Although I am not terribly fond of the term, I must admit at the outset that I am a “foodie.” The confirmed symptoms are undeniable. Rarely (if ever) does a day go by that I don’t watch the Food Network. I follow the winners and losers on Top Chef and The Next Iron Chef like the most avid of baseball fans follow box scores and pennant races. I own over a hundred cookbooks. Receiving the new Williams-Sonoma catalog puts me nearly into a swoon. And, even more notably, when the latest issue of Gourmet magazine arrives in the mail, I immediately set aside time to read it cover to cover. Twice. Because it is by far my favorite magazine. That is why the news of its demise was both a shock and terribly saddening.
Gourmet was born in 1940, the brainchild of Earle R. MacAusland, who conceived of the magazine, ironically enough, in the depths of the great Depression, when a surfeit of food well-prepared was likely but a dream to the ever-hungry majority of Americans. Nonetheless, in December of 1940, the first issue of Gourmet came out with an illustration on its cover of a roast boar’s head. (For more about the first ten years of the magazine, see Gourmet’s First Decade.)
From that point on, the magazine was undeniably elitist, which is to say that it imagined that its readers all ate French food on a regular basis and had wine cellars of considerable proportions. The trick here, though, was that Gourmet was one of the first magazines that are now referred to as “aspirational lifestyle magazines.” Perhaps its readers did not actually live the Gourmet lifestyle–which was described in its first editorial as that of “the honest seeker of the summum bonum [highest good] of living” -but they certainly aspired to such, or at least enjoyed reading about it. That was certainly the case during the outbreak of World War II and the onset of food rationing. But what was the magazine’s solution? Readers were told to save the magazines so that the recipes could be used once the war was over. One can almost hear the echo of Scarlet O’Hara saying, “Tomorrow is another day.”
What has truly set Gourmet magazine apart over the years is its continuing commitment to not just a lifestyle, but to food writing of the highest order, writing that can be rightly described as being literature. Take the example of M.F.K. Fisher’s, An Alphabet for Gourmets, something that I have more than once read in its entirety in a single sitting. Indeed, in an article that I am preparing for publication in the Stanford Law & Policy Review, the epigram that I decided to use is taken from the chapter, “A is for Alone.” It reads: “sharing food with another human being is an intimate act, which should not be indulged in lightly.” (To read this and other chapters, please go here: http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/1940s/1948/12/mfkfisheranalphabetforgourmets?currentPage=1).
In recent years, Gourmet magazine has plunged more deeply into the politics of food, publishing amazing essays by Michael Pollan, like Sustaining Vision, which appeared in the September 2002 issue, and described a fascinating organic farm that was self-sustaining in every good sense of the word. Here is a fine passage from it:
On a farm, complexity sounds an awful lot like work, and some of Salatin’s neighbors think he’s out of his mind, moving his cows every day and towing chicken coops hither and yon. “When they hear ‘moving the cattle,’ they picture a miserable day of hollering, pickup trucks, and cans of Skoal,” Salatin told me as we prepared to do just that. “But when I open the gate, the cows come running because they know there’s ice cream waiting for them on the other side.” Looking more like a maître d’ than a rancher, Salatin holds open a section of electric fencing, and 80 exceptionally amiable cows–they nuzzle him like big cats–saunter into the next pasture, looking for their favorite grasses: bovine ice cream.
And while the list of articles could go on, I must also mention one by Barry Estabrook that really opened my eyes, Politics of the Plate: Florida’s Slave Labor. Read this article and I promise you will never look at the tomato on your fast-food hamburger the same way again. And that is a very, very good thing.
So I agree with Anthony Bourdain (also first published in Gourmet), when he describes the magazine as “the center of gravity,” and its loss as “a major planet that’s just disappearing.” And while we will still have its nearly seventy year history of being the summum bonum of food writing and reporting, that does not much lessen the sting of this sad loss. Rest in peace Gourmet, you will be greatly missed.