Food Issues

The Gastronomica Reader edited by Darra Goldstein. University of California Press. Hardcover, 376 pages. $39.

The cover of The Gastronomica Reader

Gourmet, as anyone with even the vaguest interest in food knows, is gone. That this is cause for sober reflection practically goes without saying. It was a cornerstone of the food-writing world, one that nurtured adventurous cooks long before most people in America knew what an artichoke was. Fortunately, the magazine met its demise at a time when there are more alternatives than its first readers in 1941 could ever have imagined. Among them is Gastronomica, launched in 2001, conceived expressly to be “edgy, hoping to make its readers think about what lies behind the meal.”

For those of us who don’t have the patience to wade through every issue in search of provocation, now there is The Gastronomica Reader (University of California Press, $40). This collection of forty-two pieces from the magazine’s pages delights in manners ranging from the poetic to the political. My favorite essay is Andrew Coe’s “The Egg Cream Racket,” from the summer 2004 issue. It isn’t just about egg creams, of course, though it does provide a satisfying explanation for why a drink with neither eggs nor cream is so named (hint: It has nothing to do with content, everything to do with context). It’s about New York City racketeering in the 1920s and ’30s and Tammany Hall; it’s about class and ethnicity; it’s about hipsters reviving abandoned neighborhoods and traditions; it is, if only momentarily, about a guy named Isidore Trachtenberg. Coe also includes a pitch-perfect description of the progression of flavors an egg cream leaves in your mouth, beginning with a “richness of chocolate” and ending with “a vague sense of disappointment.”

In short, “The Egg Cream Racket” is a great read. And all the things that make it so great exquisitely serve the intentions put forth by Darra Goldstein, the editor of the magazine since its creation, who writes in her introduction about “the basic Gastronomica belief that only the unexpected can make a familiar subject new.” It’s a noble if not always attainable goal, but based on the selections included here, I’d say Goldstein’s writers hit the bull’s-eye more often than not. There are essays on weight loss as religion, eating contests (“the sport of the everyman”), why the Chinese eat dogs, a patented peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich (subtitle: “Food as Intellectual Property”), and—in perhaps the most extreme case of making the ordinary fascinating again—the origins of the McDonald’s golden arches, which in a 2001 article designer Constantin Boym traced back (via Eero Saarinen and Corbusier) to a “palace for Communist Party congresses.”

This last is a prime example of how Gastronomica serves another of its stated purposes, breaking down walls between popular food writing and “food studies” discourse. When it succeeds, it’s fantastic; when it doesn’t, things can get a little dry. Above all else, though, Gastronomica isn’t aspirational in the way of other food magazines (and because it’s funded by the University of California, it can afford not to be). It’s about cooking, but not in the sense that Gourmet was or Bon Appétit is—or even in the wonky style of Cook’s Illustrated. Gastronomica includes the occasional recipe, but only as a narrative device. It’s been speculated that one reason Gourmet folded was because the luxury lifestyle it depicted was hideously out of step with our new economic reality, though it’s also true that under editor Ruth Reichl, the magazine began to address topics like local food and the exploitation of farmworkers. Gastronomica, by contrast, reports on the practice of clay eating in Africa and India and the details and effects of privation in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. Its message is not about how to better your life through food, but about the places—bad, good, weird—that food has always had in everyone’s lives.

In the years since Gastronomica began publishing, the rise of what some people call real food has led to a whole host of magazines that are now filling part of the hole left by Gourmet. They seek not to seduce readers away with food-porn photo shoots, but to remind them of the comfort of pleasures closer to home, as well as the issues involved in partaking of those pleasures. Among the most prominent are the Edible Communities magazines, which began with a single title, California’s Edible Ojai, in 2002 and have since expanded to include sixty across the country, each one dedicated to its immediate geography, with articles on local producers and the politics that affect them. A recent issue of Edible Brooklyn featured a piece on the closing of slaughterhouses in upstate New York, while the Edible Iowa River Valley’s fall-harvest issue profiled Paul’s Grains, an organic grain, cereal, and flour company run by a central-Iowa family whose founder went natural because he felt that “God wanted him to create something less manipulated by man.” The magazines are filled with gorgeous photography, though it’s just as often of people working hard or gore (the slaughterhouse piece) as of lush produce. Perhaps to underscore their differences from the old food bibles, they are printed on nonglossy paper, though it should be said that the Edible magazines took off after they were written up in Saveur.

In the wake of the Edible franchise has come a host of what I can’t help thinking of as food zines, which occupy a similar niche. These are publications that started up sometime in the second half of the past decade, as Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan were sweeping the country, and Wal-Mart started selling organic food. The Diner Journal, for example, is the lovingly crafted and illustrated in-house literary magazine of a clutch of Brooklyn restaurants (one of which is called Diner) committed to using local producers and fresh ingredients. Along the lines of an even more personally tailored Edible magazine—and heralded by the Utne Reader as “the rural-minded urbanite’s dream come true”—the quarterly includes profiles of farmers who supply the restaurants, recipes, drawings, and memoir by patrons and others.

Meatpaper (“Your Journal of Meat Culture,” a slogan I dearly love), a quirky, thoroughly appealing little number founded in San Francisco in 2007, jumbles together cartoons, interviews, investigative reporting, and, in a recent issue given to me by a friend, not only a butcher’s diagram of Tyrannosaurus rex—“Did the Cretaceous taste like chicken?”—but pistachio-studded, capicola-printed endpapers. It’s less circumscribed than Diner Journal, but no less obsessive—and I mean that in the best possible way. “Meatpaper readers contact us regularly to ask where they can learn to break down a pig,” the magazine’s cofounder wrote in an editor’s letter, an admission that endeared the publication to me even more.

These two magazines—and there are many others like them—represent a new incarnation of food writing. Each has a hefty cover price ($7.50 and $7.95, respectively; the Edible titles are free) but also runs a blog where you can get a fix anytime you want, gratis. Each reflects the sensibility not just of a region but of a microcosm, and each is comfortable, even proud, of its anything-but-all-powerful role in the burgeoning world of food writing. They don’t seek to be everything to all people, just something to some people.

Getting back to The Gastronomica Reader, though, it occurred to me as I made my way through it, often accompanied by something good to eat, that I’d love to read the magazine’s take on this new breed of food periodicals. No doubt Goldstein would welcome an article of this ilk. She founded Gastronomica in part because she felt there was no room to explore larger issues in popular venues and, on the flip side, only a very small audience for academic articles that were long enough to actually delve deep. It would be right up her street, something at once taxonomic and entertaining that would leave readers feeling both wiser and enlivened.