Nine hours door to door from Cleveland to my hotel room and I was hungry. The fine folks in Portland organizing the International Association of Culinary professionals, had filled the room with Portland products, wine beer coffee candy and, lo, some serious local beef jerky. Dense sweet salty savory concentrated protein, like candy. I knew I’d arrived in a good place.
Ruth Reichl opened the conference the following morning with remarks on the subject that continues to dog her, Gourmet’s end, and her desire to put it in a broader context.
“What happened at Gourmet says a lot about where we are on the food landscape” she said, adding, “I should have seen it coming but I didn’t.”
Why didn’t she see the death of this eminent, arguably best, food magazine in America? Because circulation was strong, she said, they had two really good critically lauded television shows, and a passionate readership vocally encouraging them to keep doing what they were doing. It was all going as planned. Ruth had been offered this job a decade ago and had agreed to take it provided the publisher agreed to allow her to change the magazine radically. He did, and she did.
But when the economy tanked the most prominent advertisers in the magazine—among them the automotive, jewelry, travel industries—stopped investing in advertising. This was the advertising that funded the magazine. Without it, the magazine could not publish.
It was a financial model that would not work because the people who cared about the magazine were not the people paying for its production. The automotive industry, they didn’t care about Gourmet, they cared about the magazine’s readers.
And in a way that paralleled this situation, the financial model for producing food in this country no longer works either. It is, she said, “a sick, old-fashioned system.” It’s a system designed to create massive amounts of cheap food, and it’s made this country sick in many and various ways. It’s been good in the short run—generating a lot of inexpensive calories—but disastrous in the long run.
This method of food production will change as certainly as Gourmet did. It is all but inevitable. Why? Because all this cheap food we generate, she said, is predicated on three situations: Cheap unlimited fossil fuels; cheap water, and consistent weather. All of which are in a state of havoc right now. Our models of food production must change.
The horrible irony, of course, is that Gourmet failed at perhaps the most exciting and dynamic moment in America in terms of food. Never before has there been so much exciting work to write about, never have there been so many amazing farmers, chefs, cheese makers, wine producers. And never has it been more urgent to write about the ways this system in broken.
Reichl concluded her opening remarks on an equally bittersweet note. While there has never been a more exciting time to be working in the world of food, she finds it ominous and grave that so many of her colleagues at the magazine cannot find work or adequate compensation for their work, and she worried aloud that these professionals’ “hard won knowledge is going to waste, drowned out by the stupid and the sensational.”
It was the smart and passionate beginning to an inspiring conference that may find new relevance in the dynamic world of food in America and beyond, where dangers and opportunities abound in equal measure. Which will win out in the end? If that beef jerky, made by Country Cat chef owner Adam Sappington, is an indication, as I believe it is, I’m hopeful for the future.