The good life, à la Gourmet
For 68 years, Gourmet magazine upheld at least one end of the foodie vision. For decades, its vision virtually defined sophisticated cuisine for Americans. Back then, Gourmet was the only game in town.
In its early days, the magazine had a genteel, clubby feel, suggesting that its readers had probably traveled in Europe, something very few Americans did before cheap airfares appeared in the 1960s.
In a way, Gourmet actually was a club. Readers shared their most impressive recipes in its pages, unselfconsciously calling for pheasant and truffles as needed, confident that the other readers would not dismiss this as mere snobbery.
You can get a taste of this phase of Gourmet from the two phone-book-size volumes of “The Gourmet Cookbook,” published in 1952 and 1965 (and long out of print; you might find them in one of the larger libraries). Naturally, they look dated today -- we can no longer imagine recipes recommending “California Sauterne” as a wine -- but in their time they represented the peak of culinary ambition.
Subscribers religiously saved their back issues. At a time when American food writing still emphasized price and convenience over all else, Gourmet flew the banner of damn-the-trouble-and-expense elegance.
In the late ‘70s, a younger generation of foodies emerged, with a gleeful and enthusiastic approach to food and considerably less interest in the upper-crust associations of the word “gourmet.” Soon they would immerse themselves in a new French style called nouvelle cuisine and go on to invent California cuisine.
But just as this foodie explosion began, Gourmet seemed to turn aside from food and emphasize other aspects of its slogan, “The Magazine of the Good Life.” At times, it seemed on the verge of turning into a travel magazine.
The younger foodies might sneer, but this meant the magazine was fat with ads, many an issue being as thick as your thumb, and this in turn meant room for long articles on, say, the regional specialties of Finland or the Haute-Savoie. The other food magazines that had recently appeared were in no position to publish such extensive, deeply researched pieces, or to afford Gourmet’s glamorous standard of photography.
The old order changed in 1999, when former Los Angeles Times Food section editor Ruth Reichl was appointed Gourmet’s new editor.
She immediately put her adventurous stamp on the magazine. Her first issue featured articles on ecology and molecular gastronomy, and Gourmet soon had a regular section on food and politics. She successfully updated the magazine, though it would never again be the center of American food journalism.
In recent years, Reichl devoted a lot of resources to the website www.gourmet.com, which set a high standard for Internet food writing. For example, Laura Shapiro’s shrewd article on “Julie & Julia” is likely to be the last word on that film, at least until Oscar time.
But last year, Reichl acknowledged the unthinkable: Gourmet, like nearly every publication in the country, was having trouble getting ads, and she was having to fight for space to run articles.
The October issue seems to epitomize the sort of balancing act Gourmet was eventually forced into: one story where food writers were asked how they’d spend $1,000 in restaurants and another on “What’s Your Favorite Hot Dog?”
Alas, it’s a sign of our times.