Another Temple Gone

Some time ago, I did a fun fun story for the Reader – sitting down with a local chef and rifling through seven or eight food magazines, letting her riff as we went. She dismissed a great many of them as whores – slaves to their advertisers, list-addicted, fluff-stuffed, all but useless in the kitchen (“I’ve tried these recipes, and a lot of them just don’t work.”), selling lifestyle over substance, with no sense of culture or context. “Have you been to Biarritz lately?” she snarked as she perused one food mag’s list of top international luxury hotels. “Why is this even in here?” The unspoken answer – ad dollars.

But she didn’t hate everything. She admired Waitrose Food, an English magazine published by a high-end grocery chain. Among the domestics, she especially liked Cook’s Illustrated and Saveur – Cook’s for its usefulness, Saveur for its preservation of the old Gourmet culture – long articles that gave a sense of place to food, a sense of the culture from which various foods hailed. Not once did she use the word “whore.”

I argued with her, saying that the original, pristine vision of Saveur had already broken down, when two of the three founders left to pursue other projects, leaving the legendary Colman Andrews alone at the the helm. The magazine, if I recall correctly, had always prided itself on not covering chefs or restaurants – it was about the way the world ate and drank, not about what some chef cooked up for the Other Half. “Savoring a world of authentic cuisine” ran the slogan under the title on the cover. But after the Great Break, chefs started popping up. It’s not that chefs don’t produce “authentic cuisine” – a slippery notion if ever there was one, you know what it isn’t, but it’s harder to pin down what it is. It’s not that there aren’t great stories to be told around chefs, or that they haven’t impacted the world of food in general – Alice Waters, anyone? It’s just that Saveur was the magazine you turned to in order to get away from celebrity culture, in order to read about the way Cubans cooked in kitchens that would make a chef blanch.

My interest flagged after a while, and I let my subscription die. Still, I couldn’t argue too strenuously with the chef I was interviewing: Saveur was still the tops when it came to reportage, and that it had avoided most of the most egregious admongering. Then I got the current issue. Redesigned cover – not nearly so elegant. No fat white border. But the real giveaway was the use of fonts – the same blasted fonts they use over at Bon Appetit, or Food & Wine. The silly, senseless mix of bolds and plains: Flavors of the ARGENTINA wine country. Germany’s marvelous MASTER OF RIESLING. FRENCH COUNTRY FOOD in the heart of Beaujolais.

More alarm bells: Two pages in, a two-page ad for Princess cruises. Couldn’t be…

I paged to the Editor’s letter. Colman played down the change; he let the designer – a longtime employee of Saveur’s parent company, World Publications – do the talking. “This isn’t so much a redesign as a refreshing, an updating. We have just simplified the way information is presented, making stories more accessible to the reader.” Colman again: “The essence of Saveur, he stresses, hasn’t changed.” (What’s your take, Colman? What do we care what the designer thinks about the essence?) Back to the designer: “We will still bring our readers the authentic experience of food and the cultures, people, and places that surround it. That isn’t going away. Our approach to food isn’t changing.” Colman liked that: “To that we say amen,” he concluded.

But then he noted that the Real Life Kitchen feature was migrating to the front of the book and would be renamed Kitchenwise. “Look there, in every issue, for even more great kitchen design ideas.” But the old Real Life Kitchen feature wasn’t about design. It was about the way real kitchens looked and functioned. Nobody could look at famed grocer/gourmand/wine merchant Darrell Corti’s brown plaid-wallpapered kitchen and think, “That’s a great design idea!” It was interesting not because it might inspire someone to buy something for their own kitchen (Helloooo, advertisers), but because it was the kitchen of an interesting person with a standing in the world of food. Colman was, I feared, pulling a fast one.

Don’t get me wrong; Saveur still does many things right. But there, on page 34, I saw it: The Saveur List. And not just any list, not a list of interesting foodstuffs and books and kitchen implements like the annual Saveur 100. No, this was a list of 7 Hotel Restaurants. The tagline: “The next time you’re going out to dinner in Europe, it might make sense to consider staying in.” Barcelona, Venice, Monte Carlo, Budapest, Paris, London, Dublin.

“Have you been to Biarritz lately?” No. Nor Monte Carlo. I wonder if Princess Cruises stops there.

I know you do what you have to to stay alive in publishing. But I’d love to know the story here.

Comments

  1. Mark Lickona says

    Soon there will be no more temples. Everything is dying. Unless we young radicals can “recover the lost traditions”…but how (and where) will we keep them alive?

    I’ve been asking myself for the past several years why I still want to be famous when everyone I always wanted to meet when I finally became famous is either already dead or will be by the time I am.

    Well, have a nice day!

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