How Frugal Is Gourmet?

A practical new cookbook from the famously extravagant magazine.

It was January 1941. Europe was crumbling, world war was looming, millions of Americans were out of work, and housewives with a yen to be creative were making beef steak à la Stanley—hamburgers in a pool of horseradish sauce, topped with sweetened baked bananas. All in all, not an auspicious moment to introduce a magazine called Gourmet.

But high up in a suite at New York’s Plaza Hotel, where the magazine’s first publisher, Earle R. MacAusland, had installed his staff, life looked very different—and uncommonly pleasant. War and want were far away, and the editors were certain their readers would welcome a recipe for Pheasant à la Bohemienne. (“Pluck and clean a young pheasant [unmortified], rub it with lemon juice inside and out, then salt and pepper to taste. Sew. Truss. Melt 3 tablespoons of butter or, still better, use the butter in which a fresh goose liver, larded through and through with small sticks of raw black truffle, has been poached and then cooled.”) As MacAusland announced in the debut issue, “Never has there been a time more fitting for a magazine like Gourmet.”

Oddly enough, he was right. In fact, there’s never been a time that wasn’t fitting for Gourmet, even when real life seemed to race in the opposite direction. The original tag line—”The magazine of good living”—remains in place to this day. Note that Gourmet has never billed itself as “the magazine of good cooking.” Good cooking, after all, isn’t about wealth; it’s about tasty ingredients and the skill of the person at the stove. But good living—that’s another matter, and the phrase nicely conjures up visions of luxury. MacAusland married the two and had no trouble finding the right readers. “Sirs,” wrote a woman from Newton, Mass., in 1953, “Princess Ileana of Rumania would like me to ask you where she can buy the black, sticky pumpernickel bread that she used to know in Austria. The various black breads that she finds here seem to be dry and lacking in flavor.” (The editors offered a mail-order address for “just the bread you want.”)

Over the decades, the magazine has undergone periodic renovations, but MacAusland’s original formula has proved remarkably resilient, even as notions of luxury have changed. This fall the magazine celebrates its upcoming 63rd birthday just as MacAusland would have done: by publishing a huge new Gourmet Cookbook, with recipes lovingly drawn from its own pages. 

Whether the first editors could so much as peel a carrot, they understood perfectly the way food-lovers fantasized in the ‘40s. Money was the implicit ingredient in every recipe, from a chocolate rum pie to a Christmas roast pig. (“Our Gourmet Chef’s Aunt Cecile, who gained renown for her roast porkers, recommends that the inside be rubbed with sweet butter and fines herbes, then filled with stuffing of its liver, finely ground with a little pork fat, mushrooms, truffles of Perigord, rocamboles of Genoa, and filberts of Nice, the whole seasoned with pepper from Jamaica, salt, and sage.”) Another implicit ingredient was fantasy itself. In the early decades of the magazine, most of the recipes weren’t even tested—if you couldn’t make them work, you didn’t belong on the subscription list.

At the center of this dreamscape was France, the lodestar for new-world gastronomes. French terminology, French chefs, and French recipes were rampant throughout the magazine, not just because glamorous cookery was inconceivable in any other mode, but because a French identity kept Gourmet safely beyond the reach of the masses. In particular, MacAusland had no wish to appeal to the ordinary American housewife, whose presence in his pages was limited to cartoons. (Young woman in wine shop, examining bottle: “Jeepers! Nothing fresher than 1928?”) Haute cuisine was strictly a male preserve in France, and Americans inherited the prejudice. Women edited and wrote for Gourmet but rarely starred in it unless they were quaint home cooks like “Maman,” from a 1948 story, who had “snapping black eyes” and could make soup for the whole family out of a cabbage and a few “oignonettes” from her garden in Bordeaux.

Some of these traits relaxed over time, but an air of lofty exclusivity lingered for decades. On the bright side, this disdain for the mass market meant that the editors were free to round up sophisticated writers and let them write. Lillian Langseth-Christensen found a home in Gourmet for her Viennese memoirs and recipes; Robert P. Tristram Coffin wrote wonderfully about Maine; and such legendary stylists as M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David were contributors. Issues from decades past, with their columns of civilized prose unbroken by ads and sidebars, their winding sentences and long, relaxed paragraphs seem like visitors from the 19th century.

But after half a century of Riz à l’Imperatrice and “Tasteful Shopping in Paris,” the magazine started dozing, and so did its elderly readers. Next-generation food-lovers had their own ideas about “good living.” Their tastes ran to Asian street food, boutique wines from those upstarts in California, minimalist Zen retreats, and brisk, ironic prose. Meanwhile, Gourmet’s restaurant reviewers swooned over every restaurant, the travel writers reported on “Winter Golf in Bermuda,” and fluted mushrooms were endemic. Ruth Reichl, who was named editor in 1999 and handed an ax, had to dismantle the old trappings of class and hauteur while re-creating that charmed relationship between magazine and reader that had first blossomed back at the Plaza. (Full disclosure: I’ve published several pieces in Gourmet since Reichl’s arrival).

The problem was that fashionable food had lost its straightforward connection to wealth. Given the right spices and the right olive oil, a dish of chick peas could have the panache of truffles, and a platter of locally grown organic beets was likely to draw the oohs and aahs that used to be prompted by beef Wellington. Reichl started emphasizing a more contemporary set of culinary criteria: flavor, seasonality, comfort, imagination. Most important for today’s food-lovers, it’s finally possible to cook from the magazine without having spent six years in a restaurant kitchen. The recipes really do work.

Open the Gourmet Cookbook, and it’s clear that the driving force isn’t class anymore but passion. Read the notes introducing the recipes, and you can almost see the editors circling each dish as it emerges from its test run—gleefully sniffing, prodding, tasting, and arguing. This is a crowd that pounces on good food anywhere they find it. There’s a Sauternes-Soaked Cake With Candied Kumquats and Toasted Almonds, and there’s a nice way to use up leftover ham. (Make deviled ham with butter, mustard, and Major Grey’s chutney.) “We think this Turkish spread is so delicious it deserves to be better known,” they announce over a recipe for a red-pepper dip; they also like party rye covered with mayonnaise, onion, and parmesan, an hors d’oeuvre last glimpsed around 1962.

Of course, it’s still Gourmet, and excessive zeal is part of the franchise. These editors are no more willing than MacAusland was to be mistaken for Betty Crocker. Hence the three-hour Seafood Paella, the four-hour Dobostorte, and the cassoulet recipe so elaborate they’re forced to call it “a two-day adventure.” But the Gourmet Cookbook is no wish book. It’s too American for that. Frozen puff pastry is used without apology, there’s a Mexican quiche from Montana, and many of the recipes originated with readers—some of them actually housewives. “The art of being a gourmet has nothing to do with age, money, fame, or country,” MacAusland proclaimed in the first issue of the magazine. I doubt he believed it back then—but he’d have to now.