What I did on my summer vacation was fall in love. It's been years since this happened, so long I'd almost forgotten what it's like—that radiant feeling, the air of wild surrender that takes over when your lover, your sweet poulet, comes in through the mail slot.
The object of my passion is a new magazine called Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. The name may look ugly to you, but to my infatuated eyes, it could not be lovelier. The first issue came out this past winter, with an arresting—and, to some tastes, shocking—cover image of a woman with someone else's hand in her mouth. The woman's eyes are closed as she enjoys what appears to be a moment of supreme transport, thanks to that yummy hand.
It was the perfect cover for the debut of a magazine that seeks to be brainy and highbrow about what is traditionally a lowbrow, below-the-neck subject: food. While the earthy image disclosed Gastronomica's carnal, voluptuary side, a peek inside revealed it was a still from Luis Bunuel's arty 1930 surrealist film, L'Age d'Or. The message was clear: This is a magazine that cares not just about food as pleasure but food as idea, one that wants to be serious about eating without losing the fun of it.
How can I convey the pleasure of our first hours together? Imagine opening a lushly designed intellectual journal on matters epicurean and finding that the first full article is a Russian immigrant's touching paean to McDonald's.
"What is it about McDonald's that attracts children and immigrants alike?" writes Constantin Boym. "As a rule, immigrants, like children, are very sensitive creatures. In their desire to blend in, they are conscious of making the wrong gesture, looking funny or different, standing out in any conspicuous way. The simple experience of entering a restaurant, asking for a table, and talking to a waiter can be intimidating. In this respect, McDonald's is the ultimate populist place. No one can be excluded, you can come and go as you please. It's OK to bring your children and to make a mess. Toys are given away along with nutritional information: There is something for everyone."
Immediately after Boym's piece comes "Ripe Peach," a fabulous, brooding poem by Louise Gluck, who likens her own life, and the whole universe beyond, to a peach sitting on the kitchen table. Next, an essay on the disappearance of turtle soup. A little further along, two opposite takes on the merits of genetically engineered foods. Another article brings sumptuous full-page images of 17th-century Dutch food still lifes. Still another considers Ferran Adria, a Spaniard who is arguably the hottest chef in the world and takes Salvador Dali as role model.
But my biggest rush in those first tingly hours came from a piece entitled "Delicacy," by novelist Paul Russell. It's a mini-memoir in which the author poignantly recalls how his affection for food was the beginning of his alienation from his mother, who "subscribed, more or less, to the notion that cooking was something you did to kill the germs.... The meals my mother visited on us nightly were strictly routine—ordinary food about which one never gave a second thought. The ordinary may be dependable, but it holds no mystery, not even the possibility of mystery."
This last sentence is pure Gastronomica, in the way it uses food to explore deeper questions. This is, both literally and figuratively, a transcendent magazine. Which is not to say it's for everyone. There are plenty of people who love food but have no interest in thinking deep thoughts about it. Some would even argue that the brain and the belly are located far apart for a reason and should communicate as little as possible. But if you're one of those who knows the pleasure of good writing about food—if you salivate at the thought of M.F.K. Fisher on oysters or A.J. Liebling on jambon cru du pays—then this is the magazine for you.
Gastronomica is a quarterly, and there have been two issues since the premiere, each with its own surprises. In my opinion, the summer 2001 issue, now on sale at some newsstands, is the weakest of the three. But every love affair has its stumbles, and I feel sure this relationship is going to last.
The magazine is already starting to feel like a community. In the current issue, editor Darra Goldstein writes about the divided reaction to the first cover (readers found it "either marvelous or repulsive") and publishes an essay by her own 10-year-old daughter, who, inspired by the Russell piece, evokes the opposite agony of having a foodie for a mom.
Goldstein is a professor of Russian at Williams College in Massachusetts. She told me in an interview that her other love has always been food, but she's had a hard time getting her academic colleagues to take the subject seriously: "It's seen as too domestic or too feminine or not serious enough." So she started Gastronomica, in hopes of going beyond what she calls "the food-and-wine idea" and bringing together food intellectuals from all over.
Even the academics seem to be coming around. Last year, Williams let Goldstein create a course on Russian Culture Through Cuisine. Normally, her classes have 8-10 students. This one is so popular she's had to cap enrollment at 50 and turn students away. The course is a phenomenon, and I'm betting this magazine will be one, too.
(A one-year subscription to Gastronomica is $34. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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