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This is a terrible day for everyone who cares about food and for writing: Conde Nast announced this morning that it will close Gourmet after 68 years of publication.
Ruth Reichl and an enormously talented staff, many of them longtime editors and writers, many of them new, reinvented a magazine whose gloss had worn thin when she arrived; the overtly elitist, you're-not-quite-good-enough-for-our-kind tone had become mostly tiresome, although each issue had a frozen-in-time quality that was perversely appealing. Was the piece on Vienna by Lillian Langseth-Christensen from this year? From 1969? Somehow it didn't matter, though you also felt it was accurate. By remaining above the fray and beyond trends, it was both sniffy and timeless. My uncle's wedding present to his sister, my mother, was a collection of bound issues of ten years of Gourmet from its founding to her wedding, and in my parents' bedroom that collection remained, for all of us to page through. (A friend or hers and reader of this site just wrote to tell me, as I didn't know, that was my mother's standard anniversary gift to friends was a subscription to the magazine.)
Under Ruth, the magazine focused on the quality of writing--she brought it much closer to The New Yorker, whose literacy (and elitism) was likely always a strong influence on its founder, Earle MacAusland, and by the time she took over was part of the CN fold. From the start she announced that she would bring in unexpected writers--novelists, crime reporters, poets--whose unexpected and wonderfully readable takes would rethink how people considered food. David Foster Wallace's piece on lobsters will always be one of the most anthologized articles on food, and she inspired many other classics.
What I most admired about Gourmet under Reichl was not just the far broader range of writers she cultivated but the broadening of the magazine's scope, to include among many other subjects US regionalism, food production both industrial and sustainable, character studies of food producers. It became timely. Barry Estabrook, the invaluable food-politics reporter for the magazine's Web site, wrote a definitive article on the Immokalee tomato workers last March, and the kinds of negotiations whose fruition Helene York recently wrote about for us. Real reporting, as well as real writing, were part of the new regime, and both have been on weekly display in Estabrook's Web entries and those of Laura Shapiro, who along with many others have made the Gourmet Website both distinguished and invaluable.
I refuse to believe that the magazine will be gone long. I'm an optimist. Conde Nast closed and then brought back House and Garden, another venerable title, and even if that folded again I choose to think that Gourmet, which like the recently closed Portfolio will apparently live on on the Web (I hope with Estabrook and Shapiro!), will reappear in print, too. For now, though, as Sam Sifton said instantly and eloquently for all of us, it's a moment of intense sadness.