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Sadness, support follow Gourmet magazine's closing

| Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009

Don't tell former Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl this week's closing of the venerable food magazine reflects any sort of judgment on the food elite.

"It's one of the things that drives me crazy," Reichl said in a phone interview from Kansas City, Mo., where she was promoting the now-shuttered magazine's latest cookbook, "Gourmet Today."

"People keep talking about it as this sort of high-end place for rich people when we were the magazine that did articles about tomato workers being slaves and problems with how chickens were being killed," she said. "We were running a lot of very serious journalism."

Blaming the tough economy, Conde Nast Publications said Monday it was closing Gourmet, along with Modern Bride, Elegant Bride and parenting magazine Cookie. Conde Nast said it will focus its food publishing on Gourmet's sister magazine, Bon Appetit.

As news of the closure spread, one refrain spread fast -- the company's decision to retain the more recipe-driven Bon Appetit was indicative of Gourmet being out of touch with how Americans eat.

Reichl disputes that. Gourmet's circulation -- around 980,000 -- was up. It was ad pages that were down. That makes Reichl feel the decision was an economic one, not based on reader disaffection.

Magazine consultants have said Bon Appetit likely survived because advertisers have moved toward food titles that reflect the more affordable sensibility it has.

"Bon Appetit has a larger class within the mass audience where Gourmet has become more of a class by itself," said Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, School of Journalism.

What does the closing of Gourmet mean for the food scene?

"I don't know what will happen," she said. "We pioneered writing about farmers and issues from the field and we wrote about genetic engineering when nobody else was touching that. We wrote about trans fat and it was important for me to do that. Whether other editors will decide to start doing that, I don't know."

"There are plenty of other epicurean magazines still around," she said. "I think that this particular magazine and this particular economic climate couldn't find enough advertising support, but I don't think this is it for the foodies."

News of the closing came as a shock to the staff and a brusque interruption to the book tour. Reichl is postponing some of the dates.

She needs a little time -- "I haven't finished packing up my office yet." -- and there's also some emotional decompressing to do. "The whole staff sort of needs to spend time together."

An accomplished memoirist -- "Tender at the Bone," "Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise" -- she has said she plans to write a book about her years at Conde Nast.

She will continue promoting the cookbook -- more than 1,000 pages long and 5 years in the making. "I love this book and it deserves its best shot and people deserve to have it," she said.

Meanwhile, there's a new public television show, "Gourmet's Adventures With Ruth," making its debut Oct. 17.

The show consists of 10 half-hour episodes and features Reichl traveling to cooking schools around the world with actor friends, including Frances McDormand and Dianne Wiest.

The idea is to experience other cultures in a visceral way. Countries visited include China, Brazil, Morocco and, of course, the United States. "There's an incredible fish episode from Seattle."

The episodes have been shot, but Reichl is still working on editing and voiceovers.

"I'm totally committed to that show," she said.

She's committed to the book, too, which she says has "everything that we could put into it that could be helpful to a modern cook."

"It's filled with what we think is the antidote to the fast-food culture that's developing in America," she said. "Our mission was to get people cooking again. Cooking isn't hard. The big misconception that people in America have is cooking is time consuming."

Since the closing was announced, Reichl said she's been touched by an outpouring of support from friends and strangers. "I think all of us, the entire staff, has felt how beloved the magazine was and the incredible support from people, literally all over the world."

Like the lady in the Newark airport who handed Reichl the sandwich she'd ordered and said, "I'm so sorry, this one's on me," a brief encounter Reichl tweeted about.

"Was that unbelievable?" Reichl said. "In the midst of all this sadness, there's this real sense of, 'We did something really good.'"

'Gourmet Today,' gone tomorrow

OK, I admit I'm feeling nostalgic about Gourmet magazine, in light of Monday's announcement that the November issue will be its last. I'm guessing those annual "Best Of" Gourmet hardback compilations published each year will soon be clamored for, so hang onto what you've got.

With timing that is either advantageous or slightly cruel -- depending on how you see things -- the "Gourmet Today" cookbook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40) has just been published, edited by Ruth Reichl.

It's a keeper. More than 60 percent of its 1,000-plus recipes "for the contemporary kitchen" can be made in less than an hour. The irksome, pale-yellow recipe titles of the last compilation ("The Gourmet Cookbook," 2004) have been changed to a readable green.

"Today" includes lots of small, helpful illustrations and Jane Daniels Lear's sidebars on ingredients. These recipes are new; cocktails have been added; there are lots of seasonal menu suggestions. Check out the Cauliflower Mousse; it's Reichl's favorite family-friendly recipe.

— Bonnie S. Benwick, The Washington Post

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