Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Oct 11, 2009
01:44 PM
Small Dishes

The Passing of an Old Friend

The Passing of an Old Friend

Last week began with rumors that Condé Nast would soon dump at least three of its magazines.  A popular gossip blog held a contest for its readers to predict which publications would get the ax. I was taken aback that one of the most popular nominees for extinction was GourmetSurely, not, I thought.  When the news came, I was dumbfounded. How could a magazine I’ve literally been reading all my life—subscribed to since the early 70’s—just cease to exist overnight?  Most dispiriting of all was seeing pictures the next day of the Gourmet offices, already empty cubicles with packed boxes waiting to be taken away.

I soon received an email from an old friend, someone I hadn’t heard from in over a decade. He wrote, “The death of Gourmet is all over the news. I can think of few things likely to hit you harder.” It further upset me that what he said was not exaggeration.
Recently I wrote about Julia Childs and how she sparked my interest in cooking. Likewise, Gourmet deserves credit for my infatuation with food. Long before I knew what the word the word meant, I would thumb through the glossy pages of Gourmet. The pictures—since I was just learning how to read—fascinated me, much more so than baseball, cowboys or Davey Crocket. The magazine found its way into my life under rather unusual circumstances.
I was living in a small town in Indiana, and my parents had friends whose life revolved around entertaining. They owned the town paper, traveled the world and lived in a fine and elegant home.  I hated going over to their house. Not that I was invited to any of their parties, but my parents liked to hang out there and would drag me along in tow. The cause of my anxiety was their Boston bull terrier, “Little Ricky.” At best he would slobber on me, at worst, snip at my fingers. I quickly learned that my best defense was to head to the den as fast as my chubby little legs could carry me. Climbing up on top of one of the tall barstools there, I was safely out of Little Ricky’s clutches. That’s were I first encountered Gourmet, stacked on the bar.
Up until this time, my food experience was as limited as you would expect for a small child in the 1950s. My grandmother was an excellent cook, but the limit of her range was fried chicken and lemon meringue pie. Early on, traveling on a family vacation to New York, I discovered restaurants actually served the type of dishes pictured in the magazine. Furthermore, they tasted just as good as they looked in the colored pictures. There was no turning back.
When the magazine began in 1941, its competitor was American Cookery whose roots were in Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School. The two publications had about as much in common as Good Housekeeping and CosmopolitanGourmet’s original readership was primarily New Yorkers and its tagline, “The Magazine of Good Living.” Though its focus was American, it had a decidedly French accent. Its offices were located in the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel where the likes of Lucius Beebe chronicled the good life. Unlike its homely and strictly utilitarian competitor American Cookery, Gourmet stylized food as if it were a movie star or fashion model. When World War II soon broke out, the focus of American Cookery became how to cope with rationing and austerity and soon folded. Gourmet, on the other hand, changed nothing and prospered.
I’ve read several Gourmet obituaries by various pundits, each having a different excuse for its demise: the internet;  the currenteditor, Ruth Reichl; Condé Nast living beyond its means; the bad economy. Obviously, the ultimate reason was the bottom line and the decrease in print advertising. I have to admit that in succeeding years I have continued to look at Gourmet but read it less. Not so much that the content was any less intriguing, but just that there is so much more out there—whether it be other magazines, the internet or TV.
This is not the first time a magazine I’ve subscribed to has gone out of business. I’m anticipating the inevitable letter from Condé Nast telling me not to worry, that I will shortly be receiving their other food magazine, Bon Appétit, for the duration of my subscription (followed by a never ending avalanche of renewal offers). There are two problems with that. First, I already get Bon Appétit, a gift from a well-meaning friend. Second, I hate Bon Appétit. It’s entertaining in a Paula Dean sort of way, but it has no substance. In my opinion, it is glossy and slick in ways a magazine should not be. What I liked about Gourmet was it never dumb downed its content to sell more magazines.  It was never about how to cut corners, rather how to do things right. I’m saddened there seemingly is no longer a market for that.
The November, 2009 issue will be the last. Ironically, stacked in my bedroom are issues going back to November, 1972. Looking at the copy of that magazine from thirty-seven years ago, it’s impossible not to think about everything that has changed during almost four decades, least of all, me. The recipes are perhaps a little dated—certainly the only ethnicity is European—but there are a few that tempt me today. Most notable is a recipe for Brussels sprouts and chestnuts, tried and true, now part of my permanent repertoire. Looking at advertisements in old magazines is always amusing, and more than anything, illustrates how things have changed. Such as the Chrysler Imperial ad that states “… a car should carry you from place to place in maximum comfort.” There’s lots of big hair, sideburns and short skirts. Eerily, most of the liquor ads are still contemporary with today.
I will miss Gourmet, but on the other hand, it will resolve my problem of where to put them. I have run out of room in my bedroom.
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About This Blog

Dan CurdI found my interest in writing by accident. My training and first job was as a graphic designer. Unemployed, the only employment I could find in advertising at that time was as a copywriter. Somehow, I convinced Richard Newman & Associates to hire me. Later I learned they were desperate. Madison has been my home off and on since 1957 (nonstop for the past 31 years). I write about food, which I love. – Dan Curd

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