Where were you when you heard the news? I was hunched over my desk, eating a sandwich and perusing the articles on Salon.com ,when I stumbled upon the announcement that after a run of almost seventy years, Conde Nast was pulling the plug on Gourmet, the grand dame of food magazines. Even in this dreadful economy, this decision seems shocking to me. Gourmet began in 1941 during World War II, a time of food shortages, a time when food was not deemed worthy as a serious subject. It thrived despite the growing dominance of processed food and large agribusiness, and was there for all the major culinary movements in the decades since its inception. That its demise is being attributed to elitism in some circles is almost laughable.
Gourmet was out of touch with what was happening in American kitchens, they say. Its long and literary articles were not appealing enough to the masses. Who else but Ruth Reichl would publish a 6000-word treatise on boiling lobster, written by the brilliant yet often incomprehensible David Foster Wallace, who until his death last year, was deemed the most important novelist of his generation. Certainly, the articles on road food and falafel joints could not be called elitist, though these articles were couched between write-ups of five-star Parisian hotels and dining recommendations for some of the toniest establishments in America– establishments that you and I have very little hope of ever visiting. To be sure, Gourmet magazine sold the good life. A life that few of us could afford.
But what of it? Is that not what most magazines do? I don’t know about you, but I have not once picked up a copy of Vogue to help me decide which five-thousand dollar Louis Vuitton bag I’m going to buy this fall. I have never felt bad about my life because I could not afford a pair of red-soled Christian Laboutin shoes. Vogue has always represented a fantasy, an escape from the routine of everyday life. It has served as a sort of jumping off point of inspiration, and in this way, Gourmet was no different. Although I read the magazine for years, I rarely cooked any of the recipes. I reveled in the sumptuous photography, read the well-written articles with the rapt attention of a scholar pouring over a sacred text, and when I was done, waited eagerly for the next issue to come in the mail. Most importantly, Gourmet got me into the kitchen. It gave me new ideas, a deeper knowledge of technique and flavor combinations. It taught me what I had once not considered–that despite its inherent pleasure, eating is ultimately an ethical or unethcial act, depending on how you go about it.
I think that it is this jarring reality, not the perception of elitism, that affected the magazine’s bottom line and partly led to its demise. It’s not that we are unwilling to spend a few bucks in tough times in order to be transported because we so clearly are. When we are told that the tomatoes we eat were picked by someone who lives in virtual slavery, it makes us very uncomfortable. It asks us to change the way we eat, the way we shop and think about food. And as we all know, change is hard. It’s something we’d rather not do. With its focus on food politics under Reichl’s stewardship, Gourmet had a way of holding up a mirror to ourselves and showing us parts that many of us were perhaps not quite ready to see.