The apocalypse issue of Lucky Peach.
Pork buns gone fuzzy with mould spores, lettuce leaves limp with decay and toast blooming with green splodges of penicillium were just a few of the culinary sights in a six-page spread in Lucky Peach magazine's recent "The Apocalypse" issue.
Entitled "Left Behind: A Field Guide to Post-Rapture Rot", the piece was both fascinating and gut- churning but, above all, unexpected. While ostensibly a food magazine, Lucky Peach's boundary-pushing view on cuisine is a world away from the glossy and lickable pages of a Donna Hay photo shoot.
Nonetheless, readers are eating it up. Lucky Peach is a publishing success story in a time when the very phrase seems to be an anachronism.
Even editor-in-chief Chris Ying admits its launch in 2011 was not ideal timing. “We started this magazine at a time when people were saying 'print is dying' every five seconds. We just put into this magazine everything that we thought we would want to see in a food magazine.”
Ying was at the forward-thinking cult publishing house McSweeney's – he describes the company as "always working against common sense" – when he started speaking to Momofuku founder David Chang and food writer Peter Meehan about creating a food magazine.
“My entire professional life I was brought up with this idea that you shouldn't really pay attention to whatever trends or marketing ideas are happening around you. [So] I didn't have any hesitation. I didn't think, 'Gosh, this is probably a bad time – everyone thinks magazines are dying.' It just sounded like a really fun thing to do.”
David Chang. Photo: Getty
Now six issues in with Chang and Meehan as editors, and even celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain on its masthead as "chief film critic", the quarterly magazine has serious indie cred in the foodie community. The first-issue print run was around 20,000 copies – a number Ying says they thought at the time was "way too much".
“I think we underestimated what sort of market there was for it. Our print runs are somewhere over 100,000 now.”
Niche publishing has been seeing a boom even as older, more established mags have been shuttering up.
Independently published Frankie magazine was crowned 2012 magazine of the year at the Australian Magazine Awards and has seen continued circulation growth in a market that is shrinking. On Kickstarter, Cherry Bombe magazine proposed its vision for a publication that would celebrate women and food and easily surpassed its $US30,000 funding goal.
“There's definitely been a current towards these niche-focused publications,” says Ying. “I don't know that they're the future of publishing, but I think the reason why you see more of them now is because it's easier when you're a small company of four people to be agile and experiment.
"If you're a multimillion-dollar publishing company, you can't just take a huge gamble with all those jobs and all that income and try to do something drastically different. Innovation, I think, is happening on a very local level and trickling its way upward.
"I can't say with any certainty that what we're doing with Lucky Peach can be amplified and expanded to work on a larger scale, but that being said, I do feel very hopeful that what we are doing and what many independent publishers are doing can be the future of print. It can be what keeps the medium going and magazines thriving.”
Later this month, Ying is coming to Australia for the Vivid Sydney festival to share his expertise on the subject of independent publishing and speak on a panel about how to produce high-end content on a low-end budget.
This consumer appetite for strong writing, good photography and, most importantly, a left-of-centre perspective that isn't the same as everything else on the newsstand is incredibly encouraging for anyone who feels a pang in their heart at the idea that the internet could slay the printed page.
“While the internet is good at conveying information quickly, print is good for savouring and lingering over,” says Ying. “I think people still want long-form journalism and in-depth coverage of things that are interesting to them.
"At the heart of the whole magazine is that people who are into food aren't just into food. They're also into literature and art and everything else. We're not shooting for a demographic of just people who love food, we're shooting for people who have this wide range of interests and want a magazine that can appeal to a general love of good things.”
As for the ongoing “Is print dead?” debate, Ying remains sceptical.
“A writer friend of mine once told me something along the lines of, 'Print has been dying since Gutenberg printed the first Bible.' People have always said that print is dying, that reading is on the decline. That opinion has been growing in strength in recent years, but the idea that the printed book or journalism is coming to an end because of the internet is overstated. Certainly I think that print needs to adapt and evolve, and I think it will.”