I never subscribed to Gourmet, which went out of business this week, but over the years I’ve subscribed to Bon Appetit (Conde Nast’s other food title), Food and Wine, Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, the short-lived print version of Chow, and Cook’s Illustrated, and those are just the ones I remember. As far as I can recall, I never made a single recipe from any of them. I imagine some of Gourmet’s subscribers never prepared any of the magazine’s recipes, either, but instead, consumed the magazine itself, the way I consume food magazines—on the sofa, with a glass of wine, the evening it arrives, before shuffling into the kitchen to sauté a chicken breast and steam some broccoli, or boil some dried pasta and open a jar of sauce. Gourmet, like all food magazines, was more about the way we think about food than about the way we actually prepare and eat it—after all, you’ll never learn as much about cooking by reading a magazine as you will by actually getting in the kitchen and banging some pots around. So it seems important to look not only at what we’re losing with the death of Gourmet but to ask what is taking its place. Despite The New York Times’s assertion that it’s “Rachael Ray’s world” now, and we’re just cooking in it, the answer can be found not in the quick-and-easy cookbook aisle, but on the Internet.
In the typical high-end food magazine story, a writer travels to an exotic locale, gets exclusive access to an exclusive restaurant or master chef’s kitchen, obtains a closely guarded ancient recipe for a complicated dish, which she then executes flawlessly back in her own kitchen. On a typical food-blog entry, the blogger returns from a frustrating day at the office, deals with a crisis involving his cat, turns to the uninspiring assortment of items in his pantry (middle-aged eggplants, a single, forlorn-looking tangerine, cumin), and then, with the help of several cookbooks, cobbles together a tangerine-scented Moroccan eggplant couscous that he enjoys with a bottle of beer and some Tivo-ed reruns of House.
If the popularity of food blogs is any indication, our current vision of ourselves, as preparers and consumers of meals, is not as kitchen pros who can magically make the complicated look effortless, but as bumbling amateurs who can miraculously pull together a meal that actually tastes good. Gourmet billed itself as the magazine of good living, implying that by the time you had the means and inclination to subscribe to a glossy food magazine, you had the living part down, and now were ready to improve upon what was already working well. It assumed readers possessed a mandoline, a passport, and a working knowledge of Portuguese. The napkins in your pantry not only were cloth, they also matched, were clean, and had even been ironed. Food blogs, by comparison, assume that for readers, life itself is a daily work in progress. Though several of the most popular ones are maintained by accomplished chefs who have published cookbooks, their tone is more one of amateur enthusiasm than professional competence.
David Lebovitz, an American living in Paris who has written two books about food, began a recent blog post with the confession, “The other day, I stood in the middle of my apartment and screamed.” True, his frustrations were with his Internet provider, not food. But compare this with a story from the July issue of Gourmet, by Alexander Lobrano, also an expat living in Paris: “[A]fter a stately pause, the graying waiter returned with a heavy copper casserole, which he set at my end of the table. Lifting the lid, he released a fleeting cloud of steam. The mingled aroma of wine, beef, and onions was so intoxicating it seemed an eternity before everyone had been served and I could dig in.” Lobrano’s story evokes life the way we want it to be; the way it is maybe once or twice in a lifetime. Lebovitz’s post evokes the way life is, every day. Perhaps the rise of food blogs means we’re hungry for writing about food the way we actually prepare and eat it, crumpled paper napkins and all.