Friday, October 9, 2009

Consider the Loss

I'm weighing in on the demise of Gourmet a bit belatedly. It's been three days, after all, since the the news broke. And this, the age of the internet. Where've I been, anyway?

(Jury duty, actually, but more about that some other time, or better yet, never.)

Anyway, back to the closing of Gourmet. When I heard about its closing, I was torn between two impulses -- First, sadness at the loss of an institution that has helmed our culture's love for food for the last 70 years.

Second, a misanthropic suspicion that magazines in general are one of the great evils of the world, and maybe it is a good thing that they are slowly dying off.

... And yet, I am not immune to the charms of many of the things I suspect are evil, and one of the many things I found charming about Gourmet was Ruth Reichl. What I loved about Ruth Reichl was that, as much as she could hobnob with the kind of people who want to know where to find multi-starred restaurant in Denver or Tokyo, she always brought it back to reality. She did not forget that food was about eating, and that sublime eating experiences often have nothing to do with money.

My favorite Gourmet moment came in 2004 when Ruth et al sent David Foster Wallace to the Maine Lobster Festival. What the hell were they thinking? Yes, he had brilliantly covered state fairs and leisure cruise lines for Harpers. Yes, he was an incisive and incandescant writer and observer of social events. But... for Gourmet? Even as I was reading it for the first time, I stopped in shock and imagined the staff meeting in which they must have discussed and argued over this unbelievably crazy idea.

He turned out this dark, funny, horrible, depressing, dark, moving, informative, fascinating, DARK essay. Did I mention it was dark? Suffice to say, Wallace was not a fan of the Maine Lobster Festival. He barely even mentions the actual act of eating lobster. Boiling the lobster, yes. Enjoying its taste, not so much.

One of my favorite lines comes from a foot note concerning the very nature of travel:

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

Awww, shit. Come on now. Why'd you have to say that?

It was maybe my favorite essay I've ever read in a food magazine or maybe ever. It is everything I've ever wanted an essay to be. It kind of hurt to read.

Re-reading it, knowing that Wallace committed suicide, is a sobering and sad experience. (Did he not know how brilliant he was at essay-writing? Why did he mess with the novel form, and all that fantasy shlock? Did he not consider how many lobsters he saved?)

But on first reading, back when he was still alive, I was blown away. Finally! A food essay that was not just window dressing, but really delved into an experience, really asked questions, really gave information, and made me laugh at the same time.

I'm a little bit embarrassed to admit I haven't eaten lobster since I read it.

It got more mail (much of it of a hateful nature) than other essay in the history of Gourmet.

Here is is.

Sorry, Gourmet. Sorry, Mr. Wallace. You'll both be missed.

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