Critic’s notebook

Feeding aspirations is a worthy pursuit

By Devra First
Globe Staff / October 14, 2009

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Like many of the people who have opined about the demise of Gourmet, I grew up surrounded by the magazine: I ate up what was on its pages, literally. The shelves that hold years of issues in my parents’ kitchen fed me through childhood, as my mother made risotto before Arborio rice could be found in supermarkets, as my father stuffed our weekend French toast with dark chocolate and glazed it with jam. And thus the magazine fed my idea of what food is. It fed everyone’s idea of what food is.

And so, in a way, we grew out of it. Gourmet was an aspirational magazine, imagining food as a symbol for sophistication. It helped drive our palates, until that sophistication became part of the culinary lingua franca. What we had aspired to, we attained. Not everyone would cook veal loin stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, or duck legs braised in red wine with roasted pears, or salmon rillettes, but these dishes no longer seemed inaccessible, for the cook or the eater.

In the meantime, we began to value simpler, more ingredient-driven cooking. (Tastes great, less advertiser-friendly.) Gourmet evolved; under editor Ruth Reichl, the magazine exposed readers to molecular gastronomy, that crescendo of cuisine, but also rode a glissando into the territory of local, sustainable, organic, artisanal, and well-raised food. Contributing editor Barry Estabrook’s coverage of food politics was timely and enlightening. It was also the opposite of escapist. (Porn magazines don’t run essays on the exploitation of women beside the naughty pictures.) Perhaps rather than closing Gourmet, Condé Nast should simply have put a new cover on it, with an edgier name, and sold it as something else to someone else - or merged it with Bon Appetit and called it Epicurious, after the website that features recipes from both publications. The word “gourmet’’ barely means anything anymore (though, for the love of all that is delicious, let’s please also leave behind its annoyingly perky cousin “foodie’’). Neither does “bon appetit,’’ for that matter. Our culinary jazz is now as likely to come from Vietnam, Turkey, Italy, or the American South as it is France.

Yet it’s Bon Appetit that survives. I have nothing against the magazine, which features solid recipes and an inspired redesign. But the following items just came across my desk: an ill-timed lime-green slab of a tome called “Gourmet Today: More than 1000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen,’’ and a little box titled “Bon Appetit Celebrations Deck: 50 Recipes for Special Parties and Happy Holidays All Year Long,’’ containing a stack of pretty cards. It was happenstance, but it seemed illustrative nonetheless, and it made me a tiny bit blue. Will the world continue to support the long-form, the thoughtful, that which takes effort? Or will we turn increasingly toward the equivalent of pretty cards with recipes for special occasions, and cover lines that promise “15 meals in 15 minutes,’’ as Bon Appetit did in June? Is it really true that we want what’s easy and quick and less challenging, as advertisers seem to believe? I’m talking about the world of recipes, and the world of restaurants (I’m so over meat loaf - are you with me?), but also the worlds of literature and art and family life, and all the things that feed us. Truly feed us.

Gourmet was just a magazine. Magazines evolve and sometimes go under. But as print continues to give way to the Internet, as fine dining yields to the casual and affordable, as we work longer hours and have less time and more stress, I hope we don’t entirely let go of what that particular magazine stood for. Without aspiration, where would we be?

Devra First can be reached at