I’ll admit it: I am not one of the million monthly readers who religiously paged through Gourmet. I don’t have a stack of back issues that I refer to. But, the cover headline on the October issue, “126 American Restaurants Worth the Money” caught my eye and I rapidly flipped through the pages spotting restaurants I had encountered.
Since the news of the mag’s demise, I have revisited October to see where on the plate the meat of the magazine lies. And what I found may point to one of the problems with dining today.
In Editor in Chief Ruth Reichl’s opening letter for October she reintroduced an episode that occurred a decade ago when Gourmet published a story about Thomas Keller. Keller wanted to slaughter his own animals in an attempt to “better understand the food he was serving.” Reichl admits she grappled with publishing that story but eventually made the decision to run it — to the fascination and approval of her readers.
She goes on in the letter to explain how Keller’s pioneering helped further the farm-to-table movement that is becoming so popular with chefs and home cooks. And, this is true. However, we cannot forget the fundamentals of every movement since time began: A movement starts slowly, gaining speed and acceleration, and eventually — possibly decades or more later — becomes standard operating procedure, accepted policy; or the movement fizzles, tableside.
This is something we all need to be aware of.
Gourmet is a classic. It defined how many of us ate growing up and outlined the neighborhood dinner parties in subdivisions across the country. And, as housewives panned its pages of recipes, stories, and pictures, the popularity of chefs across the country grew rapidly.
Yet, we cannot forget that while sustainable food movements are making gigantic steps forward, gigantic consumers are stepping down the aisles of grocer’s shelves looking for filling food that is affordable. To many, sustainable food is defined as anything they can afford to place on the table to cure the hunger their children may suffer tomorrow.
While we look at farm fresh, recently slaughtered, and organically grown as an avenue to healthier lives, we cannot discount the probability that many do not have the budgets or the economic wherewithal to sustain “sustainable” cooking.
Let’s be honest here: Organic costs more, as does produce from most farmers market stalls. This is understandable and acceptable. But, we cannot continue to talk sustainable food for the masses while families struggle to find nutrition in dollar bags of processed foods that may not be healthy, but serve the purpose of curing hunger. The plight of the enormous is not necessarily one that appeared in the pages of Gourmet on a regular basis. Nor, do people who are scrimping and saving and worrying about feeding their families have the money or the mindset to buy Gourmet.
So with the demise of this bible that served so many, so well, for so long, we need to set our sights on appealing to an audience that can enjoy our food, understand it, afford it, and look forward to coming back, again and again.
Now while the masses have their palaces of plated pleasures, even if they are served in a bag at a drive through window, let us not forget that our market and exposure is diminished with each move we make to achieve excellence. When we create a dish that is less than understandable, or even less affordable, or create an ambiance or setting that only few will enjoy, we are alienating an entire market segment — those others who eat.
A few years back, a catering customer referred to a recipe in Gourmet when she was ordering an entree for an upcoming dinner party. The host thought the particular dish “sounded good.” It did — but it was very costly. I persuaded her to try another recipe and substituted something similar that our chefs were familiar with. The substitution would also allow a larger profit margin for my bottom line. Aside from the meal she also wanted a server to be at the party all evening and my wife thought our silver roasting domes would be a nice touch on the table. The Gourmet reader agreed.
When my partner, Kranston, returned from delivering the food (along with the roasting domes) and setting up the event, I asked if the client’s home — purchased two years earlier — was as nice as everyone claimed.
“It was, except the cardboard was still in the oven. They didn’t know how to turn it on,” she said. But she liked the silver roasting domes.