The Times ran a story today about the demise of Gourmet magazine and how its readers aren’t flocking to Bon Appetit or other cooking magazines as predicted. I’m not surprised that loyal readers, who have followed the magazine and the brand since 1941, aren’t switching. Gourmet readers began reading during World War II, and developed the habit of saving back issues and recipes, filing them away as treasures and resources, like loyal readers of National Geographic. When Conde Nast bought the magazine in 1983, those readers stayed on, and assumed that their loyalty would be rewarded.
No: the booby prize after all those years is a subscription to Bon Appetit. Not a bad magazine, but not Gourmet, and the readers know it. In this age when building a brand is everything, I can’t understand why a magazine company would just throw away one of its best. It seems to be emblematic of all the bad moves the magazine industry has made in recent years, pumping up circulation at the cost of its loyal readers. The magazine industry has been trying to train its readers not to be loyal–to get Gourmet this year for $6.95, and when that expires, to switch to Bon Appetit. This kind of an approach isn’t sustainable, and makes for mass-market magazines that have no personality.
I had the privilege to write for Gourmet a few times, and the way the magazine treats its writers, with old-school respect, is one of the reasons it was able to attract the best writers in the country, and not so well-known ones who would put huge effort and soul into their articles to see them published in the pages of Gourmet. Gourmet cared enough about its readers to send writers and photographers to other countries to search out the best restaurants and artisanal foods.
I’m not a chef or someone who knows (or cares) about the politics within the restaurant industry; I’m a writer who is passionate about what food has to say about culture. Gourmet gave me the opportunity to travel to Peru, to learn why that country’s cuisine is suddenly taking off, fusing a number of disparate traditions. I was able to go to the Aeolian islands, in search of my favorite dish in the world, pasta with fennel and sardines, and to understand how such a great cuisine developed on such dry, hardy islands.
The editors at Gourmet were always meticulous, particularly in making sure writers saw changes to their stories and were okay with them. If this seems like the least respect an editor can offer a bylined writer, it is, and yet it is hardly the standard in an industry that is increasingly dumbing-down and condensing any story that has a point of view, a voice, an in-depth look. I was outraged to have lunch with a Gourmet editor who told me that when they shut the magazine, they’d been given no warning–no chance to trim budgets, to take another approach. Off with their heads.
So, no, after Gourmet, Bon Appetit won’t do. I want a narrative and gorgeous pictures–what magazines do best, and what magazine companies, in their off-base desire to compete with new media with circulation numbers, not quality, are killing off–not just an intro and some recipes for Festive Summer Brunches. I want food writing to take me to somewhere I love, somewhere I can dream about, even if it’s my own not-so-splendid dining room. I do not want forty more recipes for cheesecake. That’s what the Internet is for.
So I mourn Gourmet’s passing, but think it could be an opportunity for someone who would buy it and keep creating the magazine that its readers love. Instead of pumping up the circulation and relying so much on Cartier watch ads, make readers PAY for what the magazine is worth. I’d pay $100 a year to get Gourmet back. So would many of its readers–enough to create a wonderful, if little, magazine.