The Legacy of Gourmet

October 12th, 2009


As we opened the October 2009 issue of Gourmet magazine, an impossibly good coupon fell into our lap. “Gourmet is having a very special white sale,’ the promotional card announced, “12 issues for $15. It’s like getting 8 issues free!’ We were suspicious of the enthusiasm behind the offer. “Is this the epicurean deal of a lifetime – or a plea from a luxury-oriented print mag. struggling in a market saturated with free online cooking resources?’

Indeed, on October 5th, Conde Nast CEO Chuck Townsend announced that Gourmet would cease production following its November 2009 issue. In light of the recession, Townsend said the publishing house wanted to focus on magazines with the most growth potential. Gourmet had enjoyed a long run. The magazine originally made its mark premiering large layouts and lush color food photos back in the 1940′s (and promptly put its black and white, tiny-fonted competitor, American Cookery, out of business).

Initially, general lifestyle magazines like Good Housekeeping broadened their focus to include sections on fine dining and home cooking. In the 1980′s, editor Janet Montant expanded Gourmet to be a publication devoted to all aspects of living a gourmet lifestyle, not just dining like one. Gourmet grew to boast sections on travel, drinks and gourmet “obsessions’ (products). Historian Anne Mendelson describes Gourmet as “not a food magazine, but a general-interest magazine with an emphatic take on one of life’s greatest pleasures’.

gourmet_mag_mexJust as the 1980′s brought an influx of high-end lifestyle magazines treading on Gourmet’s territory, with the late 90′s came the rise of the Internet. This led to even more competition as free cooking resources sprang up all over cyberspace. Although Gourmet’s turn of the century circulation was the largest it had ever been at 900,000, companies were more interested in buying ad space in one of the countless recipe databases online. As editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl reported in an August 2009 interview, “It’s ironic because our circulation has never been higher. And yet advertising dollars are a challenge.’

The economic downturn of the last year perhaps hit luxury-focused magazines the hardest. As people had less money to engage in non-essential activities, they also had less disposable income to buy a magazine to read about such interests. Gourmet tried to keep up with the efficiency-obsessed Food Network in creating a Gourmet Everyday section featuring 10 Minute Main courses. This new content may have appealed to busy families, but it steered away from Gourmet’s original audience — a dangerous strategy even in the best-of-times.

Some of Gourmet’s offshoots found success, like the TV show Diary of a Foodie or Gourmet.com, with its popular politics of the plate feature. These modern facets of the “Gourmet empire” will live on after Gourmet completes its run as a printed publication. Gourmet is one of several magazines Conde Nast is retiring this year, along with Modern Bride, Elegant Bride and Cookie. Do these cancellations imply that we’re growing disinterested with family-oriented luxury? Perhaps, but more likely these topics will still get coverage through different media. Epicurious.com plans to run original recipes from Gourmet regularly and Editor-in-Chief Reichl is scheduled to debut her new food show Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth. Although we will miss flipping through it in print, Gourmet will still exist online, on television and in our memories.