Moving on after loss of Gourmet
By Janet Rausa Fuller
October 21, 2009
I’m still digesting the fact that Gourmet magazine is no more. So is Ruth Reichl.
“It feels like it’s been more than a week,” Reichl told me by phone last week. “But then it feels like I’ll wake up and go into the office and everybody will be there.”
Since Conde Nast announced it was pulling the plug on what was arguably the nation’s most revered food publication, Reichl, Gourmet’s editor-in-chief for the past 10 years, has been straddling a surreal line between what came before and what lies ahead.
She was in the middle of promoting the magazine’s newest cookbook, Gourmet Today. The day after cleaning out her office, she flew to Kansas City for an appearance.
“This restaurateur had bought all of these incredible local ingredients for this dinner,” she said wistfully.
While traveling, Reichl posted this on her Twitter feed: “At Newark airport. Stopped to buy sandwich (no time to eat today), and the woman behind the counter said, ‘I’m so sorry; this one’s on me.’ ”
The rest of the food world, meanwhile, has feasted on the how, what and whys of the closure.
Gourmet was a thing of beauty, sure, but no longer relevant, some argued.
It was a relic in a fast-moving, virtual world.
Its Web presence was too little, too late.
It was Conde Nast’s fault.
It was the consulting firm McKinsey’s fault.
On Forbes.com, Saveur publisher Merri Lee Kingsly unfurled a victory banner: “Without Gourmet, Saveur is the only real travel, culture and foodie magazine left. It was the two of us, now it’s only us.”
Reichl hasn’t bothered tracking all the outsider analysis — “I have thousands of e-mails that haven’t been opened yet” — but she’s familiar with the criticism.
“It’s sort of irritating to hear . . . that this was a magazine for older people,” she said. “In Kansas City, one woman came up to me and said, ‘I’m 33 and I’ve been subscribing to this magazine for 20 years. What am I gonna do now?’
“I think the facts about [Gourmet] were very clear,” Reichl said. “It was a magazine that depended on exactly the kind of advertising that went away during the recession. This was not an issue of circulation. Circulation was at its highest point ever.”
Still, the comparisons to Bon Appetit — Conde Nast’s other food magazine that was spared the ax — are inevitable. Bon Appetit has a higher circulation and, in many people’s view, is the more recipe-driven, user-friendly of the two, another point that seems to get under Reichl’s skin.
“I don’t know that much about Bon Appetit,” she said. “It’s not like I sat there and read it all the time. When I was a restaurant critic, I didn’t read other critics’ reviews. As a magazine editor, you don’t want to think about what other people are doing. You want to focus on what you’re doing.”
Recipes mattered in Reichl’s world at Gourmet, but they were not all that mattered.
“We had eight test kitchens. Our recipes were foolproof. They were guaranteed. We tested those recipes to literal absurdity. But I very much didn’t want to make this magazine just about recipes.
“It’s true I pulled back on the number of recipes that were printed, because there was so much I felt we needed to cover. It was a magazine that was very much about travel and very much about food as culture and food as politics.”
The magazine’s first article on sushi ran — “Can you guess when?” Reichl challenged me — in 1955.
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I can’t stop thinking about how terrible — and terribly ironic — the timing of all this is.
Reichl was globetrotting for most of the summer, filming a new public television show, “Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth,” in which she and actor friends, among them Frances McDormand and Lorraine Bracco, visit cooking schools in Laos, Morocco, Tennessee and beyond. The show premiered Saturday.
Gourmet Today was five years in the making; Reichl was in the midst of promoting the book this month.
The November issue of Gourmet — the final issue — has three different Thanksgiving spreads (vegetarian, Southern and Pennsylvania Dutch-inspired) and one on alternative Thanksgiving desserts. There is a story about chefs on a hunting trip in the Canadian wilderness and a travel piece on the Adirondacks.
It’s a festive, bittersweet issue. After all, we’re entering the holiday season.
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Reichl’s decade at Gourmet “was the longest I’ve been anywhere.”
“I’m sort of amazed that I was there this long,” she chuckled.
She sees a full plate ahead. She hopes to continue with the TV show (though that’s up in the air) and see her 2006 book, Garlic and Sapphires, about her years as a dining critic, make it to the big screen (it’s in script revisions, she said.)
“I imagine I will get involved with some of the school food stuff, because I think it’s something we all have to pay attention to,” she said. “We have this serious obesity crisis in this country, and we won’t solve that until we teach children to eat better.”
Three stops on the Gourmet Today book tour have been re-scheduled for the next two weeks, a spokeswoman for publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said.
The cookbook is massive — 1,008 pages, 1,043 recipes. It is “the answer to anybody who says Gourmet was old-fashioned and only had difficult recipes,” Reichl said. “More than half of the recipes can be done in under half an hour.”
Her go-to recipe for evenings at home: Fried Rice with Eggs and Scallions.
“Oddly, that’s exactly what I made last night,” she said. “It’s very comforting to me.”
Paging through the book, I can only hope that cooks will treat it not as a souvenir for the shelf but rather, as Reichl says, a book you can and should cook from.
The magazine itself is another matter. I have the past few issues on my nightstand and already, they feel a bit like museum pieces.
And then I think of a recent chat I had with Chris Koetke, the dean of culinary arts at Kendall College.
“I think of my culinary students. In five years from now, none of them will know what Gourmet meant,” Koetke said. “It’s sort of like when a great chef retires. Time marches on.”