Gourmet’s Toast: Reichl Bites the Big One

When I picked up my New York Times this morning, I read the news that Conde Nast is closing down Gourmet Magazine (http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/05/conde-nast-to-close-gourmet-magazine/?hp).  Devotee of capitalism and fan of free markets that I am, I reflected on my own small part in Gourmet’s demise.

For more than thirty years, beginning in the late Seventies, I was a loyal subscriber to Gourmet.  A hardcore subscriber, you might say—I’d sign up for three years at a clip.  I’d haunt library book sales for back issues—scoring ones from the Fifties and Forties would leave me a little breathless in divine anticipation of immersing myself in post-war era I wished I’d been part of.  For the world of Gourmet founder and visionary Earle McAusland (“Mr. McAusland” to Gourmet staff and readers alike) was one of adults-only, grown-ups sampling the grown-up pleasures of fine wines, stinky cheeses, and exquisite napery and tableware.  A world in which men and women dressed for dinner, fed the kids separately, and enjoyed properly sized pre-prandial cocktails before tucking into menus devised by Narcsisse Chamberlain, James Beard or Elizabeth David, spiritual forebears all of Saint Julia.

During part of those years—while Mr. McAusland was still alive—Gourmet would arrive in my mailbox decorously clad in a brown paper wrapper, reminiscent of a fine steak wrapped lovingly in butchers’ paper.  Inside would be lavishly illustrated, with heart-stopping color photography, travel-cum-food articles about cities that would have been on the Wanderjahr itinerary of a freshly graduated alumnus of an Ivy or alumna of a Seven Sisters.  London.  Paris.  Vienna.  Berne.  Rome.  Delightfully Waspy names filled the bylines.  So, for a kid who grew up a townie in an impossibly preppy town—so near and yet so far—, attended a state university then graduate school in Southern California, Gourmet was the perfect how-to manual for acquiring a patina of worldliness.  Never mind that in 1978 the only patina my peers were acquiring was the thin sheen of perspiration from an enthusiastic go at the Hustle.  The only place I was hustling to then was the grocery store, in search of dusty cans of escargot, hard-to-find unsalted butter, and impossible-to-find Bar-le-Duc jam.  While the rest of America was diving head first into “California cuisine” and Szechuan Chinese, I was in my kitchen trying to make puff paste and pretending the resulting product was worth the effort.

It wasn’t just the travel articles and their yummy photographs (the only part of said articles I actually paid attention to) or the recipes that kept me loyally on Gourmet’s subscriber’s list; it was the regular features:  “Sugar and Spice,” “You Asked For It,” and the restaurant review columns of Jay Jacobs and Caroline Bates.   “Sugar and Spice” was Mr. McAusland-speak for “letters from readers.”  The sugary letters complimenting the magazine, the spicy ones taking it to task.  In thirty-plus years—well after Mr. McAusland had exited the scene and up until shortly after La Reichl had taken over—I never read a spicy letter.  There weren’t any. Things changed after Ruth arrived—that is until she killed the column.  Unable to stand the heat of reader complaints, she simply closed down the kitchen.  But in its glory days, “Sugar and Spice” was filled with love letters to Gourmet, short missives recalling a memorable foreign port-of-call, a decadent meal, a luscious wine—all perquisites to establish the writer as a fellow traveler, first-class of course.  Occasionally, S&S would print a recipe (invariably eponymous) for “Charity Adams’ blueberry slump” or “My mother’s Manhattan”; readers’ recipes were simple, bland and unlikely to complete with the culinary tours d’force within. Nevertheless, the letters were a delight to read, because they revealed to me that I was not a solitary striver alone struggling to live up to the exacting lifestyle decreed by Mr. McA.  Others were out there, trying as hard as I was.

“You Asked for It” was just that.  Readers would write in describing a transcendent dining experience in New York, Paris, San Francisco, or Milan and beg Gourmet “to procure the recipe for crème caramel so that I may surprise my husband on our anniversary.”  Sometimes the editors would respond with the chef’s version of the requested recipe, and other times they’d simply print a generic version.  I loved this column because I was interested in what other people were eating and because I rated the requests on a scale of lameness and audacity.  The aforementioned crème caramel rated high on the lameness scale, because it is an easy and forgiving dish that a novice cook can do as well as can be expected with ingredients she’s able to find.  Any transcendence it might have obtained at L’Chien d’Or, however, would have been strictly due to the quality of the cream and vanilla available to the chef—in other words, by its very essence impossible to produce by the home cook. Ten points on the lame-o-meter.  Such a recipe request might also score high on the audacity meter, especially if the little woman seeking to rekindle marital romance through the circuitous route of hubby’s digestive track  was writing from, say, Cleveland in order to remind her friends (and likely herself as well) that she’d honeymooned in Paris, France.  Oo-la-la!  Ten points right there for taking a trans-Atlantic flight to discover the joys of custard and fly home to brag about it.

Hands down, though, my favorite of favorites was Jay Jacobs’ reviews of New York restaurants.  Jacobs never wrote an unfavorable review, on the theory I guess that there are plenty of bad restaurants out there and diners could easily discover them themselves.  High of Jacob’s list were classic French restaurants, refined Italian eateries, fish restaurants, and society hang-outs.  Jay Jacobs was a gnome of a man, quite along in years, who’d frequent restaurants in black tie ornamented by an Amazonian beauty at his side.  I know this because I met him once by accident at the bar of Felidia’s, when it was a hot place to eat cold tripe, where I was imbibing the very martini Jacob’s liquid prose had sent me there in search of.   I was faithful adherent of Jacob’s recommendations, and he never gave a bad one.  Of course, one had to concentrate on his writing, which tended toward all manner of rococo phraseology.  Oysters, for example, were “pearlescent denizens of the deep”; Felidia’s martini was “the quintessential essay on the form, bracing and clear and guaranteed to win your date’s fancy.”  Or something like that.

And then something happened.  Mr. McAusland died, and soon after the plain brown wrapper disappeared, replaced by—how déclassé—plastic shrink-wrap; adverts for convenience foods started creeping into the pages, and Jay Jacobs was put out to pasture.  Still, I renewed my subscription, faithfully year after year.  I lugged my expanding collection of Gourmet’s from apartment to condo to house, where they occupied a prominent place in my library.   Other food magazines nipped at its heels—the middle-brow Bon Appétit, the dependable Food & Wine, and the snobbier-than-thou Saveur—but Gourmet held on to its pretensions, and so did its readers.

La Reichl blew into town.  Gone were the dusty trips down the memory lane of the Grand Tour.  Gone was any article that required a jump.  Gone was an editorial point of view that bespoke sophistication and finesse.  Reichl replaced it all not with her perky if self-centered style but with a misguided effort to bring Gourmet into the 21st century.  The early Reichl issues aspired to zine-like hipness.   They were a mess, and I joined the stampede of bread-and-butter subscribers who found our sustenance elsewhere.  Occasionally I’d pick up an issue on the newsstand, and could see frantic efforts to restore the old magic, but it was simply too little too late.  Having tossed the anachronisms for which Gourmet stood out with the recycling, Reichl and Conde-Nast committed zine-icide.

I won’t miss Gourmet.  I got over mourning its loss years ago.  And now only the good memories remain—of Nina Simonds wonderful and under-rated classic essays on Chinese cuisine.  Of Laurie Colwin’s delightfully personal meditations on home and hearth.  Of hours spent wondering if “Doone Beale” was male or female.

(For those of you wondering how all of this relates to the single life—obviously you have never indulged in the illicit pleasures of food porn.)

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