Program review by Julia Evanczuk
On the evening of November 14, a mix of culinary enthusiasts and historians gathered in a room at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on the Upper West Side. It had been a decade since the final issue of Gourmet magazine, and the crowd had gathered to reflect on its birth, evolution, and indelible influence.
At the back of the room were a variety of favorite Gourmet appetizers prepared by CHNY members. The recipes ranged from small bites like rosemary walnuts and cheddar pecan crisps; to Swedish meatballs and crab cakes with tomato jam; to a scene-stealing, lobster-shaped salmon mousse centerpiece, garnished with fish roe, cucumbers, and parsley. At the front of the room sat a panel of writers and editors whose combined tenure adds up to nearly a century with the magazine: Kemp Minifie, executive food editor and head of the Gourmet test kitchen; Zanne Stewart, executive food editor; Jane Lear, features editor and originator of the popular “Kitchen Notebook” section; William Sertl, travel editor; and Anne Mendelson, culinary historian and freelance contributor. The panel was moderated by Linda Pelaccio, CHNY vice chair and host of the culinary history podcast A Taste of the Past.
The birth and evolution of Gourmet
The panel began with a description of the magazine’s origins from Anne Mendelson. Gourmet was born in January 1941 as a 48-page experiment, the brainchild of publishing veteran Earle R. MacAusland, known to subordinates as “Mr. Mac.” He took seriously the magazine’s subtitle, “the magazine of good living,” and in his view, good living was decidedly masculine. The cover of Gourmet’s inaugural issue reflected that sentiment: a painting of a roasted boar’s head beside a goblet of red wine. The magazine as a whole emphasized visuals, letting readers immerse themselves in images of chateaus and rustic villages. The publication had an in-house chef, Louis P. De Gouy, who prepared monthly menus, but the notion of testing menus or recipes was not part of its original mission.
The readership was primarily female, but at the time of the magazine’s inception, it wasn’t assumed that the readers would be doing the cooking themselves. Zanne Stewart noted, “Back in the day, Mr. Mac assumed that people would give the magazine to the housekeeper, and the housekeeper would call the butcher, the fishmonger, and so on, and have the meal prepared and on the table. That changed after the war.”
Indeed, the nature of its readership changed in the postwar years. Many of the readers’ husbands were serviceman coming back from stations all over the world, who had developed appetites for global tastes like steak frites or sushi, and the magazine adjusted to accommodate their readers’ evolving needs. The publication introduced two popular features: “You Asked for It!”, which invited readers to request recipes from the Gourmet staff; and “Sugar and Spice,” which served as a vehicle for readers to send in and respond to each other’s queries. The readers adored sharing the conversation with the magazine and each other.
“There was a sense of reciprocity binding together the editorial staff and its readers,” noted Mendelson. “Its importance could not be overstated.”
The decades following saw several important milestones that shaped the approach of magazine and ultimately through its influence, the food writing industry as a whole. In the 1950s, the magazine transitioned from illustration to photography under the supervision of Jane Montant, who would go on to become the magazine’s executive editor from the early 1960’s to 1980, and its editor in chief from 1980 to 1991. In the 1970s, Gourmet staffer Caroline Bates moved to the West Coast and began writing restaurant reviews covering the California scene, thereby expanding the magazine’s restaurant horizons beyond New York City. Bates’ objective reviews were a departure from the magazine’s opinion-based method to review writing; she would later become regarded by many as one of the standard-setting reviewers in the profession. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Montant would send her writers abroad to hunt down the world’s most exotic and tantalizing foods. Gone were the days of the white-gloved, Manhattan housewife, ushered away by dispatches from locales like Thailand. Said Mendelson, “The times they were a-changing.”
A global perspective: travel features and research trips
Travel was always closely integrated with food at Gourmet, according to William Sertl, who served as the magazine’s final travel editor. It was his duty to pick a corner of the world and explore the potential food angle, and then select which writers and photographers would cover the story. His favorite travel story from Gourmet described a program coordinated by the University of Bologna in Italy. Home cooks would volunteer to participate, and travelers across the world would buy a meal in the cook’s home by paying for the ingredients.
“I remember thinking, that’s what I want to do in any country in the world. Who wouldn’t?” said Sertl.
The importance of exploring global vistas and flavors touched nearly every aspect of the publication in one way or another. Even the food editors were assigned research trips. Kemp Minifie recalled Jane Montant’s conviction that cooks must “eat at the source” to truly know how to develop an authentic recipe, and so for that reason writers were often sent off. Minifie reminisced about a week-long trip she shared with Zanne Stewart, tasting their way across France. She said, “All we had to do for a week was eat. We ate breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks—we just stuffed ourselves.”
Trips like these were not exceptional—Minifie remembered her experiences in Italy, New Orleans, Mexico, Hawaii, Austria, often for weeks at a time, immersing herself in the local flavors and culture. “It was unbelievable,” said Minifie. Sertl agreed: “It was the job of a lifetime.”
Setting the standards in recipe development and food photography
But of course, everything came down to the food, and ultimately down to the test kitchen where the recipes were developed. It was a place where creativity, experimentation, and good flavors thrived. These were the glory days of magazine publishing, when both readership numbers and advertising income was high, and Gourmet staffers were given the license to experiment freely.
“I never felt like I had any financial restrictions in the test kitchen,” said Minifie. “If you had an idea and you wanted to try it out, you could. And if it was a flop, it wasn’t a serious thing, and you could try again. And if you got something and it worked, you could go test it a few more times to perfect it…I felt very strongly that it had to be really good. If a magazine reader follows a recipe for the first time, you want them to be hooked. You want the recipe to look like the picture, so we worked hard to deliver that.”
Jane Lear agreed. “One of the food editor’s most important tasks was to get into the kitchen. It was extraordinary because the food editors were so energetic and had this boundless curiosity and enthusiasm. They would discover things right and left…I hung around and took notes. It was so much fun and I learned so much.”
This culture of diligence extended to the photography as well. It was a coordinated effort, involving creative directors, photo editors, and photographers. “Because we had to show so much in a limited amount of space, the photos really had to tell a story…there was an art to it,” said Lear. “We became known for very sensual food photography.”
“Even back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people would refer to the gourmet menu section of the magazine as the centerfold,” added Stewart, to laughs from the audience.
In addition to setting industry standards for food writing and photography, Gourmet staffers had the opportunity to lead the conversation within the food world. Jane Lear described the genesis of Gourmet’s annual Produce issue, which she spearheaded; this was the first time a food magazine connected the dots between the farm and the plate. She also told the story of creating an issue devoted to the American South, which revolved around a previously unpublished essay by Edna Lewis that Lear had purchased for the magazine sight unseen, over the phone. Said Lear: “We had an enormous amount of autonomy.”
The panelists described their mutual experience at Gourmet as one unlike any other—a place that afforded opportunities to see the world, to foster a culture of passion shared among editors and readers alike, to bring together writers and photographers who were steeped in the very best of food and culture. It was an experience suffused with experimentation, creativity, and joy—in addition to the occasional hijink. Minifie reminisced about a location shoot wherein a stray dog ate the butterflied leg of lamb (to the staffers’ relief, this was after the meat had been photographed), as well as a story about the Aunt Vertie Sugar Cookie of the early ’90s, whose recipe included a possibly dangerous form of wintergreen and which caused something of a debacle after publication.
“We were like a family, dysfunctional in many ways,” said Stewart with a smile. “But to get the magazine on your desk every month, and to know there was a little bit of everyone’s soul in there, was a joy. The collaboration made me proud.”