Share this article

print logo

TO READ, PERCHANCE TO COOK
FOOD MAGAZINES SERVE UP DREAMS OF ELEGANCE

"Magazines help you live," Gourmet's new editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl says in the first issue of the magazine that she directed. The quote is from her mother.

But really, culinary magazines are much more specific than that. They offer escape from a fast food world, they stimulate the appetite, they help you cook.

And, when all else fails, they even lull you to sleep. (Some people predict that more food magazines are read in the bedroom than in the kitchen.)

All of which may help to explain why there are so many cooking magazines. In addition to the publications included here, there are countless more, some with a very narrow focus. Like Chocalatier, for instance, which had a cover story last month entitled "Favorite Desserts of the Royal Families."

There's also "Chili Pepper" and "Weight Watcher's" magazines, not to mention the magazines devoted to beverages.

But following are some biggies of more general interest. If you're reading any food magazines at all, chances are you're reading at least one of these.

Gourmet

This magazine is big news right now. While almost everyone in the publishing world was agog over the debut of Tina Brown's new "Talk" last month, foodies were salivating for Reichl's "Gourmet." After all, the magazine has been the culinary Cadillac of the periodical world since its debut some 31 years ago; it even calls itself "the magazine of good living."

And that it is.

Gourmet is an advertiser's dream. Its baby boomer readership is well educated, affluent and 35 to 54 years old. All the better to buy luxury goods like Sub Zero refrigerators and Perrier Jouet Champagne, my dear. And since the magazine also features travel articles, ads from cruise lines are also present.

But there's been trouble in paradise. Circulation has been dropping in recent years -- down from 916,800 in 1994 to 885,600 in 1998. The magazine was beginning to show its age. In other words, it was still fun but also getting out of touch.

"I liked it. I loved to read the travel things but the recipes were much too complicated," says Western New Yorker Margot Glick. Plenty of other readers agree with her.

So with great fanfare last year, the magazine hired Reichl, 51, to be its editor-in-chief. The former food editor of the Los Angeles Times, the oft-quoted restaurant reviewer of the New York Times and a best-selling author in her own right, Reichl had all the right stuff.

Her first issue has a brighter, more chatty tone, and there are actual people in some photographs. (Even if they all seem too rich and too thin.)

The recipes are less involved, but I'm still not rushing to the kitchen.

It's also questionable if contributors like "Prince of Tides" author Pat Conroy (who writes about his honeymoon in Umbria) or performer Spalding Gray (who visits Disney World) add much. Besides their names, that is.

Some of the great old departments still remain. The "You Asked For It" section is still seeking out obscure restaurant recipes in answer to reader requests, and "Sugar and Spice" continues to gives readers' favorite own recipes.

Bon Appetit

This magazine calls itself "America's food and entertaining magazine" and claims a huge circulation of 1,420,000. It takes a relatively casual approach to life, maybe because it's the only big cooking magazine that's put together on the West Coast.

"But our articles appeal to everyone in America," says marketing manager Susan Pritzker. Well, not quite everyone, perhaps. The average reader is a 46-year-old woman with a household income of $60,998.

Usually Bon Appetit recipes are very approachable with a gentle edge. In the August issue, for instance, "The Best BLTs" are made with basil mayonnaise and avocado slices. The Blueberry Pie is made with maple syrup.

Occasionally, the magazine comes out with a special issue that is a keeper. The September issue is a millennium special with modified recipes from every decade this century. Valuable reference, I think.

Not everyone agrees with me though. Stephanie Zachowicz, of Pendleton, says the issue was complicated. "It took me a long time to understand what they were doing."

Cooking Light

This is another magazine with a circulation of more than a million. But Ellen Carroll, senior editor for projects, says that's the tip of the iceberg. "We have a readership of over 6.4 million she says. "And that says a lot because we only started in 1987.

"This is what people want and where they are with food today," says the editor.

Cooking Light decribes itself as "the magazine of health and fitness."

"People came aboard for the food but the other information is a bonus," Ms. Carroll says, referring to the articles about exercise, fitness and beauty.

Each recipe -- made from easy-to-find ingredients -- gives detailed nutrition information, but the basic layout is far from glamorous. Recipes are tempting and even-handed, though. This is not the food police. You'll find splurge dishes here occasionally.

Says Ms. Carroll: "We concentrate on the good things food has to offer."

Food and Wine

This magazine is published by American Express, so it devotes more space to restaurants and hotels. The circulation is 961,000; the average household income is somewhere in the neighborhood of $61,500. Nice neighborhood.

Editor Dana Cowin says her readers are the most adventurous and trend-oriented of all the readers of the culinary periodicals and so the magazine is incredibly chic.

"The emphasis is on entertaining, chefs and style," Ms. Corwin says. The September issue talks about lunch in the garden of Champagne magnate Claude Taittinger, in the "jardin a la francaise."

"That's where three generations of Taittingers gathered recently for a long luncheon of chilled pea soup, rosemary-scented lamb and caramelized peaches with berries," the article burbled on. Another story discussed a party in Bel Air, Calif. You get the idea.

Still, the issue did begin with a list of 50 "party essentials" from the "style arbitrators of the world" and I thought the list was fun. Julia Child recommends a separate ice maker because "sometimes ice from the freezer picks up other flavors and taste like onions."

Playwright Wendy Wasserstein says all you need is a phone number to give a great party. The number "of a great caterer."

Saveur

The first issue of this magazine, a bimonthly, was published in 1994. It has a circulation, according to editor Burton Anderson, of approximately 375,000.

Saveur is a serious magazine. It takes a food and explores it in depth.

"We are oriented to home cooking and the traditional," says Anderson. "We don't feature so many chefs and instead of inventing recipes in a test kitchen like quick and easy paella, we try to give people as close as possible the real thing."

That means that some of the recipes call for ingredients that can be hard to find. A section on Spanish tapas in the September/October issue calls for Spanish-style blood sausage -- seen any of those around? To be fair, mail order sources are always listed.

"We'd rather not give people a poor second substitute," explains Anderson.

"We are a magazine for people who see the world food-first," the editor continues. "We have a travel orientation but not for the sake of tourism."

A 14-page article in the recent issue about the food in Baltimore, gives a great recipe for something called Chesapeake Chicken (made with Tabasco and Old Bay Seasoning). It also extensively quotes quirky Baltimore native film director John Waters.

Cooks Illustrated

This magazine breaks a lot of rules. The bi-monthly (circulation 350,000) does not accept advertising and is printed in stark black and white. No photographs, only sketches.

"We have a loyal, passionate readership and our renewal rate is above 80 percent," says managing editor Barbara Bourassa. "We regard ourselves as America's Test Kitchen."

Ms. Bourassa says the magazine is basically interested in classic American food. Every recipe is tested using several different methods so they are detailed and practically foolproof. But the coverage of every subject is so extensive that you may learn more than you really want to.

The September/October issue's long article on thick-cut pork chops reports results of baking, breading and braising the meat. (The tester finally removed the chops from the oven at a revolutionary 125 degrees and allowed them to stand off heat until the temperature reached the recommended 140 degrees. This kept the juice in the chop, said the author.)

My favorite part of the magazine, though, is everyone else's, too. The department called "Quick Tips" features readers suggestions. There's always something genuinely useful.

You know how difficult it is to break spaghetti strands in half neatly before they're cooked? The pasta always flies all over the kitchen. One reader had this suggestion:

Roll up a bundle in a kitchen towel and, holding both ends firmly, center the bundle over the edge of the counter. Push down with both hands to break the pasta in half. Next, holding the bundle vertically over the pot of boiling water, release the bottom of the cloth so the pasta just slides into the pot.

I tried this when making a casserole and it really worked. But I had to buy the magazine to learn it.

There are no comments - be the first to comment