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The End Of Gourmet, The Demise Of An Old Friend, And My Shattered Heart

Posted By Sarma Melngailis On November 18, 2012 @ 3:00 am In GreenChef Foodie Talk | 6 Comments

Looking back at the demise of something so dear to my heart. I wrote this post last year as the end was blaring out of the TV, but something this big this important should be shouted from the roof tops, so here is my tribute to not just a magazine, but to an old friend, who for reasons beyond belief, is no longer with us.

Why? Why why why…? It was October 5th 2009, about two weeks ago, I was at the gym, on the treadmill. Loud music blasting in my iPod earphones, CNN on the screen in front of me, both meant to distract me from dwelling on the fact that I’m running on a conveyor belt alongside other people running on conveyor belts. Then I saw it. An image on the TV screen of the cover of the latest issue of Gourmet magazine, and the printed headline, “Gourmet magazine closes after 70 years.” WHAT!? No Way! How is that possible? I’m frantically looking around, for… what… ? I think I was expecting others must have seen this headline and also stopped running out of shock and disbelief, like me. I was thinking I’d see people hugging, comforting one another over the news, shaking their heads. But no, I only saw people still running, pedaling, and the usual sea of heads bobbing up and down in the elliptical section.

I couldn’t keep going. I had to know what happened, so I ran home and checked online and yes, indeed, Conde Nast was shutting down Gourmet. Along with 3 other titles: a cookie magazine and two bridal magazines. I don’t get it. Isn’t there another silly magazine they could shut down? How about Golf World or Golf Digest? Does the world really need both? (or either?) Immediately I emailed my Mom, my Stepmom, and chef Neal, among others, like “OMG, did you hear???” They too were saddened. I wanted to call people and talk about it. I wanted to pull out a bottle of good wine and sit on the floor with all my old issues spread out around me, flipping through them and getting drunk and nostalgic.

I wanted to grieve. I wanted to be around people who understood and were similarly bummed out. I felt like there should be a huge and grand memorial service. Ruth Reichl (the editor) would get up and speak, past editors would get up and speak. All the food world would be there, dressed in dark clothes, and easels everywhere with giant cover images. Then everyone would drink really really good wine, and eat lots of beautiful food, and feel the comfort of communal mourning. Maybe there was such a service and I just wasn’t invited.

Anyway. I was reminded of all of this earlier today as I flipped through my copy of Bon Appetit, Conde Nast’s other food publication that was chosen over Gourmet to live on. The close up photos inside looked gory, the bulky font headlines over them cartoonish, and the dishes simple and uninspiring. Even the lighting on the styled photos looked weird and shadowy. The headlines were: “Entertaining Do’s and Don’ts”, “Party Desserts”, “Healthy Holiday Foods”, “68 Recipes to Mix & Match” and “Leftovers Done Right!” with the boring November issue glossy turkey cover, and “Thanksgiving Made Easy!” across the top. Thanksgiving isn’t supposed to be easy! You’re supposed to labor, with love.

Gourmet was beautiful and classy. It was only a few days before the fateful announcement that I read what I would never have suspected was my last issue. I even thought to myself I was going to call and double back up on my subscription like I did years ago. This way, I can tear out pages in one copy, and keep the other untouched, for my collection. Did I mention I have every single issue filed away going back through 1997? That’s 12 years. I used to have a few more years before that but I recall a very painful and reluctant purging of a couple piles a long time ago. One day I’m going to get the covers scanned and copied and will wallpaper a kitchen hallway with them. Or something like that. Every cover was a work of art, with more pages of art inside. Vegan or not, I was particularly struck by the photos on p. 102/103 of pork chops. “Pork chop” just sounds vulgar. But the photo on page 103 is a work of art. If you get obsessed about color like I do, you’d understand. The pink of the inside of the meat, the mossy dark green backdrop, the burgundy wine… I want to go back to all these pages when I’m picking colors for packaging labels, for furniture fabrics, for clothing I want to design, for whatever I’m putting together, in my Martha Stewart-esque creative fantasy land.

Going almost all raw vegan six years ago did nothing to lessen my appreciation for the pages of this magazine. It’s very much a celebration of the art and elegance of food, restaurants, and cooking. But it’s also been more thoughtful than that. In the August 2004 summer issue (with the sexy cover photo of blackberry jam in a glass jar with a wooden spoon) the editor bravely published an article which infuriated many of the magazine’s readers. It was called “Consider the Lobster” written by the famous writer David Foster Wallace (known for novels, short stories, and essays, not food writing, who also, btw, killed himself about a year ago…L). They sent him to report on the 56th annual Maine Lobster Festival (where “something over 25,000 pounds of fresh-caught Maine lobster is consumed’). She published his entire essay without editing a word. It’s really long and full of digressions and lengthy footnotes. But as Ruth Reichl points out in her Editor’s Letter, “it is hilarious, thought-provoking, very uncomfortable—and something you’re not likely to forget anytime soon.”

With all of its funny details, Wallace makes you feel like you’re there with him. His comments on his discomfort with mass tourism (specifically in footnote 6) are particularly sobering given that he took his own life a few years later. Why is introspection such torture? In the spirit of Wallace’s many digressions, I’m totally digressing here to include a link to a thoroughly beautiful speech given on an overlapping and entirely relevant issue by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert. You can see it here. It’s 20 minutes. Well worth it. Believe me, I have no patience for youtube crap, but this is the opposite. From the TED series, I was referred to this talk by my friend, champion, and hero, Seth Godin. Watch it. Especially if you’ve ever felt tormented by the creative process, whether writing, creating art or music, science, or building a business.

Back to lobsters. Where was I. OK, so part way through this incredibly engaging article, Wallace puts forth what seemed to him in this context an unavoidable question:

“Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does ‘all right’ even mean in this context? Is it all just a matter of individual choice?”

Gourmet magazine has been around for almost twice as long as I have, so I haven’t read all the issues, but I’m guessing this is the first time this sort of question was raised in its pages. In a corresponding footnote he points out:

“Similar reasoning underlies the practice of what’s termed ‘debeaking’ broiler chickens and brood hens in modern factory farms. Maximum commercial efficiency requires that enormous poultry populations be confined in unnaturally close quarters, under which conditions many birds go crazy and peck one another to death. As a purely observational side-note, be apprised that debeaking is usually an automated process and that the chickens receive no anesthetic. It’s not clear to me whether most Gourmet readers know about debeaking, or about related practices like dehorning cattle in commercial feedlots, cropping swine’s tails in factory hog farms to keep psychotically bored neighbors from chewing them off, and so forth. It so happens that your assigned correspondent knew almost nothing about standard meat-industry operations before starting work on this article.”

The article is so good that it’s really hard not to quote the entire thing. He’s taking you along with him as he learns a bunch of new stuff himself. In another paragraph he points out:

“The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think hard about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. Since, however, the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 MLF, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.”

He goes on investigating these questions incredibly thoroughly and thoughtfully, without judgment. I love that the whole thing is without judgment and very personal. You rarely learn so much about the author in a food magazine article. Anyway. He says,

“I’m not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here—at least I don’t think so. I’m trying, rather, to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and salutation and community pride of the Maine Lobster Festival. The truth is that if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.”

And finally, his conclusion isn’t conclusive, just more thoughtful questions:

“Given this article’s venue and my own lack of culinary sophistication, I’m curious about whether the reader can identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts. I am also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused. … Is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?”

I love love love this essay. And I love Ruth Reichl even more than I did before for printing it. Many readers were furious and cancelled their subscriptions after this article appeared. Which I think is ridiculous. He put forth incredibly relevant (an understatement) questions for people to think about. After all, didn’t I just wax on in the above paragraphs about the beautiful photo of pork chops? Admiring the aesthetics of the photo vs. the content—the artfulness of it rather than the reality that it’s a photograph of a slice of a cooked slab of dead pig?

Watching those nature shows on TV where the lioness attacks and kills the gazelle—I can’t help feeling sad for the poor gazelle, the one of the herd that gets caught and taken down. But the gazelle wasn’t trapped, restrained, de-beaked (if it had a beak—you know what I’m getting at), demeaned, injected with hormones and antibiotics, fed a bunch of crap, or forced to walk a plank and watch a bunch of gazelles before it get unceremoniously and thoughtlessly slain before its turn to die. Was the pig in the photo? I don’t know. I could go on and on thinking these things through.

I loved this article when I first read it in 2004 and I love it now. It’s much easier to read, by the way, if you click on the “print” icon and print the whole thing, 11 pages of paper consumed and all. Easier to read the footnotes that way, and then you can pass it along to someone who might not read it online. Like your grandma. While you’re at it, click on the link to the related articles and you’ll find quite a bit on Food Politics, such as “A View to a Kill” which investigates America’s chicken industry and more humane ways to raise and kill chickens. This one doesn’t even compare to the amazingness that is the lobster article, but again I was cheering Gourmet for printing it and others like it—for raising these questions to its readers.

Despite all the questions in my own mind, I still love the photography and overall beauty and spirit of this now defunct food magazine. I just realized if you flip back a few pages from the pork picture I was admiring so much, there’s a beautiful full page photo of the featured chef holding a lamb, but he’s not in a chef coat and he’s not proudly posing with his prey. He’s holding the lamb like you’d hold a kitten and kissing its forehead. And opposite the pork beauty shot is a quarter page black and white of a pig. These are stunning shots, and their inclusion in the magazine acknowledges that the food in the photos come from these beautiful creatures. Which reminds me… if you’ve been to my restaurant Pure Food and Wine, then you’ve probably noticed the three different photographs on one wall of a very spirited looking duck. I found this photo before the restaurant opened in another 2004 issue of Gourmet. What struck me about it was how the duck was looking right into the camera with an almost feisty sort of look in his eye. I was in love with that photograph (and tracked down the photographer to get it). Little did I know that photo would inspire the name of my company a year later.

I will miss this magazine. The pages of Gourmet will always be inspiring to me.

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