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Goodbye, Gourmet; bon voyage, Bon Appetit. December 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. In a time when chefs are stars, when millions of people tune in to cooking shows for entertainment, not instruction, when cooking magazines outnumber sports magazines on store racks, it’s hard to believe that America’s two flagship cooking magazines are struggling—and, apparently, failing—to survive.

Gourmet, the first American food and wine magazine, sent out its last issue in October 2009 after 68 years of publication (founded 1941). And now Bon Appetit, founded in 1956, is suffering a sea change. Owner Conde Nast is moving the publication from L.A. to New York and replacing the entire staff, as I discovered when reading the Letter from the Editor in the January 2011 issue this morning.

Why would two such venerable publications, which have survived far longer than most of their readers and contributors have been alive, which (in the case of Gourmet) even survived war rationing, be failing when interest in food and cooking is at an all-time high?

Call me cynical if you must, but I’m guessing it’s because these magazines weren’t celebrity-based. Not that editors Ruth Reichl (Gourmet) and Barbara Fairchild (Bon Appetit) didn’t have their own followings; I’m sure they did and do. But their names aren’t valuable commercial commodities like, say, Paula Deen’s or Rachael Ray’s or Martha Stewart’s. Their faces weren’t plastered on the front of every issue. The magazines were about food, not about personalities. Both magazines began life in their own right, not as spinoffs of TV shows.

Not that I’m criticizing Paula, Rachael or Martha for their success. They all worked harder than practically anyone but Oprah to get and stay where they are. I wouldn’t give my life and privacy away like that for love or money, and since they did, surely they deserve their good fortune. I’m just surprised that celebrity chefs like Emeril have managed to resist the siren call of a magazine named for them.

But no answer is quite that simple. Plenty of other food and cooking magazines are still in publication, and they aren’t helmed by TV stars. What they do have that neither Gourmet nor Bon Appetit did, however, is either a tight, special-interest focus—vegetarian or vegan cooking or artisanal cheeses or Italian cuisine or what have you—or a practical focus on getting fast, cheap, homestyle food on the table (Taste of Home, slow-cooker meals, 30-minute meals, etc.).

Could Gourmet have survived? Can Bon Appetit weather this latest storm? I doubt it, because both are (or were) supported not by subscriptions but by advertising, so they were (and are) at the mercy of a very fickle revenue source. (In case you’re wondering, yes, indeed they did charge for subscriptions and have large circulation figures. But the revenues from circulation would have been a pittance, almost a bonus, compared to the money supplied by advertisers.) 

Can a cooking magazine rely on subscription revenues rather than advertising? You betcha. But it requires a great deal of finesse, intelligence, and hard work. Examples are the magazines founded by Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen, Cook’s Illustrated and (my favorite cooking mag) Cook’s Country. You’ll find nary an ad in either one. But Chris Kimball & co. work very hard to maintain the loyalty of their subscribers, not just in the quality of the magazines but by spinning off annuals, cookbooks, and etc. from both the magazines and their PBS cooking shows. (And, of course, those shows generate a ready-made audience for the magazines and cookbooks.) And, to restate the obvious, subscription-based magazines must have a loyal and passionate subscriber base, which in turn requires a very savvy focus and superb content.

What would my culinary hero, Julia Child, have made of the demise of Gourmet and the shakeup at Bon Appetit, a magazine presumably named in honor of her signature sign-off line from her PBS show, “The French Chef”? I have no idea; maybe somebody out there can tell me. But I’ll bet if Julia were on the air today, she’d have her own magazine, too. And I’d be first in line to subscribe!

             ‘Til next time,



Food: The show must go on. August 19, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. This morning, I stumbled on a guest post Anthony Bourdain had written for Michael Ruhlman’s blog, in which he analyzed the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of the hosts appearing on Food Network shows at the time he wrote the post in 2007. Of course it was entertaining, and Bourdain’s comments on Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, and Paula Deen have to be seen to be appreciated. (“Guest Blogging: A Bourdain Throwdown,” http://blog.ruhlman.com/

The thrust of the post is Bourdain’s lament over “the not-so-subtle shunting aside of the Old School chefs” in favor of the “bobblehead personalities” dominating the network. By “Old School chefs,” I gather that he means chefs who’ve had formal training at a rigorous and recognized cooking school, as both Bourdain and Ruhlman did at the Culinary Institute of America, and then went on to work as professional chefs in high-end, nationally recognized restaurants such as Brasserie Les Halles.

Bourdain contrasts these legitimate chefs with the “culinary nonentities,” aka the superstars of the Food Network, epitomized by Rachael Ray and company, whose faces stare at us everywhere we go, peering from magazine covers and cereal boxes like post-office posters for “America’s Most Wanted.”

But, I find myself thinking, what’s his issue? Real chefs have food to prepare and restaurants to attend to. It’s a miracle that they can find time to write the occasional book and make the occasional guest appearance on a TV show, much less host their own show. And clearly, for the Food Network, “show” is not enough. Their stars appear to be enslaved to them 24/7, pumping out multiple shows, magazines, books, product lines and endorsements, public appearances, and the like as the network transforms them from cooks to celebrities, from human beings to brands.

I mean, think about it: It took Julia Child what, ten years?, to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One, as a full-time occupation and with substantial help from her coauthor, Simone Beck. When Julia launched her TV career, it was one show at a time, still her sole occupation, with subsequent books typically emerging from the shows. She wasn’t juggling a career as a professional chef with her television and writing schedule. And I suspect that she still found it to be a lot of challenging work.

I can’t imagine the stress and exhaustion level of a Rachael Ray or Sandra Lee, much less poor Paula Deen, still a restaurateur on top of her Food Network stardom. I can’t imagine that this is how they really wanted to live their lives, if you could call it living. To me, it’s like they’ve inadvertently gotten on a treadmill that never stops, and there’s no way to get off without pitching yourself over the side and into food TV oblivion. Me, I’d pitch. I guess that’s why you don’t see me every night on “Silence Dogood’s Kitchen.”

Tony Bourdain is apparently puzzled by another aspect of the Food Network star system: The fact that their food is so horrible, glorified Cheez-Wiz, canned frosting, deep-fried, grease-laden everything. And the worse, the better, as long as you can make it in a minute from pre-packaged ingredients for cheap. Especially if you can pass it off as homemade or gourmet.

But this is not a new phenomenon in American cooking; it’s been here all along. Most Nineteenth-Century American cookbooks were aimed at helping the busy housewife get the most for her time and money. Poppy Cannon, that icon of sophisticated cooking in the 1950s—who, btw, could not cook at all, it was entirely smoke and mirrors—was most famous for her bestselling opus The Can Opener Cookbook (1951). (If Tony thinks Sandra Lee’s Cheez-Wiz appetizers are horrendous—and they are—he should sample some of the supposedly sophisticated cocktail-hour canapes dreamed up out of tins and jars by Ms. Cannon.)

And then there’s Peg Bracken’s classic and bestselling The I Hate to Cook Book (1960), and the bazillion microwave this!, process that! books that have followed in the wake of each new convenience appliance like the aftershock of an earthquake.

My feeling is this: If somebody wants to learn how to prepare food like a chef, sooner or later, he or she will enroll in a professional cooking school. Nobody expects to learn how to cook like a chef by watching TV, because even the most clueless of humans knows that cooking like a chef is hard. It’s work. It’s not just technique, it’s timing, and it requires tremendous discipline and a prodigious memory. It takes years of rigorous discipline and apprenticeship, and even then, not everybody’s gonna make it. Most people just don’t have what it takes.

On the other hand, we’re trained to view anything that appears on TV—even the most gruesome news reporting—as entertainment, and that’s the way pretty much all TV is presented. It’s why the Rachael Rays and Paula Deens of the world become stars: They’re willing to work hard to make what they do look easy and fun, and work hard to create likeable, memorable personas for themselves.

Pre-Food Network, Martha Stewart set the bar high for the TV cooks who followed, transforming herself from a caterer into an industry. Rachael Ray, and legitimate chefs who’ve made themselves brands and household names like Emeril and Bobby Flay, are following in her wake.

But there’s more to the “gross TV food” phenomenon than entertainment and convenience: Americans genuinely love food that’s dripping with sugar and fat. Just this morning, I read about the popular new fair food, a Krispy Kreme cheeseburger (yes, a grilled Krispy Kreme doughnut with the burger and toppings sandwiched inside), even more of a hit when served with a side of chocolate-coated bacon.

I would have assumed this was a parody, but found too many online references to it, including respectable sources like The Christian Science Monitor, to be able to doubt it, much as I’d have liked to. Here in our friend Ben’s and my adopted home state of scenic PA, deep-fried mac’n’cheese cubes have apparently taken the diner world by storm. And then there’s the notorious Kentucky Fried Chicken sandwich that uses two deep-fried chicken breasts instead of a bun. If none of this is gross enough for you, I suggest that you look at a bucket of cheese-laden French fries sometime and try to guess how much grease and how many calories you’d be consuming if you ate the whole thing.

A preference for salt, sugar, and fat is in our genes: It kept our ancestors alive back in the hunter-gatherer day when amassing and retaining calories was the goal of all food consumption. And unfortunately, massive lifestyle changes over a few thousand years haven’t been enough to change our basic instincts. It’s why we’re still fond of alternating chips, popcorn or fries with, say, M&Ms, brownies or ice cream, instead of eating one or the other. It’s one reason we’re all in trouble in the couch-potato era.

And it’s why Paula Deen’s show and recipes draw such large audiences day after day and week after week, even though you know you’d drop dead if that was the way you actually ate: According to your body’s genetic wisdom, comfort food is good food. The sweeter, saltier, and greasier, the better.

Healthy food, macrobiotics, Nouvelle Cuisine, those horrid little pileups of God-knows-what stacked in tiny portions in the middle of a plate drizzled with God-knows-what, devoid of fat, salt, sugar, or anything good: This is bad food, your body tells you. How can you possibly survive on that? It knows you need the “good” stuff to survive, no matter how often your doctor and your waistline are telling you differently. Let the trendsetters eat sushi: You’re going for the barbecue, the chimichangas, the chicken-fried steak, the stuffed pizza with extra cheese, and you’d like a big basket of onion rings and/or fries with that.

Me, I’m not about to judge. I pity Rachael and Paula. I love fat, salt, and sugar, even if I deny myself the pleasure of eating them (well, except for salt) most of the time. I hate pretension and pathetic, anorexic food trends, and I hate being a sheep that follows any trend rather than knowing yourself and what makes you happy. Yes, I do enjoy Tony Bourdain’s shows, even though I couldn’t bear to eat what he eats. But hey, it’s entertainment, and Tony’s a great showman. Just like Emeril and Paula Deen.

                   ‘Til next time,