Earlier this year I was given a collection of old Gourmet magazines, dating back to the 70s and 80s. Browsing through them is like stepping back in time. Although it’s a past not that far distant, it’s another age in terms of culinary culture. It was a time when people clearly had more time, longer attention spans and depended less on technology and more on their imaginations.
First published in 1941, the magazine’s full title was Gourmet: the Magazine of Good Living. Although food and wine was the primary concern, a lot of space was given to “good living” in other contexts, especially international travel. The very first of its kind in the US, it was founded by Earle MacAusland, who remained as publisher and editor in chief for almost forty years. In 1983 Gourmet was bought by Condé Nast who published it until October 2009, when they announced that because of declining sales revenue, the November 2009 issue would be its last.
On the day of the announcement, the website Serious Eats looked back to the magazine’s very first issue (January 1941). There was little in the way of photos but lots of rather quaint illustrations. The inaugural letter from the editor is reprinted in the article. With his pen perhaps overly encumbered by consciousness of posterity, he gets a bit verbose, but his definition of “gourmet” is too good not to quote:
In a broader sense, however, the word gourmet signifies far more than just food perfection. It is a synonym for the honest seeker of the summum bonnum of living. The art of being a gourmet has nothing to do with age, money, fame, or country. It can be found in a thrifty French housewife with her pot-au-feu or in a white-capped chef in a skyscraper hotel. But where it exists, the practitioner of this art will have the eye of an artist, the imagination of a poet, the rhythm of a musician, and the breadth of a sculptor. That is the subtle amalgam of which the true gourmet is compounded.”
So in future if anyone should suggest I’m a little too focused on what goes into my stomach, I’ll simply tell them I’m on a quest for the summum bonnum of living. That should shut ‘em up.
While it may have been the harbinger of today’s glossy food mags, Gourmet Magazine took a very different approach. Food was a primary focus but recognised as part of a wider culture in which the enjoyment of fine things in whatever guise was acknowledged as a valid expression of the discerning consumer. There was an assumption that the readership was relatively sophisticated, but not necessarily rich. Taste was more important than flamboyant materialism – a far more subtle approach than we’re used to seeing today.
It wasn’t a recipe magazine and although recipes were included, they weren’t set out in the way we’ve come to expect, with a tidy list of ingredients followed by instructions and in the early days food photography was far from the high art it’s become. The food looks far more like something you might find in your own kitchen (or your Mum’s – lace tablecloths and all!)
In the August 1978 edition, in the regular section “Gourmet’s Menus”, my eye was caught by a suggested menu for a cocktail party. Although my parents were decidedly not of the cocktail party set (my mother didn’t drink and Dad only liked beer), this takes me back to the rare occasions when they did entertain. Visions of elegant soirées no doubt inspired Mum’s culinary efforts although I’m not sure that oranges studded with toothpicks bearing cubes of Kraft cheddar, gherkins and cocktail onions would have found a place in the pages of Gourmet. Things they did recommend to complement the cocktails included such things as:
- Crudités with Curried Yogurt Dipping Sauce (don’t laugh, there’s always a place on my table for the trusty crudité plate)
- Chilled Cheese Tartlets
- Pork Satés with Peanut Sauce
- Mushroom Turnovers
- Carolines with Salmon Caviar Butter (judging from the photo, these may have been the predecessors to today’s sliders)
- Snow Peas with Chive Cream Cheese
- Cherry Tomatoes with Salmon Purée
These were clearly cocktail parties for the refined, bearing no resemblance to those I’ve been to, where past a certain point in the evening it would be asking for trouble to serve anything with a sauce, purée, butter or otherwise requiring dexterity and care in the consuming.
The magazine conformed to an unvarying format, with regular features, appropriately named, such as:
- Sugar and Spice (letters to the editor)
- Spécialités de la Maison (from the New York & California correspondents)
- Gastronomie sans Argent (cooking for the penny wise – love this one)
- You Asked for It (a column of recipes requested by readers)
- Let’s Eat Out (a restaurant guide)
Readers of those days must have had oodles of time on their hands as well as limitless patience. As an example, in one issue there’s a recipe for Zucchini Frittata. Now I’m a huge fan of the frittata. It’s a brilliant way to use up veggies (leftovers or fresh) or cooked meat or anything really. Unvaryingly delicious and incredibly easy, all you do is cut up the veggies and/or meat, pre-cook a little if necessary with appropriate seasoning, chuck it all in an oven dish, whisk up some eggs, cream, milk etc., coat liberally with grated cheese, sprinkle with nutmeg, salt and pepper and bake. Gourmet’s version (which I’ve kindly given you below) is considerably more painstaking and would probably take you an hour or so to prepare. I haven’t tried it myself, due to lack of time, patience and not having a cheesecloth bag to hand, so can’t vouch for the results.
What sparked my interest in trawling through these old mags was a book I’m reading called “Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet”. Edited by Ruth Reichl, Gourmet’s editor in chief from 1999 to 2009, it’s an anthology of dispatches from Paris written by various Gourmet columnists. Beginning in the period just after the war, it’s a fascinating glimpse of Paris, epicentre of gourmands and romantics everywhere. If you’ve been there it will surely rekindle your love of the place and if you haven’t it’s likely to propel you into booking a flight instantly.
Self-indulgent though this nostalgic journey may have been, it’s not such a bad thing to take time out for a look back. Reflecting on what used to be in all its quaintness and lack of technical sophistication often throws what is into clearer perspective. Today’s world is undoubtedly bigger, brighter, glossier and our desires more instantly gratified, but sometimes at a questionable cost.
- ½ cup chopped onion
- 1 small onion thinly sliced extra
- 1 garlic clove chopped and crushed
- ¼ cup chopped celery
- 1½ teaspoons of butter
- 1½ teaspoons of oil
- 2 tablespoons of oil extra
- 1 pound very ripe tomatoes cut into large pieces
- 1½ teaspoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh basil or ¼ teaspoon dried
- ½ teaspoon each of salt and sugar
- ¼ teaspoon each of thyme and oregano
- Cheesecloth bag containing 3 sprigs of parsley and 1 small bay leaf
- 2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley extra
- 1 cup tinned chicken or beef broth
- 2 cups scrubbed, trimmed and thinly sliced zucchini
- 6 eggs
- ½ cup semi-soft cheese (e.g. Havarti) grated
- In a frying pan cook the chopped onion and celery in the butter and oil over moderate heat until softened
- Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, minced basil, salt, sugar, thyme, oregano and the cheesecloth bag holding the parsley and bay leaf
- Cook over moderate heat, stirring for 2 minutes
- Simmer covered for 15 minutes
- Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes more
- Stir in the chicken or beef broth
- Cook the mixture over low heat for 50 minutes to 1 hour or untii it is reduced to ⅔ cup
- Remove and discard the cheesecloth bag
- Puree the mixture the a fine sieve into a bowl
- In a 9 inch frying pan or omelet pan cook the thinly sliced onion and garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil over moderately low heat until softened
- Increase the heat to moderately high
- Add the zucchini and saute the mixture for 3 minutes or until zucchini is just softened
- In a bowl combine the lightly beaten eggs with the chopped parsley, salt and pepper
- Add this to the zucchini mixture and cook over low heat until it begins to set
- Sprinkle the grated cheese over the mixture and drizzle the tomato puree over the top
- Put the pan under a pre-heated grill about 4 inches from the heat for 2-3 minutes or until it is set and the cheese is lightly browned
- Slide the frittata onto a heated round platter and cut into wedges
- Go and have a stiff drink and lie down
by Anne Green