Gourmet is closing, but we'll always have the cookbook.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Oct. 5 2009 3:26 PM

Gourmet's Legacy

The magazine is closing, but we'll always have the Gourmet cookbook.

On Monday, Condé Nast announced the closing of its long-running culinary magazine Gourmet. In 2004, just before the release of the magazine's 63rd anniversary cookbook, Laura Shapiro explained how "the magazine of good living" had to adapt to changing notions of luxury. She determined that the driving force of good cooking was no longer "class" but "passion." The original article is reprinted below.  

It was January 1941. Europe was crumbling, world war was looming, millions of Americans were out of work, and housewives with a yen to be creative were making beef steak à la Stanley—hamburgers in a pool of horseradish sauce, topped with sweetened baked bananas. All in all, not an auspicious moment to introduce a magazine called Gourmet.

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But high up in a suite at New York's Plaza Hotel, where the magazine's first publisher, Earle R. MacAusland, had installed his staff, life looked very different—and uncommonly pleasant. War and want were far away, and the editors were certain their readers would welcome a recipe for Pheasant à la Bohemienne. ("Pluck and clean a young pheasant [unmortified], rub it with lemon juice inside and out, then salt and pepper to taste. Sew. Truss. Melt 3 tablespoons of butter or, still better, use the butter in which a fresh goose liver, larded through and through with small sticks of raw black truffle, has been poached and then cooled.") As MacAusland announced in the debut issue, "Never has there been a time more fitting for a magazine like Gourmet."

Oddly enough, he was right. In fact, there's never been a time that wasn't fitting for Gourmet, even when real life seemed to race in the opposite direction. The original tag line—"The magazine of good living"—remains in place to this day. Note that Gourmet has never billed itself as "the magazine of good cooking." Good cooking, after all, isn't about wealth; it's about tasty ingredients and the skill of the person at the stove. But good living—that's another matter, and the phrase nicely conjures up visions of luxury. MacAusland married the two and had no trouble finding the right readers. "Sirs," wrote a woman from Newton, Mass., in 1953, "Princess Ileana of Rumania would like me to ask you where she can buy the black, sticky pumpernickel bread that she used to know in Austria. The various black breads that she finds here seem to be dry and lacking in flavor." (The editors offered a mail-order address for "just the bread you want.")

Over the decades, the magazine has undergone periodic renovations, but MacAusland's original formula has proved remarkably resilient, even as notions of luxury have changed. This fall the magazine celebrates its upcoming 63rd birthday just as MacAusland would have done: by publishing a huge new  Gourmet Cookbook, with recipes lovingly drawn from its own pages.

Whether the first editors could so much as peel a carrot, they understood perfectly the way food-lovers fantasized in the '40s. Money was the implicit ingredient in every recipe, from a chocolate rum pie to a Christmas roast pig. ("Our Gourmet Chef's Aunt Cecile, who gained renown for her roast porkers, recommends that the inside be rubbed with sweet butter and fines herbes, then filled with stuffing of its liver, finely ground with a little pork fat, mushrooms, truffles of Perigord, rocamboles of Genoa, and filberts of Nice, the whole seasoned with pepper from Jamaica, salt, and sage.") Another implicit ingredient was fantasy itself. In the early decades of the magazine, most of the recipes weren't even tested—if you couldn't make them work, you didn't belong on the subscription list.

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