Friday, November 6, 2009

Giving Thanks for Gourmet Magazine

I was shocked and dismayed a few weeks back to hear that Condé Nast was doing away with Gourmet Magazine. I vented for several days. Dang. How could they (a big corporation) shut down such a venerable magazine with so much history? How could they dismiss such an interesting and influential editor with a simple phone call? How could they? Impossible to believe.

Then I started to think about it more carefully. Why was I so upset? Yes, it is just awful when something is cut off peremptorily. Yes, I hate corporations when they change the design of a perfectly good coffee maker or a pair of comfortable pants or when they get rid of a food magazine because they want me to buy another more fashionable model so they can make more money. And yes, I really don’t like to be taken by surprise. But what else was going on in me?

Let me go back to the beginning of my relationship with Gourmet.
I started reading Gourmet Magazine in the downtown Berkeley Public Library when I was first learning to cook in the second half of the 1960s. I sat during my lunch hours with my small yellow pad and copied out recipes that sounded delicious and easy enough for a beginner. I have pages and pages of these handwritten notes and used many of the recipes, as my barely legible penciled notes indicate.The one pictured is from the Gourmet of July 1968.
I especially loved the lavish holiday spreads, Thanksgiving in particular. Gorgeous photographs: The beautiful table with elegant crystal and china, elaborate center pieces, and candles with hurricane covers. The exquisite food: Perfectly browned turkey with luxurious side dishes. Chestnuts, lots of cream, oysters in stuffing, many different wines. All well beyond my ability and means. At the time, we were living in graduate student housing on my husband’s modest stipend and my hourly wage at the University of California. None of this was possible. But I could aspire to it. And I must admit, I did aspire to it. I wanted that kind of style, sophistication and elegance.

But our lives continued to chug along. In 1970 we left Berkeley, traveled in Asia for three years, had two kids, and moved to North Carolina. Somehow during that stretch of time, I lost my connection to Gourmet, and it has never been rekindled. I have occasionally bought a single copy with a particularly enticing cover. I bought and use the yellow-jacketed Gourmet Cookbook. But Gourmet Magazine has not been a regular part of my life, my lunch hours, or my menus for forty years. Perhaps I am not alone in this shift from avid to occasional reader.

But here we are in the present moment. My regret and shock at the closing of Gourmet is linked inextricably to a particular time I recall with great fondness. The hours of pleasure in the Berkeley Public Library, the carefully saved yellow sheets of paper with handwritten recipes, the Thanksgiving dinners I longed to replicate or to attend, my desire to be elegant and sophisticated--all these memories contribute to my sadness. Part of my past has been shut down, rendered obsolete or old-fashioned. I choose to believe that the managers of Condé Nast don’t want me to feel irrelevant or shut out; they just want me to purchase one of their other food magazines. Perhaps they felt that Gourmet hadn’t kept up with the times and was too fancy or down right extravagant for this new economy, that lavish Thanksgiving spreads were no longer of much interest, economic or otherwise. I might even agree with them. But let me tell you, it will be hard to buy Bon Appétit knowing that it was chosen over my lunch time companion of many years ago.

In this season of thanksgiving, let me offer a toast to the Gourmet Magazine that educated and inspired a young cook sitting in the Berkeley Pubic Library writing out recipes for Oven-Fried Chips and Melon a l'Indienne. My heartfelt thanks to one and all.

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