Last night I curled up in bed with the October issue of Gourmet. I wondered to myself: if I had read this two days prior, nothing in the magazine, of course, would have ever hinted at its end, and I would have thought, wow, food magazines must be doing great. There's an astounding amount of variety within these pages and something for everyone, even a poor, young working girl like me.
But lately, the bad economy always burns the good ones (no pun intended). The septuagenarian of a magazine is closing its doors — ones that opened international eyes to more than really good food. We didn't just learn how to be better cooks. Gourmet taught readers to make food a lifestyle. Through each succulent page we learned to eat. We learned to be polite but discerning restaurant patrons. We learned that dining is not just about the food — it is about the whole experience.
Since I got a job (one, conveniently, in magazines) shortly after graduation, I was thrown into the schedule of an 8-5 quite quickly and without much preparation. All I wanted to do for the first two weeks of work was come home and sleep. But that wouldn't do for more than a fortnight.
Cooking has become a way of decompressing after work — doing something with my hands when I have spent all day at my computer. Now I think about food almost as much as I think about clothes. And in reading Gourmet, some fantastic blogs and critics, I have started to think differently about food. It is not something to simply consume; food is a catalyst for social involvement. Humans connect over food.
When I think about New York, I think about Tartine. It's a cozy French restaurant that sits among brownstones in the West Village. I went there with a friend I see about once or less-than-once each year. Hearing that it was a bring-your-own sort of place, we each picked up a bottle of wine (I managed to score a fake i.d. earlier that day), proceeded to get lost, finally found our way and joined the other patrons who lounged and drank in the chilly March evening on the restaurant's sidewalk as they waited for a nook (I say nook because it was just that) in the restaurant. I remember having this minute-long imagining that I lived in the walk-up across the street, could skip over to Tartine whenever I wanted, and later meet friends just a couple blocks away at the then-"now", now-"then" Magnolia Bakery.
We were engulfed by Tartine's ambience. I think we must have waited for an hour to get inside, but no one minded because despite how cold we were, it was fantastic to chat on a sidewalk and have a glass of wine.
Gourmet did that. The magazine set the scene. The writers didn't want to only tell you about the food they ate. They wanted you to feel like you were there with them. Editor-in-Chief Ruth Reichl came to Gourmet after working as the food critic for the New York Times, where she challenged the "finest" restaurants and explored palates outside of the posh New York restaurateurs. This final issue marks Reichl's tenth year with the magazine, and in her letter, she talks about the constantly evolving food industry. "We are in the midst of a great cooking revolution," she writes, "one that has happened so gradually that few of us are even aware of it." She says that in ten years, food as come a long way: Yeah, we're sustainable! Yay, no trans fats! Go local farmers! But the idea of simply dining — in or out — has traveled a long way too. The design and presentation should be thoughtful and relevant to what you're eating and where you are. And when we think about why or why not our dinner was fantastic, overall experience takes precedence over cuisine alone.
After a bottle of wine, we shuffled our slightly-frozen selves into the tiny, dimly lit, shoulder-t0-shoulder restaurant and squeezed into a spot between two other parties with the window behind us. There wasn't much room to actually turn around for a glimpse of the restaurant, but at that moment there also wasn't much point; we drooled over the menu. I remember the goldeny-crisp, pencil-thin pomme-frites that spilled over a perfect steak. And the salmon — how it melted, satiny and rich, beneath my tongue.
Gourmet and food writing (and even the film Ratatouille) has taught us to taste. Food is not fuel. Okay, technically, it is. But I don't see it that way. Food is why the word "savor" exists. And when we're brunching or snacking or dining, we should actively expand our gut and our food vocabulary and our tastebuds. I was recently pointed to the Observer's superb food critic Jay Rayner (who also wrote for Gourmet), and I was drawn to this moment he had when he tried several terroir-based dishes:
"The duck skin scratchings, all crisp fat and crunch and salt, made me feel giddy and ashamed at the same time."
I had no idea I wanted to try duck skin scratchings until I read this. Now it's all I can think about. My love of food is why I spend almost as much time daydreaming about ingredient combinations as I do imagining up the outfits I will be wearing this autumn.
Tartine is charming, and in a number of ways. You get to wait on the sidewalk and drink your own drink (like a delinquent!). You practically sit on top of one another inside the restaurant. You also must pay cash, and we didn't have enough for dessert. However, I will go back and order the cheesecake the woman next to me was "mmmm-ing" over. Remembering those few hours in New York, I don't immediately think of the food. In fact, I can't put my finger on one thing. In a short piece from this issue, Gourmet writer James Rodewald calls this idea the "spirit of dining out," and it's true. It was the experience and the joy (yes!) of catching up and sharing dinner with good company.
Conde Nast, I wish you'd change your mind. But if there is an issue to announce an end, this October is it. One might say that October to restaurants is the September to fashion houses. It's also Reichl's 10th anniversary as editor, the magazine's 70th birthday and the start of a new year in food. I'm not yet ready to cast my copy to the "already-read" basket of magazines, and I will look forward to reading the last issue, November. But tonight, Gourmet and I will curl up again, and I will savor every last bite.