How to create the perfect food magazine
Photo: Stephanie Wood
I’m trying to remember when I stopped buying food magazines. There must have been a tipping point because once I was an addict. There must have been a point at which I studied the teetering pile of clipped recipes on my kitchen bench and the bookmarked pages in my cookbooks and the sticky-note-strewn collection of Vogue Entertaining + Travels and Gourmet Travellers and Saveurs and realised I would never cook even a fraction of those recipes. Realised that they were adding to my anxieties — so much to do, so little time — and, in effect, paralysing me in the kitchen.
Or perhaps I stopped buying food magazines when they started to make me feel insecure. Vogue Entertaining + Travel (it closed in 2010) was particularly good at that. All those double-barrelled names and family farms perfect for relaxing and entertaining friends, those gleaming state-of-the-art kitchens and artistically set tables and resolutely handsome couples. Not a whisper of disharmony, not a hair out of place. Some said that, for the magazine’s photo shoots, stylists shipped in new furniture and accessories and whipped out the subjects’ own stuff. From memory, Vogue E+T’s creative forces, Sharyn Storrier Lyneham and Sue Fairlie-Cunningham, used words like “aspirational” and “directional” to describe the magazine. Soon enough I decided I could set my own direction.
Or perhaps I stopped buying food magazines when I got bored with them. Bored with the clichés and the repetition and the ho-humness of it all. I mean, that word “passionate”, can’t we put it back where it really belongs, back into bodice-rippers and romantic fiction? Is there a chef or a producer in this country who hasn’t been described as passionate? Are tables ever anything but laden, do mothers ever cook with anything but love and is produce ever anything but seasonal?
Yes, I stopped buying food magazines when my time got scarcer, my goodwill wore out and my appetite was exhausted. And then along came the Internet. Then, my attention span was divided too. Then, I got a few more choices.
Why fewer people are buying food magazines is an issue exercising the minds of publishers around the country right now. Audit Bureau of Circulations figures released late last week show that food magazine sales have slumped — for some, disastrously. MasterChef magazine’s circulation has collapsed, down 36.7% (the periods compared are January to June 2011 and January to June 2012). Woolworths Good Taste is down 17.7%, Super Food Ideas (our biggest-selling food title) is down 12.6% and Delicious down 10.6%. Australian Gourmet Traveller felt the smallest blow, losing 2%.
Of course, food magazines are not the only ones to have lost sales over the past year (Cleo and Cosmopolitan’s numbers aren’t so hot either) and much of MasterChef magazine’s drop surely must be attributed to the drop in its on-air ratings. Nevertheless, they’re figures that would keep any self-respecting editor awake at night.
Once, it was enough to assemble some stunning food pictures on a page and give the recipes — indeed in the ’90s, Australian food photographers such as Geoff Lung and Petrina Tinslay revolutionised food photography on a global scale. “There wasn't a food editor in the UK who didn't have the latest copy of Vogue Entertaining and Gourmet Traveller on their desk," cooking legend Robert Carrier told Terry Durack in an article for The Age’s Epicure section in 1999. "Australian photographers were putting one single thing in tight focus, while British and American photographers were doing props and flowers."
But that “Australian style” of food photography — natural light, minimal or no propping, short depth of field — is a dime a dozen now, something that any food blogger with a half-decent digital SLR can achieve.
For a while, mixing in the airbrushed talents of a celebrity chef or two seemed to help things along. But I’m getting the sense that celebrity chef fatigue has set in. We don’t care so much anymore about Matt’s cravats or Gordon Ramsay’s love life and filthy mouth.
Food magazines in the future are going to have to do more to catch readers’ exhausted attention — and I don’t mean by throwing in a bonus magnetic shopping list or chalkboard as two Australian titles have done this year. (After American Gourmet magazine closed in 2009, its editor Ruth Reichl declared that print magazines were “toast”.)
But looking through a pile of food magazines that have built up on my desk this year it’s clear that they haven’t put their finger on quite what that “more” is yet. MasterChef magazine’s March issue for example: yes, there are a few recipes I’d cook — Matt Moran’s berry and fig gratin, the lime-steamed kingfish with beans and ginger, perhaps the strawberry, rhubarb and vanilla jam. But what else is there, really? Matt Preston telling us why he likes Longrain restaurant, some 30-minute meals, a lame feature on Stefano Manfredi and his new restaurant that’s little more than a recipe spread… nothing that you’d cross the street for.
Likewise, Delicious and Woolworths Good Taste are little more than assemblages of recipes and pretty pictures (although I like the picture-and-information buying guide at the back of Good Taste (in the March edition I have it’s for pears). Donna Hay magazine is reliably full of food porn and remarkably free of personality and SBS Feast is worthy, instructive, multicultural and pretty bloody boring. I’m sorry, I’m just not compelled to actually read it.
Gourmet Traveller meanwhile, is lovely to look at, serves up excellent recipes, has well-written restaurant reviews for serious eaters and real articles (in the edition I’m looking at, Annabel Crabb on her Kitchen Cabinet series, a piece on the Antipodean influence on Paris’s food scene and another by A.A. Gill on visiting Sweden). But yet, but yet … my magazine-loving soul remains under-nourished. Please, sir, I want more.
I know, I know, it’s a very personal thing, you told me that when I asked you on Twitter what you liked and didn’t in food magazines:
“Delicious, Donna Hay. Accessible, easy to find ingredients (and ones I have actually heard of). What GT used to be.” (@ACPapuc)
“I have a soft spot for Delicious magazine. I don't think the styling is as ogle worthy as Donna Hay, but great recipes.” (@kkomadina)
“FEAST: keeps it real, celebrates ethnicity, uses unusual ingredients. Only mag I know to do feature on palm hearts.” (@mscarobaum)
“Gourmet Traveller: stunning photography + features = WIN.” (@zinazhang)
“I've subscribed to them ALL. Got rid of them all except Gourmet Traveller. you can eat the food. you can read the articles.” (@5pandas)
“I read only al ha shulhan a Hebrew food mag a bit like Saveur.” (@Foodbridge)
“Luscious images and novel ingredients a must. I want to learn something new, and be transported!” (@nanchanglu)
“Love food mags. Donna Hay is *the* best. Often buy others if baked goods are on cover [which is why eds put cakes on cover].” (@thehungrymum)
“we love Apicius, Art of Eating, Lucky Peach, Meatpaper, Gastronomica, PPC & Fire & Knives.” (@booksforcooksAU)
Still, I think it’s a case of not knowing what we’re missing out on until it’s put in front of us. I’ve been trying to imagine what that It could actually be and I’ve come up with a few thoughts. First, crucially, this food magazine of my dreams has to have a sense of humour. What makes a great meal greater? Laughter, humour, warmth. Commensurately, a food magazine without those qualities is not worth the paper it’s printed on.
To that end, my first staff appointments — as joint associate editors — would be David Sedaris and Ruth Bourdain. Sedaris earned a deal of criticism for his satirical Guardian essay on eating in China but I’m prepared to give him a second chance. And @RuthBourdain? Well that’s a no-brainer. Naughty perhaps, but a no-brainer. (Tweet, 5 Aug: “Julia Child would have turned 100 today. I'll never forget the time we snorted Boeuf Bourguignon off of Jacques Pepin's back.”)
This perfect food magazine would be filled with quirky stuff — irreverent lists and unexpected opinions and ideas — and the finest of writers to make sense of the intersection between food and life; writers of the ilk of Calvin Trillin writing the sort of stuff that makes it into The New Yorker’s annual food edition.
It would teach people to shop better — to pick the best apple in the crate, the sweetest peach, the juiciest cob of corn — but it would also acknowledge that, for most people, expensive ingredients are mostly off limits and, usually, only chefs have access to the best of the best, and that some recipes relying purely on the quality of simply exceptional produce don’t always sing in a home kitchen.
It would feature amazing travel stories to take readers on wild vicarious rides around the world, but would also keep a finger on the health of the world and how our consumption can make it sicker.
Oh yes, of course, there’d be divine photography and recipes that had been tested and worked every time. But there’d also be stuff about diet and nutrition, because every mouthful we take affects our health, our wellbeing and just how much, or not, we’re going to enjoy our food when we’re old and decrepit.
It, this perfect food magazine, would be real and captivating and substantial. And yes, it would be made of paper, not pixels.