How magazines are handling the holidays
Thanksgiving is front and center as Gourmet bows after 70 years.
With the exception of Gourmet, food magazines tend to have a specific focus. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
But there is a hard core of dedicated food magazines still devoted to food, each in its particular (not to say, necessarily, peculiar) way.
Because food is not the prime motivator for either lifestyle or personality magazines (in the first case, it's just part of the mix; in the second, it's as much celebrity as pure content that drives the operation), they operate under a different set of rules than those magazines that are specifically about food and cooking.
The November issues of the food magazines provide a perfect opportunity for analyzing their respective styles. After all, much of the content is pretty much dictated. Of the six (including Gourmet's final issue), four have turkeys on the cover and one has pecan pie (Cooking Light!). Only Cook's Illustrated bucks the hard-core holiday trend, with pomegranates.
After you get past the cover, though, Thanksgiving can be challenging. What can you write that hasn't already been written? That's probably why all but a couple of the publications pay little more than cursory attention to it other than that pretty picture.
Of the purely food magazines, Bon Appetit is the most likely successor to Gourmet's throne, at least in terms of numbers, as it stands to inherit all of its corporate sister's subscriptions, building on what is already a substantial 1.3 million readers. It is focused much more narrowly on recipes and cooking tips with very little actual writing, and a result has been the object of some scorn from the food literati since Gourmet's closing.
The November issue is typically recipe-heavy (a cover-line claims 68, and it's hard to imagine an aspect of the holiday menu that's left un-prescribed). But although there is an emphasis on practicality over poetry, there is some nice writing too: stories by Molly Wizenberg on being a vegetarian at Thanksgiving, one by Heather John on Spanish wine and another by ace baker Dorie Greenspan on fougasse.
Cook's Illustrated is also about recipes and cooking but lets its writers go on at sometimes painful lengths exploring countless variations in the preparation of even simple dishes. That, apparently, is exactly what its readers want as the magazine has an unbelievably loyal readership, with circulation of more than 1 million despite no discounts and no advertising.
Its November-December issue is classic Cook's: detailed analysis of tweaking classic dishes that you really want to read, but may well wind up arguing with. They love dry-brined turkey as much as I do, though they insist on complicating it by salting under the skin, something I've found adds a lot of work with little to no benefit. For the most part, that's the only direct holiday tie-in: Other stories include how to make crisp roasted potatoes, comparing ground cinnamon and testing chef's knives.
Though Cooking Light rarely seems to be mentioned in foodie circles, its last reported circulation of 1.8 million leads all the other food magazines. Apparently, "service" journalism is not dead. The November Cooking Light is packed with recipes (the index lists 87), short, short stories and those busy little boxes of shopping lists, cooking tips and other things that help the reader along. In fact, the whole thing feels a little hyperactive; you'll have to search pretty hard to find three consecutive paragraphs not broken up by a box, picture or recipe. The Thanksgiving coverage is pretty much limited to a compendium of a half-dozen recipes, each for things like "Starters & Drinks", "Main Dishes" and "Tasty Extras."
Still, that's a lot compared with Food & Wine (circulation 879,000), which for some reason chose the Thanksgiving issue for an "Asia Comes to America" special, including the editor's take on discovering Japanese food (mostly in New York City) and a holiday menu from Momofuku chef David Chang. For the most part, the rest of the Thanksgiving stuff (a soup-to-nuts recipe selection, and stories on appropriate wines under $10 and cooking at home with Chicago chef Shawn McClain) is stuck in the back of the book. The cover may brag of "70 classic and creative thanksgiving recipes," but that's only true if you consider Vietnamese Coffee Sundaes with Crushed Peanut Brittle and Palestinian Spinach Pies holiday fare.
Saveur (288,000) has always specialized in in-depth looks at exotic cuisines, whether at home or outside the US. That doesn't stop for Thanksgiving. Though there's a great big turkey on the cover, the November issue is dominated by long (albeit well done) stories on things like kimchi made at home, street food in Jerusalem and the comeback of the Carmenere grape in Chile. What holiday coverage there is feels shoehorned in, and though it includes a nice piece on a New England Thanksgiving, there are also stories from Paris and Mexico, where they don't normally celebrate the holiday at all.
And what of Gourmet? In what turned out to be its farewell issue, the late queen served up pretty much what we had come to expect over the last nearly 70 years: a gorgeously photographed collection of recipes, most of them genuinely Thanksgiving-oriented. In fact, if anything, it's more recipe-oriented than before, with the only long story being a really nice piece by author Adam Gollner about fall hunting in Canada.