October 7, 2009

Closing the Book on Gourmet


"One of the first things Ruth Reichl did after telling her staff on Monday
that Condé Nast had closed Gourmet was to lock up the library with its
landmark collection of 70 years of cookbooks and typewritten recipes.

"That's not going to disappear," she said, adding that she had strongly
suggested to S. I. Newhouse Jr., the company's chairman, that he donate the
archives to the New York Public Library or to a university.

Then she and her staff gathered bottles of wine and liquor from the office
and held a wake at her apartment. Readers are mourning in their own ways.

Killing Gourmet and keeping Bon Appétit, which had more readers and stronger
ad numbers, may have made business sense for Condé Nast. But to the food
elite - especially of an older generation - it felt like a gut punch.

How had the magazine that seemed more likely to stay home, broil pork chops
and take care of the kids won out over its sexy, well-read, globetrotting
sister? And what does a world without Gourmet portend for an age when
millions prefer to share recipes online, restaurant criticism is becoming
crowd-sourced and newspaper food sections are thinner and thinner?

"It has a certain doomsday quality because it's not just a food magazine. It
represents so much more," said James Oseland, editor in chief of Saveur, a
smaller, younger food magazine. "It's an American cultural icon."

The magazine, founded in 1941, thrived on a rush of postwar aspiration and
became a touchstone for readers who wanted lives filled with dinner parties,
reservations at important restaurants and exotic but comfortable travel.

Although it was easy to paint Gourmet as the food magazine for the elite, it
was a chronicler of a nation's food history, from its early fascination with
the French culinary canon to its discovery of Mediterranean and Asian
flavors to its recent focus on the source of food and the politics
surrounding it.

In the decade since Ruth Reichl took over as editor, she underlined
everything from the exploitation of tomato pickers in Florida to dishes like
chicken and dumplings that could be on the stove, simmering, in 15 minutes.

But whatever the fashion of the time, Gourmet remained a place where people
learned how to eat and cook - particularly for an older generation.

"Gourmet was the only resource you had other than your cookbooks," said Judy
Walker, the food editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

Over the course of nearly 70 years, Gourmet has a recipe database enviable
in both size and quality. The pool is so deep that Gourmet compiled a
cookbook of more than 1,000 recipes in 2006, then turned around and
published more than 1,000 more in "Gourmet Today," which arrived - in one of
the industry's great moments of bad timing - in September.

"It feels like the last act of this magazine should be to support this
book," said Ms. Reichl, who is heading to the Midwest this week to promote

After a short rest, she plans to write a book about her years at Condé Nast.

Chefs, too, lamented the magazine's passing. For many, their dreams of a
life in the kitchen were born in its pages.

"Growing up, my parents' copies of Gourmet were my only window into the
high-end restaurant world," said Andrew Carmellini of Locanda Verde.

Scott Peacock, the Atlanta chef who has become known for Southern cooking,
made his first biscuits as boy using a recipe from Gourmet. Years later,
biscuits from his own recipe would be on the cover of the magazine.

"That magazine was a big deal to me growing up in Hartford, Alabama," he
said. "It was a glimpse into another world, one that I was interested in."

The magazine also provided a home for literate, thoughtful food writing. Its
stable of contributors included James Beard, Laurie Colwin and M. F. K.
Fisher. In the 1940s and '50s, the restaurateur Lucius Beebe wrote a
meandering column called Along the Boulevards.

"Gourmet was the New Yorker of food magazines back in the 1970s and '80s,"
said Jim Lahey, a Manhattan baker.

Gourmet magazine was an early influence on Alice Waters, who recalls
building files of recipes and photographs of dishes that she and Lindsey
Shere, the first pastry chef of Chez Panisse, wanted to make. And, she said,
for some restaurateurs, a review in Gourmet used to mean everything.

"Yes, you could be in The New York Times, but that was sort of fleeting.
Gourmet was just a bigger cultural picture," she said.

The magazine had its detractors, too, and they are doing plenty of Monday
morning quarterbacking: Gourmet was out of step with the times, both in
content and design, they say.

"The magazine has been casting about and remade itself too many times," said
Nach Waxman, the owner of the Kitchen Arts and Letters bookstore in

"Gourmet got away from the things that are going on in people's homes, and
seemed to be for an elite that got smaller and smaller," said Judith Jones,
the Knopf editor, who believes food magazines in general have become too
focused on fashion and style.

Still, there are believers. Kylie Sachs, a venture capitalist and subscriber
for 15 years, took to Twitter on Monday and started a campaign to save
Gourmet. In 24 hours, she had almost 200 followers.

Ms. Sachs, 37, thinks readers could rise up to save what she says is a
tested brand whose reliability is even more important in a digital age.

And if she fails, she will still head into Thanksgiving - the first she is
cooking for her family in her Brooklyn home - with Gourmet's November issue,
its last, at her side.

"I'll have a good, trusted friend guiding me," she said."

Julia Moskin and Florence Fabricant contributed reporting.