Tuesday, October 6, 2009

End of an era

Closing the Book on Gourmet
By KIM SEVERSON The New York Times
ONE of the first things Ruth Reichl did after telling her staff on Monday that Condé Nast had closed Gourmet was to lock up the library with its landmark collection of 70 years of cookbooks and typewritten recipes.

“That’s not going to disappear,” she said, adding that she had strongly suggested to S. I. Newhouse Jr., the company’s chairman, that he donate the archives to the New York Public Library or to a university.

Then she and her staff gathered bottles of wine and liquor from the office and held a wake at her apartment. Readers are mourning in their own ways.

Killing Gourmet and keeping Bon Appétit, which had more readers and stronger ad numbers, may have made business sense for Condé Nast. But to the food elite — especially of an older generation — it felt like a gut punch.

How had the magazine that seemed more likely to stay home, broil pork chops and take care of the kids won out over its sexy, well-read, globetrotting sister? And what does a world without Gourmet portend for an age when millions prefer to share recipes online, restaurant criticism is becoming crowd-sourced and newspaper food sections are thinner and thinner?

“It has a certain doomsday quality because it’s not just a food magazine. It represents so much more,” said James Oseland, editor in chief of Saveur, a smaller, younger food magazine. “It’s an American cultural icon.”

The magazine, founded in 1941, thrived on a rush of postwar aspiration and became a touchstone for readers who wanted lives filled with dinner parties, reservations at important restaurants and exotic but comfortable travel.

Although it was easy to paint Gourmet as the food magazine for the elite, it was a chronicler of a nation’s food history, from its early fascination with the French culinary canon to its discovery of Mediterranean and Asian flavors to its recent focus on the source of food and the politics surrounding it.

In the decade since Ruth Reichl took over as editor, she underlined everything from the exploitation of tomato pickers in Florida to dishes like chicken and dumplings that could be on the stove, simmering, in 15 minutes.

But whatever the fashion of the time, Gourmet remained a place where people learned how to eat and cook — particularly for an older generation.

“Gourmet was the only resource you had other than your cookbooks,” said Judy Walker, the food editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

Over the course of nearly 70 years, Gourmet has a recipe database enviable in both size and quality. The pool is so deep that Gourmet compiled a cookbook of more than 1,000 recipes in 2006, then turned around and published more than 1,000 more in “Gourmet Today,” which arrived — in one of the industry’s great moments of bad timing — in September.

“It feels like the last act of this magazine should be to support this book,” said Ms. Reichl, who is heading to the Midwest this week to promote it.

After a short rest, she plans to write a book about her years at Condé Nast.

Chefs, too, lamented the magazine’s passing. For many, their dreams of a life in the kitchen were born in its pages.

“Growing up, my parents’ copies of Gourmet were my only window into the high-end restaurant world,” said Andrew Carmellini of Locanda Verde.

Scott Peacock, the Atlanta chef who has become known for Southern cooking, made his first biscuits as boy using a recipe from Gourmet. Years later, biscuits from his own recipe would be on the cover of the magazine.

“That magazine was a big deal to me growing up in Hartford, Alabama,” he said. “It was a glimpse into another world, one that I was interested in.”

The magazine also provided a home for literate, thoughtful food writing. Its stable of contributors included James Beard, Laurie Colwin and M. F. K. Fisher. In the 1940s and ’50s, the restaurateur Lucius Beebe wrote a meandering column called Along the Boulevards.

“Gourmet was the New Yorker of food magazines back in the 1970s and ’80s,” said Jim Lahey, a Manhattan baker.

Gourmet magazine was an early influence on Alice Waters, who recalls building files of recipes and photographs of dishes that she and Lindsey Shere, the first pastry chef of Chez Panisse, wanted to make. And, she said, for some restaurateurs, a review in Gourmet used to mean everything.

“Yes, you could be in The New York Times, but that was sort of fleeting. Gourmet was just a bigger cultural picture,” she said.

The magazine had its detractors, too, and they are doing plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking: Gourmet was out of step with the times, both in content and design, they say.

“The magazine has been casting about and remade itself too many times,” said Nach Waxman, the owner of the Kitchen Arts and Letters bookstore in Manhattan.

“Gourmet got away from the things that are going on in people’s homes, and seemed to be for an elite that got smaller and smaller,” said Judith Jones, the Knopf editor, who believes food magazines in general have become too focused on fashion and style.

Still, there are believers. Kylie Sachs, a venture capitalist and subscriber for 15 years, took to Twitter on Monday and started a campaign to save Gourmet. In 24 hours, she had almost 200 followers.

Ms. Sachs, 37, thinks readers could rise up to save what she says is a tested brand whose reliability is even more important in a digital age.

And if she fails, she will still head into Thanksgiving — the first she is cooking for her family in her Brooklyn home — with Gourmet’s November issue, its last, at her side.

“I’ll have a good, trusted friend guiding me,” she said.

Julia Moskin and Florence Fabricant contributed reporting

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Got Milk? Maybe not for long.

Florida’s Milk Industry Soured by Bad Economy

News Service of Florida - Oct 3rd, 2009

First there was the housing implosion. Then banks melted down.

Now, Florida’s milk industry is souring.

The state’s already shrinking dairy industry is getting pummeled by the recession, with a Senate report released Thursday showing each farmer will lose an average $709,000 this year.

“Milk prices have come way down but our costs remain very high,” said Joe Wright, who runs a 1,400-head dairy farm in Avon Park. “It’s a double whammy that’s really hurting the industry.”

There are 140 dairy farms in Florida, fewer than half the number that existed as recently as 1992. Milk sales account for 90 percent of the revenue collected at Florida dairy farms, but prices have plunged 50-cents-a-gallon over the past year, costing farms an expected $99 million this year, according to the study by the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The findings are scheduled to be reviewed by the committee next week. Wright, who also serves as a vice-president with Dairy Farmers Inc., in Orlando, said Floridians’ milk consumption has slowed with the recession – falling 5 percent some months last year.

Florida’s population, which declined last year for the first time in 60 years, also contributed to the state’s milk malaise. Consumption, however, has picked up again in recent months, spurred by a price-war among Florida retail stores, industry analysts say.

But feed costs remain high, rising sharply in part because of the federal ethanol program which now absorbs roughly one-third of the corn that otherwise would be available to go to cattle, according to the industry.

“Corn prices were three times their 10-year average last year,” Wright said. “They’ve since come down a bit. But you can’t stay in business with those kinds of increases.”

The Legislature is being asked to consider taking steps to bolster the industry in coming months – although no big bail-out is proposed.

Instead, possible moves range from the heavy-handed — a proposed requirement that government institutions in Florida buy a certain percentage of milk from the state’s dairy industry – to more traditional tax incentives and other proposals easing state environmental regulations for farms.

Another approach encourages the state to provide tax credits to encourage more development of bio-fuel from Florida dairy farms – what the industry calls anaerobic digestion technology.

Even taking modest steps in converting Florida cow manure and its accompanying methane gas to electricity could power as many as 2,000 homes in each Florida county, Senate analysts said.

The new report also points out that the state’s dairy industry is concentrated in the Lake Okeechobee area and Suwannee River basin in North Florida. Since those regions also are home to most of Florida’s prisons, those facilities could be pushed to convert waste management systems to those using bio-fuel from nearby dairies, the study suggested.

“If you can make bio-fuel economically worthwhile, farmers would give it a try,” Wright said.

Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee whose district includes a belt of dairy farms near Lake Okeechobee, said he was uncertain what steps are needed for the industry’s survival. “But we can’t let agriculture go by the wayside, and dairy is a big part of it,” Aronberg said.