When the magazine of good living produced the first Gourmet cookbook in 1950, the world was a very different place. Europe was war-ravaged, while America was rich, innocent and giddy -- the perfect setting for a new Europe, but with better plumbing and wider streets. All it needed were some pointers about the finer things in life.
Gourmet magazine was happy to oblige. By 1957, it had produced not one but two domestic bibles of continental cuisine.
Granted, there were curiosities from elsewhere. The recipes were not just European. However, no other book had quite the same transatlantic elan. Cooking from Gourmet, Volumes I and II, defined you as a person of great sophistication. If you had an Italian coming for dinner, you could produce crayfish risotto. For a Pole, pierogi. For a Frenchman, coq au vin. What the recipes lacked in authenticity, they made up for with the rakish glee of the day. Dubonnet, anyone?
The books went into so many reprints in the 1950s and ‘60s that a generation of baby boomers, including Gourmet’s current editor, Ruth Reichl, grew up tracing their mother’s fingerprints through the smudged pages. Today, as Conde Nast issues a completely revised modern successor, “The Gourmet Cookbook” (Houghton Mifflin, $40), Reichl makes no secret of the desire to tap into the nostalgia.
“As I hold this new book in my hands, I am seven years old again, standing in my mother’s kitchen, enthralled with the romance of cooking, dreamily flipping through the pages of ‘the Book,’ ” she writes. “I know that there are still people out there eager for adventure in the kitchen -- and I know that this is the perfect place to find it.”
Yet more than times have changed. The books have too. The original book promised a kind of fine mischief, beckoning us from familiar foods into foreign worlds of untold glamour. The successor’s posture is more world-weary, the affect of a group that seems convinced it’s been everywhere and tried everything and, in a semi-governmental manner, assumed the task of telling us what’s good and why. Reichl even declares, “Our goal was to give you a book with every recipe you would ever want.”
Gone is the sheer merriment at the prospect of an elegant dinner party. The original’s chapter on hors d’oeuvres opens with the lip-smacking declaration: “To begin at the beginning, note this: every meal deserves a good start.” The new book opens the same section with a whine: “It’s too bad we’re stuck with this snooty French word.”
Problems like that happen to books called Gourmet.
So often, where the original was effervescent, the modern book seems overwhelmed by its own place in history. The original vegetable section, entitled “Greengroceries,” begins, “Midway between Beau Brummel, who once ate a pea, and G.B.S., who can’t see a filet mignon for the raw carrot under his nose, stands the Happy Gourmet.” The new one, “Vegetables”: “If you had shown our original subscribers recipes for grilled radicchio, stir-fried pea shoots, or yuca fries, they would have looked at you in sheer astonishment.”
Perhaps, though it’s hard to picture women unfazed by the suggestion of serving turtle steaks in 1950 being taken aback by the prospect of grilling a red cabbage. What is more questionable is whether these patronizing revisionists would trust modern cooks to know that G.B.S. was George Bernard Shaw.
The new editors clearly subscribe to the notion that less is more. The original Volume I alone had 2,400 recipes; this new one, “more than 1,000.” The new book isn’t smaller; rather, half the recipes have been replaced by chat. Although the original limited its creative writing to chapter headings, the new one offers an introduction to every recipe.
No discursive impulse is stifled. You come away full of novel tidbits, such as: at Christmas, Swedes serve pan juices with meatballs, not gravy. Much of the padding is sensual. Those averse to deployments of “creamy,” “luscious,” “lacy,” “moist,” etc. should give this book a wide berth.
Old versions improved
Owners of the original volumes will find that only so many dishes made the cut. In this culling, the new book is on its best form, frequently improving the old versions. As a series of comparisons cooked in The Times Test Kitchen showed, the first coq au vin had a sour streak, while the revised one would pass muster in a French plat-du-jour place. The original gratin dauphinois was an abomination; the new version, borrowed from the authentically French Jacques Pepin, was superb.
You don’t need to try the original risotto, made with long-grain rice, to know that it’s been improved by the use of Arborio and porcini. However, some dishes that weren’t broken got fixed anyway. “Suave” Celery Victor was given a nearly inedible canola-oil and stock sauce in the new version, where the original invited much-needed acidity by merely specifying French dressing.
Other bad dishes stayed bad. Bibb lettuce dressed with butter sauce is as unappetizing now as it always was.
In place of many of the original recipes are products of the 1980s’ eclectic restaurant boom. It’s mixed pickings. The duck a l’orange with a Southwestern ancho chile sauce proved delicious. However, the linguine with scallops and Thai spice is a recipe best reserved for the occasion when your spouse brings home a lover from the office for dinner. The Southeast Asian spice paste clings to the Italian pasta like a thick grit.
It’s hard to see why Gourmet attempted this particular book. The originals were products of their time, a debonair salute to America’s new prosperity. But since they set the bar for 1950s elegance, so much has changed. Julia Child, Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, Alice Waters, Marcella Hazan, Diana Kennedy and Yan Kit So have exposed us to real French, Italian, Mexican and Chinese food. They’ve taught us how intricately the classic cuisines are tied up with place, produce and season, and they’ve changed the way we cook and eat. The idea that the world’s food could be captured in one book seems as antiquated as Sterno-fired chafing dishes.
The conviction behind the old Gourmet cookbooks was that we could re-create the great buffet dishes of a Grand Tour in our own homes. It may have been misguided, but it was more than sincere; it was America at its most ebullient. The new Gourmet has no such glee, no conviction, no single style, no season, no locale, just lots of recipes from the test kitchen of a New York-based magazine.
In binding these up in a big yellow book, there are some flat-out winners. It does, as Reichl promises in the introduction, contain what may be the world’s best sticky bun recipe. But in trying to be all things to all cooks, in the end, it is not good enough for any of us.