Jan. 4th, 2010

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I subscribe to Gourmet and Saveur magazines. Or, at least I did until recently. Conde Nast publishing is cost cutting in these economic times. Like many other print publications from (almost) the Boston Globe to (alas) the National Geographic Adventure magazine, print is dying left and right.

Gourmet Magazine, launched in 1941 (pre-war as far as US involvement), was one of the casualties this year. It was a magazine that specialized in technique and recipes that pulled no punches. If you consider that Americans have only really emerged from meat-and-potatoes cuisine in the late 1980s, Gourmet has been a vanguard for most of its history.

From FoodTV to Rachael Ray Magazine, there are plenty of media exploring the still emerging American relationship with food. Sushi, barbecue, cajun, homestyle meatloaf, and the weirdly love-hate relationship with the McRib sandwich. That's America these days, and Bobby Flay, Anthony Bourdain, and Alton Brown are happy to explore it.

I'm a foodie in the true sense of the word. I love food. I love all food. I learned to make a Bearnaise from Gourmet Magazine, including the tip to jettison the chervil (even though it's traditional, the subtle chervil tends to be completely overwhelmed by the vinegar and assertive tarragon). On the other end of the spectrum, I think the Big Mac is one of the most extravagantly impressive creations of modern technology -- an aggressively tasty combination of all four food groups and half one's daily calories, for less than half the price of a single hour of minimum wage. What other culture in the history of mankind has achieved more than the Big Mac?

For Conde Nast, the decision seems to be as economic as the downfall of MTV and the Food Network. Gourmet had 0.98 million subscribers, Bon Appetit had 1.3 million. Helpfully, Conde Nast has replaced any remaining Gourmet editions left in my subscription with Bon Appetit, to boost their circulation, perhaps.

I got my first Bon Appetit magazine this week, and it makes me, in a word, sad. One of the first chuckles was the cover of meatballs, which Christey recoiled from purely from photographic and food styling reflex. They're underlit and unappetizing in front of a bland beige background. Reading inside, I almost laughed out loud when I read that sriracha is the ingredient of the year (2010?) when even the reality-TV of Top Chef season 3 was exploring sriracha ice cream in 2007.

What drove a wooden stake through my heart was the recipe for lemon parsley aioli. Garlic. Through a garlic press. Added to mayonnaise.

Gourmet would never have suggested a garlic press, and (with few exceptions) wouldn't have suggested adding garlic to a pre-prepared mayonnaise. Aioli is a rustic mayonnaise made from scratch traditionally in a mortar, or (in these modern times) at least with a real egg yolk, dijon, and a mini food processor. If not providing instructions for making an aioli, Gourmet would have at least had the decency to not call it an aioli. Garlic Lemon Mayo is good enough.

This is what I think is missing from America, now that Gourmet Magazine is dead. The culinary concept of refinement.

Refinement can be a synonym for high-class or luxury, but what it really means is taking the effort to extract what is wanted from the raw. It may be cutting a diamond from a hard stone, it may be extracting a useful automobile fuel from sticky crude, it may be pulling a medicinal bactericide from a moldy orange rind.

We lost a resource which explains how to create a velvety base for sauces from cow bones and root vegetables. We lost a resource which shows, step by step, how to create mayonnaise from eggs, oil, and lemon juice. We lost a resource which explains a single nugget of technique from a grandmother in Vietnam demonstrating the regional relationship between rice, fish, and lemongrass.

But, at least we have new recipes for meatballs.

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