Thu 11 Oct 2007
Since former New York Times restaurant reviewer Ruth Reichl took the top editor’s job at Gourmet magazine what now seems like eons ago — the Times is on its second reviewer following her tenure — the venerable magazine for cooks and people who love food and reading about food and cooking and restaurants has evolved into a slick, glossy production that features high-concept color photography, chic typography and giddy, breathless prose for readers with short attention spans, a sort of Cigar Aficionado for foodies. Not that the magazine doesn’t offer interesting stories and great recipes; the January 2007 issue about Italy is a definite keeper.
What bothers me is the magazine’s attitude toward its editorial content. Long gone are the knowledgeable, comprehensive and well-written restaurant reviews, mainly from New York and California, that used to grace the magazine’s front pages. And Gerald Asher, whose thoughtful essays about wine regions and grapes and styles of wine were a monthly highlight of literate good sense, has been reduced to one page of wine recommendations, good recommendations, to be sure, but a task that cannot hope to fulfill his immense talents.
More troubling, though, is the magazine’s deliberate attempt to blur the line between editorial content and advertising. Gourmet increasingly includes in each issue several “Special Advertising Sections” in which the page-formats, typography and photography closely follow the format, typography and photography of “regular” articles. Readers who miss the “Special Advertising Section” notice at the top of each page could easily mistake the ads for editorial copy. Many of the full-page color ads in Gourmet — and these are not necessarily marked “Advertisement” — could pass for the opening pages of a lavishly illustrated article.
Most egregious, however, is a direct link in the November issue — “The Restaurant Issue” — between editorial copy and advertising. Beginning on page 80 is an article titled “The Mouth That Matters,” written by Dab Barber, chef-owner of Blue Hill, the highly regarded restaurant in Manhattan. It’s an amusing account of how the kitchen and dining room staff of the three-week old restaurant dealt with the presence of William Grimes, then the chief dining critic for The New York Times, over several visits. The story is accompanied, of course, by a picture of Barber. O.K., fine.
Not so fine is that a picture of Dan Barber dominates the page on which appear in a prominent place (mid-upper-right) the words “Sustainable Excellence.” The presence of a small Moet & Chandon bottle and logo at the bottom of the page tells us that this contrivance is an advertisement. Yes, that phrase “Special Advertising Section” appears at the top, but the visual and intuitive connection between the Barber’s story and the Moet & Chandon ad is inevitable, and the story itself becomes a form of advertising, the ad an extension of the story
The traditional wall between the business side and the editorial side of journalism began being chipped away at long ago; many newspapers in this country now carry banner advertising on A1, even above the newspaper name. So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Gourmet so easily hands its editorial integrity over to the advertising office. O.K., so I’m not surprised. Saddened, though, and disappointed.
Image of Ruth Reichl from brandoneats.typepad.com.