modern food production and consumption, and greater understanding to how her readers really live. The quality and the beautiful photographs were always the enduring elements.

With only four editors in its almost 70 years of operation, Gourmet was the voice of record in food matters, a New York Times for the culinary world. Conde Nast, in announcing the closure of the magazine vowed that the book publishing program and television series will continue. Yet, without Gourmet’s monthly presence and without a successor of its stature, the culinary world seems suddenly and seriously adrift.

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