Friday, October 9, 2009

The Magazine Closing That Rocked The Culinary World

With the news this week that publisher Conde Nast was shutting down Gourmet magazine after 70+ years, a simmering debate and passionate discussion has been going on among the food cognoscenti about the decision.

I can't remember the last time I picked up a Gourmet magazine.  I do know, however, where past issues are at home with recipes that include the world's best chocolate pots de creme, a killer pasta dish from Bologna, really delicious and fun ice cream sandwiches and an old clipping that talked about a "new" restaurant setting the culinary world on fire called The French Laundry.  

In the decade of excess when everyone was learning what polenta, sun-dried tomatoes and pesto were, there was an expanse of culinary magazines on all sorts of topics.  As our appetite for knowledge increased, the number of magazines writing about food did with it.  There was even the short-lived Foodie Magazine for those passionate-nerdy food types.  I Guess there weren't enough "foodies" at the time, because the magazine folded within a year.  Either that, or, as in the case of Cook's Magazine, they were bought (by Conde Nast, no less) and Gourmet ate up all their subscribers.   It was a war to divide and conquer the most culinary magazine subscribers possible.  So, adding Ruth Reichl to the masthead of the magazine was a brilliant move.  Especially since she'd written widely popular and entertaining books and provided some of the most controversial and memorable reviews as the costumed culinary critic for the New York Times.  Even if they were a little TMI, Reichl's passion connected a people.  And for good or bad, it drew a line in the sand: Gourmet magazine was the benchmark for all that was excellent in food publishing. 

Most of the conversations this week have been about that polarization, mixed with melancholic nostalgia at the untimely demise.  Yet, I think its demise was indeed timely. As the economic pendulum swung way back in the other direction last year, the ripple effects continue to be felt in this down economy.  For starters, luxuries will always suffer first.  Gourmet, therefore, was at the top of the list of candidates for a date with destiny in the land of conspicuous consumption, with monster SUVs and the third beach home.  It's no wonder the culture wars are now about elitism and socialism.  They're buzz words that show the public is passionate about their comfort items.  Take them away, and it's like you burned Radar's teddy bear.  

But, are we really talking about a magazine that was "too gourmet", as Tyler Florence said this week, or is it a simple issue of a magazine that didn't change with the times?  And, rather than ask the old bird to adapt, did they just put it down?  Here's my argument.  Listed are the current magazines and/or sites that just Conde Nast publishes:  Vogue,W, Style, Glamour, Allure, Self, Teen Vogue, GQ, Details, Men's Style, Architectural Digest, Brides, Modern Bride, Elegant Bride,, Lucky, Cookie, Golf Digest, Golf World, Vanity Fair, Bon Appetit,, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure,, Wired, and The New Yorker. Most people didn't know that Modern Bride got the axe, too; but, with FOUR opportunities to cash in on the millions in marketing for the marrying, there appears to be room for tightening the belt, wouldn't you say?  

So, what made Bon Appetit more relevant than Gourmet?  I'm not sure it is, but one certainly had the pulse of the times more than the other.  Bon Appetit has the cache of a very euro-lifestyle magazine without the fussiness.  My favorite foodie mag, Saveur, however, has a more down-to-earth approach with big, gorgeous photos of farm to table foods and the artisans who produce them.  Yet, it's smart, like the other two.  I think there is still a market for very diverse food magazines today, I just think some of the older ones need to move on first. 

That said, there are really just too many insipid magazines on the shelves today. There is no excuse, for example, for a magazine like Lucky.  Yet, it goes on.  I know this, because this magazine arrives to my house as a "freebie" for my wife each month, and it sits on the coffee table or in a stack of mail until the next one arrives.  After four years, I got curious, flipped through the pages and finally had to ask, "Hon- what IS this magazine about?"  It's a magazine about shopping.  Shopping.  It seems there is a limitless supply of advertisers, because they don't exclude anyone!  "Here's how to shop- save money by spending money! " Cha-CHING!

As I follow this line of logic, I begin to understand why it's touched a nerve with people and me.  A most pertinent opinion piece was in the New York Times this week from the previously mentioned Cook's Magazine publisher, Christoper Kimball.  After 10 years, his magazine shut down in 1990 unable to compete with Gourmet.  But, he started back up in 1993, "advertising-free, with a 100-percent subscriber-financed model, including a thriving paid Web site."  Smart move.  19 years later, Cook's Illustrated stands out as a unique and respected culinary magazine among the masses, while Gourmet sings its swansong.  Kimball says,

" The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up. They can no longer be coronated; their voices have to be deemed essential to the lives of their customers. That leaves, I think, little room for the thoughtful, considered editorial with which Gourmet delighted its readers for almost seven decades."
I'd like to see this Darwinian model continue, but it can only spell doom for the finer aspects of fine food, dining and cooking.  If we are indeed a culture where faster and simpler is better, it'll be impossible for an esoteric contingent to survive.  Sad, then, that it will come down to profitability versus content and creativity.  

I teach a class once a semester at Wimington University to Food Arts students.  My lecture is on the traditions and origins of front and back of the house positions in restaurants and hotels.  As I cover my measly 27 years experience in the industry, I also take them back to what I see as the beginning, the rise of Auguste Escoffier 100 years earlier.  I've spoken of his impact on our industry in other posts, but mostly in the positive.  So it may be a reach, but as Escoffier created a much needed amount of respect and dignity among and for food service personnel, no one could have guessed, for example that from that awareness there eventually could evolve a full-time Food Network.  And, wildly popular reality shows with tyrannical chefs screaming at shivering and cocky culinary hopefuls.  So much of what airs on the Food Network is NOT about food, but entertainment with food thrown in.  Poor Escoffier would roll over in his grave if he saw an episode of Hell's Kitchen.  

The competition shows turn me off as well, because I realize I'm being set up to criticize food on television.  Food you can't taste.  Yet if you watch, you find that you pick apart how it was prepared, what the chef looked like, their attitude, and anything else the editors throw in  from the  dozens of hours of footage, and before you know it, you've joined the ranks of millions of Americans who are forming very strong opinions about someone or something based on 30 minutes of television.  

It all makes me lose my appetite.

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