is a veteran cultural journalist who launched the food and drink website foodrepublic.com, which he continues to oversee in his role as vice president of editorial for Zero Point Zero Production. He splits his time between Brooklyn and Ghent, New York.
Corporate food magazines didn’t always suck. Take a look at an old issue of now-defunct Gourmet or flip back to still-extant Saveur from the 1990s and you’ll see what I mean. The stories were unexpected, unusual and dazzling in scope. James Beard himself would write dispatches, and editors weren’t afraid to send writers off into the wilds of India in search of a high-risk/high-reward culinary story.
Why did this change? When did food magazines become homogenized, plagued by list-driven stories (“10 Ill-Advised Things You Can Do With Celery Fronds”), obsessed with celebrity? And so compartmentalized. Predictable. Earnest. I personally can’t spend six minutes paging through one of the still-goin’ corporate food magazines. I either end up frustrated, befuddled or bored, and I actually never wanted to find out what an actress from Orange Is The New Black thinks of the new restaurants in LA.
The food media landscape might be entirely bleak if you consider that one of the main reasons that magazines devolved into unimaginative and far-from-daring coverage of the culinary world is that websites started proliferating, and the shift of advertising toward digital upended the print model. Magazines like Food & Wine were forced to focus on new revenue streams; I personally have attended a dozen or so Food & Wine–sponsored festivals in the past five years, and in that time I’ve picked up maybe six issues of Food & Wine magazine. The longtime editor of Gourmet’s previous job was restaurant critic for The New York Times; the new editor of Food & Wine’s previous job was “Director of Inspiration” (I’m not making that up) for Hilton Hotels’ Conrad brand. F&W’s new editor has certainly had roles in the past that make her experienced enough for an editor-in-chief position, but that says a lot about the mindset of the publishing companies in the past versus those of today.
In recent years as this has all taken shape, food-focused websites sprouted like ramps in springtime, with many sites trying to revive the lost craft of storytelling and forgotten sense of wonderment that corporate magazines yielded. That would’ve been awesome, had most of these sites not soon faced their own set of grim financial realities compounded with an evolving digital reliance on traffic, which led to compromises and pandering that made the corporate food magazines read like Chaucer in comparison. I’ll cop to playing a role in this — I launched Food Republic, a food and drink website, five years ago, and we’ve posted hundreds of list-driven features, what we call “listicles” in the biz. Though I’m pretty sure I couldn’t stomach publishing something called “17 Dank Ass Foods You Can Only Find in NYC,” as Buzzfeed Food did recently.
When I entered the fray with Food Republic, I’d just had a 10-year run at various lifestyle magazines, and I was excited about the possibilities of an all-digital publication. No rules! No short word counts to appeal to people who wanted to read less! Freedom from press deadlines—just publish as things happen. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. I thought the food media landscape was crowded when I entered; at the time I merely would see what inventive recipes or cool technique short-cuts Food52 and Serious Eats had published, and maybe check Eater to see which chef they were clowning or what restaurant was facing foreclosure. Now, every corporate food magazine has commandeered part of its editorial staff to work on the digital side, while dozens of brands, media companies and cookbook authors have jumped in to test the waters, and it’s created a veritable tidal wave of foodie-focused, millennial-skewing drivel, with not enough quality articles to fill one vintage issue of Gourmet.
So is that it? Should you cancel your remaining subscriptions and turn off your computer or mobile device and stop caring about food, wine, beer, spirits, recipes, ingredients, issues like small farms and food waste and cooking seasonally? Yes. That’s it. Would the last one to leave the kitchen please turn off the lights?
No, wait! There is in fact hope. And you could say that television is part of this hope, given that Netflix and PBS among others have created homes for inventive culinary programming, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time. For now, I’m talkin’ magazines. Actual print publications, perfect-bound and glossy (well, mostly matte, in fact), diligently assembled in the name of passion and certainly not in the pursuit of dollars.
I came across my first next-generation food magazine not in New York but in Paris, where I found a copy of Fricote, and, attracted in part by childlike, colorful illustration on the cover, started reading (it’s mostly in French, which I can make out, but often in English as well, or some hybrid of the two languages). The editors eschewed the usual front of book/feature well/recipe section formula in favor of quirky things like celebrations of breakfast cereals or a fashion shoot depicting murder scenes where the weapons were bananas and spatulas. Lucky Peach came along shortly after I discovered Fricote, and it played up the same kind of irreverence—albeit with more of a cult-of-the-cool-chefs focus that I could really care less about.
Back in New York, I began finding subsequent issues of Fricote at McNally-Jackson, sharing a section with the corporate food magazines and titles in the travel and fashion biz. Over the next year and a half, I began to notice something curious: more food magazines appeared. And they keep coming.
Recently, I moderated a panel about food magazines at the Food Book Fair in Brooklyn — that’s right, a fair celebrating food books and magazines (they’re called “foodieodicals” in the fair’s parlance). The panelists included the editor of Diner Journal, which has been around almost 10 years, and sprung from the kitchens of the Diner/Marlow & Sons restaurant group; the publisher of Put A Egg On It, a literary food publication with roots in the punk ‘zine scene of the 1990s, which started up in 2008 and is about to publish issue 12; the editor of Sweet Paul, which began as a blog but has become one of the most widely read independent magazines about cooking and crafts; and the publisher of Short Stack Editions, whose mini-cookbooks each revolve around one ingredient.
The remarkable thing about this wasn’t only that all four panelists were operating primarily if not exclusively in print, but that they were all relatively content. Are any of them getting rich off selling print magazines in 2016? No, but as Paul Lowe of Sweet Paul said, the magazine has become like a “business card” for him to get other consulting work.
As executives from bigger publishing companies and even from seemingly flourishing digital companies flush with venture capital wring their hands and put forth halfhearted arguments about the rise of branded content, here, in Brooklyn on a rainy Sunday, was an assembly of hundreds of people celebrating the culinary world on paper. (And as we all know, if it’s happening now in Brooklyn, it’s going to be happening everywhere else soon enough.) Aside from the panels, the Food Book Fair featured a “Foodieodicals” magazine fest, with many of these newer publications selling their latest issue and back issues to an eager crowd. In fact, the ballroom at the host Wythe Hotel got so crowded, I had an anxiety attack and had to escape out to the street for some fresh air.
But not before waving hello to Kerry Diamond, whose Cherry Bombe has become a tour de force in the indie publishing industry, as well as the only publication that would dare put Ruth Reichl on its cover. Not before meeting Alex Kristofcak, the co-founder of Jarry, the upstart gay food magazine whose recent second issue features a surprisingly interesting story on “The Death and Life of America’s Gay Restaurants,” as well as a lengthy feature following chef Steven Satterfield around Atlanta. Not before complimenting Daniela Velasco, creative director of Ambrosia, on their recent launch issue, which focuses exclusively on the Baja region of Mexico (they’ve since released a second issue devoted to Denmark). These magazines all share an independent spirit that puts passion before dollars—though it’s not like the people behind the magazines are so altruistic that they don’t see the business possibilities tied to their work.
That their work is first and foremost to produce print magazines aimed at spotlighting the people, places, things, recipes and ideas that make our world so enjoyable to live in is incredibly refreshing. Especially for a guy like me who’s had to read his share of listicles and death-of-print stories and thinkpieces on how brand-driven content will save us all from oblivion. Now I see the possibilities more clearly myself. They’re written very clearly on the printed page in front of me.