Stand facing the average newsstand lately and it’s hard not to think American food magazines are speeding downhill in a Rachael Ray sled, with Paula Deen pushing. The more-sizzle-than-steak stars of the Food Network have their own new titles but emulate the worst excesses of the older magazines, such as chef-worshipping Food & Wine with its cover story on Bobby Flay’s calculated “Savannah soul” or Bon Appetit’s endless spreads of impossibly cheery-looking parties staged for the camera. Besides, “yum” is just not an adjective for anyone over 5.
Check out a better-than-average newsstand, though, and there are signs of intelligence in the monthly food universe. A handful of magazines from overseas are increasingly gaining a pinkie-hold here, and at their best they actually bring a worldly sophistication to the table. A few may share American publishing’s unhealthy obsession with big names from the small screen, but at least they are not idolizing the usual American suspects -- not one kneels before Molto Anyone.
Titles such as Donna Hay Magazine, Fresh and Olive deliver not just recipes never to be seen in the myriad food magazines in this country, and not just because Australia is on a totally different schedule (it’s fall there) and England is on a different taste system (they favor both traditional mushy peas and state-of-the-art offal there).
These magazines also have strikingly different photography styles and editorial features; they are far less prone to patent fakery, and -- most important to anyone weary to the point of pain from all those GE Profile kitchen pages in every American food magazine -- they include unfamiliar products in the advertising pages. (Maybe we will never taste wine varietal vinegars from Margaret River in Australia, but we can fantasize.)
Even better at a tense time for national self-esteem, imported food magazines nicely convey how the rest of the world sees us. Food is neutral territory in politics, and the coverage is always upbeat on American restaurants to try, wines to drink (Fresh recommends Ravenswood Vintners Blend Chardonnay as well as the Boulders Pinot Grigio, and even Gallo’s white Zinfandel), recipes to emulate (crab tacos in Fresh, half a world away).
What are the “gastro temples” of the United States? They include, according to Australian Gourmet Traveller (“voted world’s best food magazine 2005"), Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, a restaurant subjected to surprisingly biting commentary (for every admirer, “there’s another who claims that the emperor wears no clothes”). The same magazine touts Thomas Keller’s “Bouchon” and Ruth Reichl’s “Garlic and Sapphires,” among its book recommendations.
Not surprisingly, food magazines from countries where English is written are making the greatest inroads here. England and Australia are clearly the top exporters, and New Zealand may follow eventually.
Titles in French and Italian are also easily available, but the audience has to be about as big as the one the Food Network would attract for a series on Ferran Adria. It’s hard enough to translate recipe quantities from metric to imperial without risking confusion between zucca and zucchero, or frais and fraiche.
The most appealing of the imports is the new BBC magazine, Olive (recipes, restaurants, travel). Graphically, it’s a cross between Gourmet and Martha Stewart Living, with clean and simple layouts of food stories combined with pages on pages of featurettes on things to buy and places to go and tastes to try; content-wise it’s livelier than both, undoubtedly because of its debt to relatively good-quality television.
A feature on an “omelet Olympics” pits a Frenchman (Michel Roux Jr.) against a “Brit” (Jeremy Lee) and an Italian (Antonio Carlucci), judged by a BBC “presenter.” The winner? You need to ask? Who invented the omelet?
Other enterprising features cover where restaurant critics eat (Nicholas Lander of the Financial Times discloses that his favorite is Ransome’s Dock in London, and drops the name of his wife, the wine writer Jancis Robinson) and dueling reviews by a critic and a “punter” (the punter being a 35-year-old copywriter who lapses into menu-speak).
What they have to say is not as fascinating as the fact that they give the same ratings for service (6 out of 10) and food (5 out of 10) and are only one point off in total score (the amateur is less generous).
Faces familiar from the telly do pop up in big spreads, particularly Gordon Ramsay doing a rant, but are redeemed by tantalizing recipes: lemon ricotta cake, cardamom creme brulee, eggs poached in tomato sauce. (All, unfortunately, are measured in metric, but maybe that should be an incentive to learn how the rest of the world measures.)
Almost as appealing as Olive is Donna Hay Magazine, even though the Australian media mogul nearly out-Marthas Martha Stewart. Even that kitchen dominatrix would never suggest baking cookies in button shapes and tying them together with thread through the holes. The occasional obsessive silliness aside, the magazine is cleanly designed, gorgeous and opinionated and also has a feature called “Every Day” that does not conjure Rachael Ray at all.
A smart feature on how to garnish illustrates particularly well how many little things American magazines neglect in their rush to the microwave: Something as effortless as shallow-fried capers or strips of nori would liven up a dish far more dramatically than a sprig of parsley.
Hay’s gift is making exquisite food look as easy as ready-made pie crust. Her salt-and-pepper squid is simple and direct: Toast Sichuan peppercorns, chilies and other spices, grind them, mix half with rice flour to coat calamari scored with a sharp knife, then serve the rest with the rings and tentacles after they have been deep-fried for a minute or two. She also exhibits the usual Australian bent for Asian ingredients incorporated into the most Western-looking menu, such as in chicken baked with five-spice powder.
On the plus side, recipe measurements are translated. On the negative side, the party pictures are undeniably fake.
Australian Gourmet Traveller, at least the most recent issue on sale, which is from Christmas, is a magazine for now, with recipes for foods just coming into season in this hemisphere, such as a mint, melon and prosciutto salad. Recipes (yes, measured in metric) often feature ingredients not common in Cook’s Illustrated, such as eel.
The writing can be exceptional, not to mention as frank as a blog. The notoriously caustic London restaurant critic A.A. Gill starts a piece on a trip to Baghdad, his return to “the Garden of Eden,” by noting that “Adam and Eve were the first refugees. The very first people ever were the first asylum seekers.” Nor does a piece on the new popularity of roses in Australia and in Europe pull punches, even as a sidebar offers smart recommendations for the pink wines in question (including “Bloodwood’s marvellously irreverent Big Men in Tights”).
Noting that rose is finally catching on, the writer, Max Allen, wonders which deserves more credit: “the backing of the booze hacks, the winemakers desperate to flog more booze or the big companies trying to tap into the youth market?”
Fresh is a magazine for readers who care about the seasons but not graphic design. It’s also for cooks who want to make their own jam and pickles, and are not put off by the sight of cows on the hoof and on the plate, side by side. The May issue includes the features “In Season,” “Slow Food” and “From Field to Table” (bread, starting with the grains) and reviews of websites selling fresh fish.
My favorite sidebar, alongside a feature on the world’s best spread for bread, was titled “Why Eat Butter,” with all the encouraging nutritional reasons lined up. Another feature, a very clinical one on “offal-y tasty meat,” is not for the faint of stomach -- no gauzy filter was on the lens that captured the liver, in particular -- but it is just the ticket for anyone who ever wondered what “pluck” and “lights” are (“the wobbly bits” -- lung, hearts and liver).
Other than splendid disorientation, the downsides to magazines from far-flung kitchens are few. Interestingly for a magazine that celebrates the origins of food, many of Fresh’s recipes are sponsored -- the ones for Jarlsberg cheese are credited to “Culinary Institute of Norway,” and those for Indian dishes and vegetables are from promoters too. And after 138 pages of advocating fresh, clean and thoughtful food, down to a huge listing of all the farmers markets in England, the back page is an ad for industrial Danish bacon.
These are not exactly dollar meals: One copy of Australian Gourmet Traveller costs $10.95, almost as much as an introductory year’s subscription to Bon Appetit. The publications can lag months behind American magazines. And they have an intangible problem: Many of the new foods and tools they tout look tempting but are not available in the United States. With an ad, you don’t mind fantasizing; when you’re ready to buy, it’s frustrating.
In the end, foreign food magazines can be like trips abroad. They may not be everything you expected, but they will open your eyes. What could say more about our world during the first decade of the 21st century than a feature about an Australian chef cooking in Thailand at a restaurant specializing in Moroccan food?
That’s way more than yum.