Monday, October 5, 2009

A rising tide lifts all boats.

My immediate response to the announcement that Condé Nast is closing Gourmet magazine has been waves of nostalgia. Not for what Gourmet is today, really, although I still love it, but for what it meant to the evolution of my food consciousness.

Growing up in Arkansas in the 1970s, Gourmet set me apart. I glimpsed in its pages a world beyond Velveeta and Cream of Mushroom soup, and in my teenaged brain, "apart" was where I wanted to be. My friends and I started a gourmet club and wrecked our parents' kitchens in succession, when it was our turn to host. I had my first taste of Lebanese cuisine in one of those gatherings, and I can still remember that initial explosion of exoticism in my mouth.

My parents were part of a similar, grown-up, club and the dinners ran the gamut: at one end, valiant efforts at trying to re-create meals from Gourmet's pages with the ingredients available at the Conway, Arkansas Piggly-Wiggly store; at the other, my Aunt Dena and Uncle Joe being emboldened to craft the epitome of 1973 glamour--a Gourmet quiche--out of a humble ingredient: poke sallet. The word locavore didn't exist yet, but surely that was a prototype.

In short, in those days and in that place, saying one got a recipe from Gourmet Magazine was the culinary equivalent of steering a Rolls Royce into a crowded parking lot of Ford trucks.

So what has changed? Why is Gourmet closing? Many will lament the dumbing down of High Culinary Culture and blame the Food Network's "BAM!" and "How good is that???" approach to cooking. A little dab of EVOO and every person on the block has genius aspirations.

Others will point to the prevalence of food blogs and the immediacy of online resources, and to the wiki-tization of knowledge.

Still others will bemoan the cultural shift away from reflective practices...the slow turning of material pages in one's hands, by lamplight, in peace and quiet at the end of a day.

And surely all those things are somewhat at play.

But the good side of all these things is that people are now in love with cooking and food in all its cultural manifestations: from food blogs to twitter conferences to TV shows to mainstream movies about culinary icons to farmer's markets to CSA programs to farm-to-table dinners...people feel empowered to take spoon in hand and craft bread to break together with loved ones.

And in spite of my personal sadness that Gourmet is returning to dock, I can't help looking at all the many boats bobbing in the water out there and knowing in my heart that I learned to navigate my craft and love the water due, in part, to Gourmet's influence.

A salute to you, then, Gourmet. Ironic that your pinnacle status contributed to a democratization of food culture.

And I hope my parents still have all those back issues in the storage shed.

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