Gourmet, Saveur and the paradox of food in America

Saveur cover When the Wall Street Journal reported that Conde Naste was closing Gourmet Magazine, it gave a chart suggesting that all the magazines in the CN stable were losing money.  But a single competitor seemed to buck the trend.  Saveur is actually prospering.

I asked Pam, my wife, about the difference between Gourmet and Saveur.  She said Saveur is about the culture of food: people, restaurants, trends, cuisines, celebrity foodstuffs, generally speaking.  Gourmet is more about the food of food: recipes, techniques, procedures.

And by this reckoning, the fall of Gourmet and the rise of Saveur is perhaps not mysterious.  After all, in prosperous America, people are cooking less.  They are eating out more.  And they are ordering in, or bringing in, more and more. 

Pam was recently looking at stoves and the sales person said of a particular stove,

"Oh, you don't want one of those. That's a trophy stove."

"What's a trophy stove?" she asked.

"Oh, you know, it's for one of those beautiful kitchens where all they do is boil water and order in." 

These families don't care about recipes as they used to.  This is increasingly a black box technology.  We don't actually need to know how "cooking" happens.  This will be accomplished by someone else somewhere else. In the language of a corporation, these families are "outsourcing" the food function.  (Even as they are "in sourcing" the fitness studio and the movie theater.) 

As is often the case, American culture is moving in two directions (at least for those with incomes to manage it.)  People know more about food and they care more about food, but they are spending less time working with food.  It's a tasty little morsel of a paradox.  (Watch for coverage in the pages of Saveur.)

Post script:

I hesitate to put words in his mouth, but when I interviewed him a couple of months ago, Mark Miller, the formative American chef, and the man responsible for the American passion for Southwest cuisine, appeared to be telling me that Americans continue to be more in love with the idea of cuisine than it's reality.  This would say that Americans actually love reading about food in Saveur more than they do preparing it from a recipe from Gourmet.  (And not only because they are so very time poor.)  And this would give us another explanation for the rise of Saveur and the fall of Gourmet.  Devout apologies to Chef Miller if I misrepresent his opinion here. 

16 thoughts on “Gourmet, Saveur and the paradox of food in America

  1. Mary Schmidt

    I’m a long-time subscriber to both Gourmet AND Saveur. And, found them to be very complementary. But, then I’m a dinosaur – I also enjoy cooking (on a non-trophy stove 😉 and a recipe is a starting point….and I’d love to be the next M.F.K. Fisher (a little thing like lack of talent shouldn’t stand in my way, should it?)

    That said, I think CN is making the same mistake publishers made back in the early 60s when looking at Julia Child’s cookbook. “Middle-class housewives don’t want to…” Very limiting and ultimately wrong.

    I still believe that Gourmet could have survived and thrived IF CN had spent the McKinsey fee on some real market analysis (including looking at people who subscribe to both Gourmet and Saveur)and planning. Gourmet has a devoted subscriber base and a decades-old brand name.

  2. Drew Breunig

    Great one. I was thinking about the same thing… another difference is the expectation of how much a reader plans to spend: Gourmet was silly in this current context when it budgeted for readers. In it’s last issue there was an article polling foodies where to go in their city if they had $1,000. This was their frugality.

  3. Brian

    Back on a regular reading of your blog & its just as I remembered; fresh, considered and a stimulating read.
    My own research work around the black box lies less with recipes and figures more prominently on the practice of “cooking.” If a recipe is in some sense a road map of how to move from ingredients to a fully prepared, integrated meal – then what many people consider “cooking” is on life support. Reheating, microwaving, and yes – the disdained “boiling water” – qualifies for many people as “kitchen time” and in some equivalency — “cooking.” The concept has expanded as a practice – and therein, the recipe “road maps of cooking” espoused by Gourmet have given way to the GPS tourism of prepared / prebaked / and reheated “cooking performance” practices of Saveur.

  4. Josh Wand

    FYI, Saveur is not owned by Conde Nast (it’s part of Bonnier Corp, nee World Publications).

    From where I sit your wife’s characterization of Saveur is half-right– it is definitely about the culture of food, but it is far from a trend magazine (that’s more Food & Wine’s beat). Saveur is about food and the cultures that produce and consume it– the people, the history, the stories, and the passion that go into the world’s many authentic cuisines. (Sorry if that reads like ad copy…)

    Another way to put it is that I view Saveur as a magazine primarily about discovery, whereas Gourmet was more about aspiration.

  5. Betsy Wuebker

    Interesting takes on the two magazines, especially about Gourmet being clueless on frugality and reality. Our favorite cooking magazine is Fine Cooking. We tried with Gourmet, over and over. Disappointing.

    Gourmet couldn’t figure out if it was a jet-setter’s travel guide with recipes thrown in, or a bona fide gourmandish effort. The magazine deviated away from its capital brand and core USP in slo-mo over the last 10 years or so.

  6. Grant McCracken

    Josh, thanks for clarifying, I knew I didnt know, but the chart in the WSJ encouraged me to risk it.  (Thats right, its their fault.)  Thanks for the save.  And I like the distinction you use here.  It helps us see the two as working from different models of engagement: the old one where one deferred and the new where one explores.  Thanks again.  Best, Grant

  7. Matt Mantey

    Simplistic as it seems, I think the word Gourmet has lost its power. No way to quantify, but it is/was overused and inaccurately applied as a descriptor to all sorts of sub-gourmet experiences.

    With the conspicuous consumption era over, having a Gourmet (means nothing differentiated today) magazine on your coffee table seems like you are trying really hard to show off your refined-ness.

    Advertisers and their agencies are tuned in to this and ad pages shrink.

    Oh and BTW, CN still sells in a very 1.0 way. Assuming their titles and brands still mean something to advertisers.

  8. Dennis Demori

    Great post.

    I read an old Michael Pollan article recently and, to paraphrase, “More and more people are sitting on the couch watching cooking shows, but less people are cooking.”

    People enjoy the IDEA of being creative and making something with their hands, but in this age of instant gratification it’s just easier to have someone else make it.

  9. Grace

    I don’t read any of the cooking magazines because that would cut into my cooking time. 😉

    Oddly, Bon Appetit sent my husband a free subscription. We have no idea why.

    I belong to a community of people, mostly women, who produce at home and blog about it. (My blog shows cooking, sewing, knitting, tie-dying, gardening and the occasional computer programming trick from my market job as a physicist.)

    I watched the parade of kids at work last year on “Bring your daughter to work day”, and I realized that most kids watch consumption more often than they watch production. That is, we bring them shopping with us, but we don’t bring them to work with us. As Witold Rybczynski pointed out, home is both a workplace and a place of repose. Kids can be innoculated from commercial messages if they see home production as daily practice.

    I read “The Enthusiast” blog to find out what Heather had for dinner last night.

    It’s interesting to see her creative use of seasonal ingredients and leftovers.

    I am the neighborhood coordinator for a CSA program.

    I tried to explain to someone that I don’t really cook (in the Mark Miller sense). I just process food every weekend in preparation for the frantic workweek in a 2-career family with children. I described to a friend how I make salad dressing in little blender jars, make yogurt in an incubator (glorified thermos but more expensive), make a giant vat of soup and a medium one of slow-cooked oatmeal, make a fruit salad, boil eggs and chop up veggies for weeknight salads–in about 2-3 hours each Sunday.

    It wasn’t until I read Pollan’s article that I realized that qualifies as cooking. Have you ever read a Mark Miller recipe? It relies on obscure ingredients that I will not find in my local grocery store. It would take a treasure hunt, even in LA to source all his ingredients. I have yet to make a single recipe out of the Coyote Cafe cookbook for that reason.

    Anyway, sorry for the long ramble. I have so many food issues. I guess that is why I am a blogger. 😉

    Give me a heads up when you visit LA and I can bore you with how giving measurements in recipes can actually reduce the quality of the outcome. I say that as someone who worked her way through Berkeley in an analytical Chemistry lab and also as an assistant kitchen manager at her dorm.

  10. thoughtbasket

    Just last weekend the Saturday WSJ did a piece on rock star chefs, who are selling out auditoriums as fans pay just to watch them cook. I doubt if these fans are watching to learn how to make the dishes at home; the excitement is in the cultural event around the food rather than the food per se.

  11. ken

    Two of the top 50 iPhone apps are recipes, perhaps suggesting other interpretations, like “free” sells. There are really so many fre sources for recipes, why subscribe? So nothing to do with the out sourcing of “homework”, a 90s concept & everything to do with “free”, a 2009 fad concept. Between my cookbooks & the web recipes aren’t a problem – finding a place to go out is extremely problematic

  12. Stephen Denny

    Grant, the localization and greening/organic movement (thanks in part to M. Pollan) have brought us all closer to the stories behind the food we buy and eat. We want to know about where our steaks come from, we want to meet the people who grow the grapes that make the wine we buy (from our wine clubs, of course). Saveur, in short, tells us about the nature of food.

    Gourmet, as a commenter correctly says above, is an anachronistic word. We aren’t “gourmets” anymore – that’s an outdated idea. We just care about things a little differently than we did 10 years ago.

    And no, I don’t think it’s about cooking – it’s about knowing.

  13. Paula Rosch

    Grant – what a great observation and great blog. As one who once subscribed to all the food magazines, I had a goal of making at least one recipe from them each month. I think that stopped back in 1985 when I was seduced by a 5-layer cake on the Bon Appetit cover, perched on a pedestal plate, its caramel frosting flowing gracefully down its side. I decided to make it for my birthday. Of course, to prop up my sunken layers, I had to make additional frosting, which not only oozed out of the sides like lava but glopped over the plate edge. Even the frosting seemed to be trying to get away.

    Saveur has been my magazine of choice for the very reasons you mention – I do love to cook but mostly I love to eat food, read about food, enjoy the culture of food. By the way, Cucina Italiana is another excellent choice for just that purpose.

  14. marie

    Very interesting to read.

    Maybe, the people Gourmet was aimed at, i.e. people who probably have a higher income and work much, but have therefore less time to actually cook, are more interested in the culture of food.

    Also, you can find recipes online. You would not need to buy a magazine for that.

  15. Jeremy

    I get my food culture and my recipes from The Art of Eating newsletter. It takes production and consumption and the space in which food is embedded seriously and without slavishly following anyone or anything. Red wine with cheese? Fuggedabout it.

  16. Hayden

    Who are the “people” in “prosperous America” who are cooking out less and buying trophy stoves? And what are the time frame(s) over which the trend is considered?

    Is it possible that much of the reduction in cooking is due not to the implied increases in family income in the US, but instead significantly to increases in opportunity for women over the past 50 years (the same changes that have helped reduce the number of nuns in the Catholic Church), and the increase in family households where both parents, or the only parent, work(s)?

    Are these “people” those who have higher incomes? News reports recently have suggested that there is less eating out among families generally, and particularly lower-income families.

    None of the above are fatal to the post’s main point to consider the difference between audiences and audience roles for Gourmet and Saveur.

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