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At first glance, Zocalo's "A Celebration of Gourmet" at the Skirball Museum looked something like a foodie's paradise. Two middle-aged women waited in the reception room — one in a wheelchair, one on the floor — surrounded by their impressive picnic of gherkins, cheese, crackers, olives and fruit.
The event's title suggested a remembrance of things past, and while there were a few memorable anecdotes from former editor Ruth Reichl's decade at Gourmet, most of the evening was spent lamenting the loss of a 70-year-old magazine that evolved into a journal of food and its intricacies, and which was axed, without notice, at the height of a national culinary renaissance.
The panel consisted of Reichl and two people who had worked with her at the magazine: Laurie Ochoa, the former executive editor at Gourmet and former editor in chief of L.A. Weekly, and her husband, the inimitable Jonathan Gold, the Weekly's food critic.
Reichl brought Ochoa and Gold with her when she became editor in 1999. Together, the three had revamped the L.A. Times food section many years earlier, an experience Reichl remembered as "the most fun I'd ever had."
At Gourmet, they redefined what Reichl described as a "polite magazine" where issues were planned two years in advance.
Under Reichl, issues became more spontaneous. Editors introduced what Ochoa described as an essential "creative chaos," encouraging a constant current of new ideas and flexibility.
It wasn't a simple transition for Gourmet readers. For the first few months, many responded with angry letters. In a break from the magazine's tradition, Reichl printed those letters and embraced the readers' concerns, confident that they would soon appreciate the shift.
But the invasion of Reichl, a former Berkeley restaurant owner, and two California-bred writers took some getting used to. Evan Kleiman from KCRW's "Good Food," who moderated the talk, recalled her favorite Gourmet cover — an image of cotton candy lifted to a blue sky. "There was a major problem with that," Reichl recalled. "We ran it in February. It's one of those things you learn. Blue sky, cotton candy. It's not what people want to see when snow is falling."
Gold recalled his eighth or ninth visit to Alain Ducasse's restaurant in New York, where he discovered in a "beautiful little green salad, a tiny little green inchworm." He stuck out his finger and let the worm crawl up his hand and looked up to see the maître d' burning with embarrassment. "I told him it was okay, I'm from California. We understand these things. It means the lettuce was organic."
Reichl and Ochoa remembered toiling over an image for their first cover, inspired by a W. Eugene Smith photo of a woman holding a handful of chanterelles. Reichl wanted to express food as generosity rather than commodity. The girl with arms outstretched was saying, "This is for you," Reichl said.
Gourmet presented Gold, Ochoa and Reichl with an environment utterly foreign to newspaper writers and editors. Gold was allowed 3,000-word reviews and visited a restaurant 10 times before writing about it, focusing on "not just why a restaurant was good but how." Test cooks worked on a single recipe for a week and "never assumed that they knew everything already," Ochoa said. Each cook was entitled to yearly cooking classes in a foreign destination of their choice, a luxury Reichl noted is "gone forever in America."
Indeed, both panel and crowd seemed in mourning. An elderly woman stood up to ask Reichl to sign a 1943 copy of Gourmet she had inherited from her grandmother.
The Gourmet staff had no idea that the November 2009 issue would be its last. When the people from Condé Nast called staffers in on a Monday morning to announce the magazine's closure due to a challenging advertising market, the door to the library had been locked, sealing away nearly every cookbook published since 1940. In December, Condé Nast sold the 3,500 books for $14,000 to NYU's Fales Library.
An older man in the audience misunderstood that the magazine had folded, and asked Reichl why she decided to part ways with Gourmet. He wondered if Condé Nast didn't like her style.
"I wish that were the case," she said. Then, at least, the magazine would still be around.
"We'd all be reading Paula Deen's Gourmet," Gold quipped.
Reichl may feel she could have accepted watching the magazine continue without her, but it could have been painful for the more than 1 million subscribers to witness the staff shrink and the magazine wane.
"What is the legacy of Gourmet?" an audience member asked.
"It was the voice of American food for a very long time," Reichl answered. "Looking back, people will find a repository of what we were eating for this big swath of our history and the very time that American food was coming of age."