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Gourmet on the Chopping Block

In a way, it's kind of inevitable that they shut Gourmet magazine down. Condé Nast is owned by Sy Newhouse, and Sy Newhouse is one of the oldest of the old dinosaurs, who believes in individual genius and that it's shown by the genius pretty much ignoring every day life, and every day obligations. Newhouse is famous for urging his editors to spend more, waste more, act more and more extravagantlyNewhouse is famous for urging his editors to spend more, waste more, act more and more extravagantly, as if to be flying outside of life as the rest of us know it is to achieve superiority, and to make sure that nobody who's superior ever has to shop for their own groceries ever again in their lives.

He believes in that. And he believes in a middle class that's controlled by that superior group, one that listens to everything that the ones on top tell them... whether it's how to run a wedding, or how to cook a meal, or how to organize a cultural life. Don't believe me? Have a look at Vogue. Look at Vanity Fair. All Sy Newhouse. All promoting the idea that there's a class of rich people who are different from you and me. Pretty much all running the same articles about these same people presumably pushed by the same group of publicists. All glamorously superior to the drab rest of us.

Ask yourself who this point of view benefits. I mean, the one that says you're either a highflying star, or a good-natured drelb who admires and pays for the high flyers. Honest to God, ask yourself who benefits from what you're reading and watching and playing. If it's not you, ask yourself WHY.

If you don't ask yourself WHY, you're playing the helpless partIf you don't ask yourself WHY, you're playing the helpless part, the "I can't do anything, it's not my responsibility, it's all too complicated, and I'm just too busy anyway" part. Some part. No wonder the high flyers look at you with a kind of benevolent contempt.

When it's your world, isn't it, and not theirs? And the one thing that Ruth Reichl and crew did in Gourmet was try to get across that it was your world too... which, by the way, it is. That we're all in this together. And if there was an occasional silly slip up, the way there has to be if the organ is being played by a corporate ad budget, of the kind that equates eco tourism in Belize with saving the planet, there were plenty of articles from real, thoughtful, multi cultural Americans about what food really means in their everyday lives, and how it enriches and binds and offers an opportunity for communion instead of separation. There were articles about how we come together as a community over food, rather than just get separated into those who have secret (or not so secret) contempt for the rest of the population, and those of us who are considered contemptible.

Gourmet spoke up for food as a mode of communication and not just of consumption.Gourmet spoke up for food as a mode of communication and not just of consumption.

Bon Appétit, the magazine Condé Nast saved from the recent corporate slaughter, is the one that caters, in a more or less patronizing and breezy tone, to those of us who just aren't high flying enough to rate a photo op by Annie Leibovitz or Helmut Newton's ghost.

Gourmet tended to level that playing field. It tended to assume that its readership was intelligent enough, without assuming it was the elite. There might have been some silliness there about the $1,000 meals, but on the other hand, it wasn't meant, as it so often is in Vogue, to exclude, to make the viewer the one on the outside, a little Match Person, nose pressed wistfully on the glass, watching the ricos within. That was a good thing about Ruth Reichl's watch. It might have occasionally fallen into shameful flattery of the reader, but, on the other hand, what corporate organ can survive without that catering to the shameful tastes of a disenfranchised readership? It has no political power, after all, that middle class readership. It lost it, or it gave it up, to the corporations decades ago. You have to throw it a bone. So you tell it when it redoes its kitchen with the most up to date appliances that this is an actual worthy goal, and an actual worthy occupation, instead of saying the truth: which is that it's shameful activity to endlessly think about perfecting one's own life when the lives around you remain so shamefully unperfected.

Yes, Gourmet was guilty of that lapse, but what food magazine isn't? I could curdle your milk telling you about articles off the top of my head in the other food magazines (one particularly memorable one begins with the writer being annoyed because his hoped-for entry into Venice at daylight is scotched by a suicide on his railway line... just annoyed, that's all, before he goes back into rhapsodies about the wonders and self indulgences of this trip of his of a lifetime... that's a story that never would have gotten past the editors of Gourmet), ones that take for granted that its readership is venal, self involved, crass. Gourmet didn't do that. You could tell by the recipes, which were, by and large, straightforward and tasty, clever without being vulgar, and by the attempts made to run articles about where our food comes from and why.You could tell by the recipes, which were, by and large, straightforward and tasty, clever without being vulgar, and by the attempts made to run articles about where our food comes from and why. And didn't Gourmet get a pasting from some hecklers for that! The article about how the tomato pickers in Florida are kept in a state of tortured slavery was ripped by readers who said they wanted politics kept out of their fantasies about food. Out of their fantasies about themselves, they should have said.

Mess with those fantasies, mess with the miasmic cloud of denial in which our middle class presently wraps itself (and why not? What are its choices, after all? Where are its solutions, its leaders, its real goals? I mean, other than redoing the kitchen once again... and holding a themed dinner party?), mess with those illusions which are becoming so increasingly untenable that the rise in anti depressant use is truly shocking, and you risk... well, you risk people turning away from you to other drugs, you risk corporate annihilation. Even if you try to step just one little bit out of the line. Even then.

And that makes it obvious that Gourmet was the one first up on the chopping block. Squawk, squawk.

(Once again, I seem to have written a guest blog about a book that's supposed to be about food without giving you a recipe. So here's one dish we ate last night, because I was too tired after the long drive of the day before to do much else, and our digestive systems longed for something simple after all those restaurants. We had baked potatoes, and carrots from the garden with marjoram, and a big, tasty heap of:

Sautéed cabbage with soy sauce.

Like this:

Slice up as much cabbage as you and your loved ones can eat (it'll cook down, be aware). I like fairly wide slices for this one, about a half inch.
Heat a cast iron skillet.
Add a little oil and a little butter (I like peanut oil with this one).
When oil is hot, add the cabbage, a little salt, and stir-fry. Make it nice and limp and translucent, and, if you like it (I do), browned around the edges.
Turn the heat down to low, let it all settle, then add as much soy sauce as you like (you want to do this after the hot searing so the soy sauce doesn't burn... watch that pan... but you want the soy sauce to mellow and cook a little, too).
This is good on brown rice, but it's pretty damn good next to said baked potatoes and cooked carrots with marjoram, too. And it always makes me feel like I'm home.)

See you tomorrow.

÷ ÷ ÷

Tod Davies lives with her husband, the filmmaker Alex Cox, and their two dogs in the alpine valley of Colestin, Oregon, and at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, in Boulder, Colorado. She is the author of Snotty Saves the Day and Lily the Silent, the first two novels in The History of Arcadia series, Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking with What You've Got, and Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered, both from the Jam Today series. Unsurprisingly, her attitude toward literature is the same as her attitude toward cooking — it's all about working with what you have to find new ways of looking and new ways of being.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Snotty Saves the Day: The History of... Used Trade Paper $8.95
  2. Lily the Silent (History of Arcadia #2) Used Trade Paper $9.50
  3. Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking with... Used Trade Paper $7.95
  4. Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will...
    Used Trade Paper $10.95
  5. Gourmet Today: More Than 1000...
    Sale Hardcover $14.98

Tod Davies is the author of Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered

2 Responses to "Gourmet on the Chopping Block"

    Cecily October 6th, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Thank you Tod for writing your excellent piece today. I have been unable to put in words the sadness and disgust I have been feeling since I learned about Gourmet magazine being canceled. You have helped me to understand my feelings!!!
    I especially like your sentence; "Gourmet spoke up for food as a mode of communication and not just of consumption."
    I never liked Bon Appetit that much and do not want Conde Nast to fold my subscription into that magazine. I want my money back!

    Lainie Turner October 6th, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    Tod, great piece. Thanks for saying what so many of us (drelbs? perhaps) are thinking. It's good to "hear" your voice.

    Looking forward to tomorrow's post.

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