No Gourmet in fast food nation

Posted: Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The news that, after 68 years, America's premier food magazine would be shelved rocked the food world. It shouldn't have been a surprise, of course. For months, we had all heard the rumors about Gourmet. But no one, including Editor in Chief Ruth Reichl - who was notified Monday, the day of the announcement - believed it could happen.

Part of it was the shock of having to break a serious habit. I started leafing through Gourmet when I was 10 years old, clipping recipes for curried chicken in phyllo and dreaming of sweet lemons from Italy's Amalfi coast. But it was more than that. Under Reichl, Gourmet distinguished itself by printing more than just lush photos of tarts and tortellini. Its writers were some of the first to explore the burgeoning "good food" movement, reporting on workers' rights in the Florida tomato fields, the endangered fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico and eat-local activists. There were recipes, yes, but Gourmet treated food as a lens for politics, culture and business. Each issue reinforced what I, as a food writer, wanted to be true: Food no longer belonged on the women's pages. It was a cause.

Critics lined up to explain the magazine's demise. It was a rejection of elitism! It was a victory for the more-democratic food coverage that would take its place! But for me, the death of Gourmet reveals something more sobering. The good-food movement doesn't yet have mass appeal. The number of farmers markets in this country is growing, but so are the sales of convenience foods. Michelle Obama grabs the international spotlight every time she trumpets healthful eating in her garden on the White House lawn or at the new farmers market nearby. But in its last quarter, McDonald's saw global sales rise 5 percent.

In short, more consumers may say they care about where their food comes from. But most are quickly appeased by labels with pictures of happy cows grazing behind a white-picket fence. And apparently not enough wanted to read about it in Gourmet.

More people are thinking about what they eat. But what attracts readers - and advertisers - is not myth-busting about the pampered life of a waygu steer. (The animals are beer-fed and massaged each day, Gourmet correspondent Barry Estabrook reported in 2007, but only because they are kept in tiny crates.) Readers want food to be fun, and they want meals in 30 minutes or less. No wonder research firm NPD reports that in the United States the number of meals cooked in a microwave is at an all-time high.

Gourmet's circulation hadn't dropped precipitously - about 1 percent, to 978,000, in the first half of 2009, a period of veritable apocalypse for other luxury print publications. But its owner, Conde Nast, apparently concluded that subscriptions would never soar enough to win back advertisers who had abandoned the magazine. Between January and June, Gourmet's ad pages plunged 46 percent, slightly more than at its more conventional sister Bon Appetit, which escaped the corporate ax, and startlingly more than in the mainstream publications that trade in "10 fast and yummy casseroles." The deliberately unliterary Every Day With Rachael Ray (for which I have written) saw ad pages fall 14 percent. Paula Deen's new magazine, which this month had a recipe for French bread pizza made with store-bought chicken fingers, increased ad pages by 0.2 percent.

The ideals of Gourmet and the good-food movement are, certainly, good things - for everyone. But morality and logic do not easily, or quickly, translate into mass acceptance.

Which is why I don't see the end of Gourmet as a rejection of local foods, artisanal producers or agricultural workers' rights. Instead, it's proof that the embrace of such trends is not quite as widespread as I and other fans of the magazine would have liked to believe. Yet.

Those mourning Gourmet - chef and author Anthony Bourdain called it "the center of gravity" for the food world - should redouble their efforts to create demand for fresh, ethically grown food everywhere: in suburban grocery stores and in bodegas, in urban school gardens and on the White House lawn. It must be valued by parents, children and teachers, not just writers, advocates and Michelle Obama.

Sometimes, 1 million people does not a movement make; as Conde Nast has shown, right now it doesn't even justify a monthly magazine.

• Jane Black is a reporter for The Washington Post's Food section.



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