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Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009 09:49 am

In memoriam: Gourmet magazine, 1941-2009

I’ve heard it said that an alcoholic always remembers her first drink. I don’t remember mine. But I can recall with crystal clarity my first Gourmet magazine.

It was in a Kroger grocery store in Champaign, I stopped dead by the periodical rack, my eyes drawn to a beautiful magazine cover: a brass knocker festooned with a festive holly sprig, bright against its dark-painted door. Aside from the date — December, 1973 — the only other thing on the cover was the word Gourmet. It contrasted sharply with other magazines’ garish clamor: Ten Easy Tips to Make This Your Best Christmas EVER!! Stars Share Their Favorite Cookie Recipes!!

I remember every detail of that first (for me) issue, and not just because I still have it. The travel articles, the restaurant reviews, the centerfold menu with its elaborate preparations displayed on an elaborate table setting were infinitely fascinating. It was as if Star Wars’ Obi Wan Kenobi, had prematurely appeared before his 1977 screen debut to say, “You have taken your first step into a larger world.”

It sounds corny, but for me Gourmet really was the portal to a new and larger world. Natural food, organic food, food as medicine was integral to my background; something I’d rebelled against in high school because it made my family seem weird. Exceptional home cooking was in my background, too, but something I took completely for granted. It took going away to college to make me appreciate and be grateful for both my family’s organic orientation and that home cooking.

 Gourmet showed me that food could be more than I’d ever imagined: Food as anthropology – a way to discover different cultures and customs, present and past. Food as a way to explore and experience the world. Food as high art and sophistication. Food as history and sociology. I’d had no thoughts of food or cooking as a career, and still didn’t. I was a voice major, envisioning a career in concert halls. But delving into new issues of Gourmet became my avocation, something I read and reread in between endless practicing, rehearsals and performances. Fortunately my new husband, Peter, shared my enthusiasm, and we experimented with recipes together.

Oddly enough, the Gourmet articles from which I learned the most were restaurant reviews. The travel pieces were filled with things to see and do, the best places to eat, and were rich with historical background. But the reviews, read over the years, provided a picture of what America’s best chefs were making, and how America’s food scene was evolving. Every month two articles each reviewed three restaurants: one about New York restaurants; the other from California that alternatively featured establishments in L.A. and San Francisco. Nowhere else seemed to matter. The first restaurant reviewed by both garnered the most space, and featured a French or “Continental” place. The second would be a more casual restaurant in the same vein, and the third more casual still, sometimes even – gasp – an ethnic eatery.

That sounds elitist, and in many ways it was, although I didn’t recognize it back then. Earle MacAusland, founder, publisher and editor of Gourmet from its inception in 1941 through 1980, wouldn’t have had it any other way.

MacAusland began publishing Gourmet as America’s entry into WWII was becoming inevitable. A magazine devoted to sophisticated eating and gracious living for gourmets (the word had not yet been subverted into an adjective; the noun denotes those with knowledge of and appreciation for fine cuisine) seemed ridiculous to publishing insiders.

But Gourmet survived and even prospered, evolving into America’s most esteemed food publication. It moved beyond American coastal and European centricism. There was a ground-breaking series about Chinese cooking. Articles about global cuisines were no longer oddities. Jane and Michael Stern began a monthly RoadFood column, discovering the best American regional food in out-of-the-way cafés and diners.

After MacAusland’s retirement, two editors oversaw Gourmet for two decades, expanding its scope but leaving the format mostly unchanged, even after its purchase by Condé Nast in 1983. Ruth Reichl’s appointment as editor-in-chief in 1999 heralded a new era. Gone were lengthy restaurant reviews and historically detailed travel pieces. I missed them, but became equally enthusiastic about in-depth articles about the contemporary food scene and issues that focused on a single topic. Most of all I appreciated the explorations of the “politics of the plate” – reporting that illustrated food impacts on much more than I’d discovered in my first Gourmets: international diplomacy, the economy, politics and the environment.

What Reichl kept – what had been integral to Gourmet since its inception – was exceptional writing and photography.

Gourmet had become an institution, but its evolution had ensured that it remained America’s premier food publication. So it was shocking when Condé Nast announced Oct. 6 that Gourmet’s November issue would be its last, a victim of sharply reduced advertising revenues. Reichl and her staff were as stunned as anyone; she said in an interview on public radio’s Fresh Air, “None of us saw this coming.”

In that same interview, it was clear Reichl viewed Gourmet much as I have over the years. She talked about “food as culture,” and said, “Food is one prism for looking at the world.”

Though it had far more personal impact for her, I was as shocked as Reichl about Gourmet’s demise. I’ve even going through the classic stages of grief. Right now I’m somewhere between anger and depression, and a long way from acceptance.

IT editor Fletcher Farrar e-mailed me after hearing the news: “What are you going to do without Gourmet magazine?” Answer: I’ll get by. But it sure creates a big empty space in the food world.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.
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