R.I.P. Gourmet

Gourmet Mag is a Hot Tomato
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

My heart broke a little when Julia Child died in August 2004. The end of an era and all that.

But did I know what the end of a culinary era really was? Not exactly.

Now I know.

By the time you read this, you will probably have learned that Condé Nast announced on October 5, 2009 that one of the most revered magazines in the United States, Gourmet, born in January 1941, on the cusp of the horrors of war and food rationing, will close down with the publication of the November 2009 issue.

In a world where fast and easy and fake food cornered the majority of the market, Gourmet magazine, like the Statue of Liberty, served as a guiding light for people unwilling to let the soggy hamburger or the flabby pizza slice win. Granted, as some observers said all along, Gourmet’s rather chi-chi beginnings and snooty French name and pandering to the wealthy served only to alienate the masses. No democracy there!

Yes, it’s a grievous  day for all of us who loved the magazine. Others will shrug and text their rapture over the latest latte gurgling in their stomachs.

Perhaps the most lamentable thing about Gourmet’s demise lies in the nagging feeling that reading about food per se is of little interest to the general American population. Recipes, yes. Literature. History. Art. With food? Huh?

Very sad, then, for food writers, this death.

Because, from the beginning, Gourmet prized excellent writing as well as recipes and food chit-chat. Gourmet took readers on travels to places they’d never go in the flesh. Writers with chops wrote for Gourmet, including that heroine of American food letters, M. F. K. Fisher who could, like an artist, draw a portrait of a dish, a place, an emotion with just a few strokes of her pen, words that imprinted themselves in a special place in readers’ brains. And hearts.

Now there’s no place to go to to read about people and places other than ourselves. In a way, the news of Gourmet’s death caused me to feel that the world suddenly shrank, a seismic event not unlike the end of the dinosaurs.

Interpretations will pile up speculating as to the “why” of the demise of this magazine and not others. Many felt that Gourmet was a dinosaur of publishing. Some will say, “It’s the economy, stupid,” and turn up the volume on their Ipods.

But I would like to propose that the blame lies not just with the economy.

In a time when people can write recipes in 140 characters and be understood (can they really?), reading the longer articles in Gourmet just didn’t sit well, I guess. Truthfully, when Ruth Reichl took over the editorship of the magazine, I thought the literary side of things took a bit of a hit. Over the years, I came to admire the magazine in its leaner, more modernized format even more than previously. But it never reached the literary pinnacle it enjoyed before. Not because no writers wrote like the giants who joined Earle MacAusland in his fool-hardy adventure of starting a glossy upscale food magazine in a country struggling out of an economic depression. But because the die was cast, so to speak. Television first, then the Internet, eroded away the print media monopoly on information.

If a stalwart like Gourmet tumbles to earth, who or what is next?

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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