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Fancy food mags aren’t for cooking.

You’re just supposed to watch.

Americans are eating better, and more adventurously, than at any time in our history. For this we can thank both outside pressure—the unmistakable influence of the immigrant—and an indigenous force it pains me to acknowledge—the yuppie.

The post-’80s hangover we’re all enjoying with such breast-beating now casts that period’s feeding frenzy as a whirl of brief and kooky trends, like Calvin Trillin’s sea bass with blueberry sauce—and, yes, kids, I once had a particularly bad trip involving a gardenia-infused custard that tasted, as a horrified friend put it, “like an old lady’s head.” The yuppie was eager to shovel in all manner of gastronomic exotica, and determined to do so with a display of culturally specific expertise. Remember? He brought you sushi, kiwi, buffalo meat, and those six bottles of salsa crusting on your refrigerator door.

Snobbery and social insecurity may have been chief among the ignoble motivations that prompted the yuppie’s rigorous and wide-ranging fascination with food, but out of such rich compost pleasing flowers grow. One of the showiest blooms is still mutating. Somewhere between the consumer culture foodism used to be and the subculture it has become lies the phenomenon of the slick food magazine.

Before this precious subspecies emerged, food information for home cooks could be found as a section inside dowdy women’s magazines, those sisterly, harshly lit monthlies that trumpet gaudy family-friendly desserts (often bunny-shaped) and miracle diets in between housewifely advice and “true-life” stories. Existing food mags of a higher quality—Gourmet, Food & Wine, and Bon Appétit—were seen as a tad elitist and superspecialized. Occupying the useful middle ground were comprehensive regional publications like Southern Living and Sunset, thick tomes that covered the industrious-homeowner waterfront, as it were, dispensing solutions for all your food/gardening/ remodeling/ local-festival needs.

When the boom in fine grub hit, the straight-food mags were unprepared. Which recipes had been tested was anyone’s guess. Presumably, it was enough that Food & Wine acknowledged the raspberry-chicken trend; surely the editors didn’t expect anyone to cook sugared garlic on high for 10 minutes—not that I know someone who tried, heh, heh. (It took a weekend to air out the kitchen.)

Food & Wine had been viewed as occupying the high end of the consumer scale by default for so long that it had to scramble to fulfill that description. And in no time it became the slickest of slicks, judiciously balanced between food and wine, simple tastes and evolved ones, information for the true foodie and for the skilled home cook alike. Along with Gourmet and Bon Appétit, F&W retooled itself into a highly polished surface in which the American striver saw himself reflected without blemishes or obstacles. Suddenly, food was no longer Mom’s currency of guilt or comfort, nor the unromantic fuel of the nutritionist, but something carnal: It had become pornography.

One can cook from these fantasy rags, but their means of consumption is, like pornography’s, observation. The pictures of flesh and plants are glisteningly remote; the text is friendly and inclusive—part of the fantasy is the pretense that the reader can or will participate. But the purpose of voyeurism is to let the nonparticipant enjoy an international orgy of delights that are too risky, costly, or time-consuming to actually try. In many cases, there’s also a strong threat that the reader’s spouse will object.

But even lavish photography and exotic ingredients can’t conceal that there just aren’t that many new recipes in the world. Yet more and more of these publications are released monthly. What gives? It’s dat ol’ debbil, target-marketing, not by subject—they’re all about food, minor divisions aside—but by presentation.

Being an insatiable gastronomic pervert, I take almost all of the classy mainstream publications: Saveur, Bon Appétit, Cook’s Illustrated, and Food & Wine (which I just canceled, exhausted by American Express’ underhanded renewal technique). About six months out of the year I pick up Martha Stewart’s Living, Southern Living, and Cooking Light off the stands. All right, I also get Victoria and read Gourmet (overcrowded and tacky) at the library, but that’s it. When we moved, my husband boxed up my sizable collection of cannibalism books along with the food histories under the heading: “Arion books, food, incl. people.”

Then there are the guides to lifestyle, incl. food, but anything with “Living” in the title is too completist to pass as a mere food mag, although it’s usually the mouth-watering covers that sell the hardware inside. Martha Stewart’s infallible genius was to take the layout of the all-round handy regional lifestyle monthly and apply it universally—as the title suggests, it’s Martha Stewart’s world; we’re just Living in it. She is brusquely uninterested in what doesn’t bloom where or whether Midwesterners will pay for an article on how to build an outdoor shower for the beach house. That’s because she knows that this enterprise is about dreaming of a beach house, not running to Home Depot for 12-penny nails. “Regionalism” is just another word for narrowing your potential consumer base. And—another yuppie achievement—most of us everywhere can get anything almost any time.

Among the strictly-speaking food magazines, the metamorphosis continues. (The frumpy, overstuffed women’s helpfuls still exist, of course; there will always be an audience for E-Z Cheesy Chili Bake.) Food & Wine’s stalwart good sense has begun to gnaw dangerously away at its good taste. Although its recipes were always fairly pedestrian, its pose as a foremost purveyor of gastronomic porn obfuscated its basic lack of imagination. Rule 1 of the fantasy business is the complicit bait-and-switch; no one read F&W for the details of the wine cruise or to plan a trip to Normandy (any more than Playboy consumers end up ordering that new stereo), but it’s louche to cut right to the dirty business of food without any candlelit foreplay.

Now that is just what the editors of F&W are doing—dumbing down to a basics-only, pro-consumer slant. Like all sensible business decisions, it ain’t pretty; gone are the wine cruise and Normandy issues in favor of kitchen-remodeling giveaways, expanded pages of gleaming serving thingies and mail-order goodies, a little monthly quiz, and an insulting technique and vocabulary builder. Since it’s safe to assume that the magazine’s readers aren’t growing amnesiac about food minutiae—we already know what mascarpone, julienne, and acidulated water are—then the magazine must be intentionally dropping its old fan base and gunning for a vaster but more naive one.

Condé Nast’s Bon Appétit appeals to a higher standard of reader (or pretends to, which is the same thing), and despite the homey amount of reader participation and chef-next-door interviews, it never compromises its glamour. The photography isn’t dauntingly lush, nor are the descriptions too succulent; there are lots of breezy, personal restaurant spotlights and you-are-there tours of American and foreign culinary meccas. Bon Appétit is impressive, but not strenuously so. It’s…soignée.

Bon Appétit’s light, distracted air makes it the most American of the straight food magazines; Saveur’s touch of Gallic backbone makes it the most French. And no wonder, since the 2-year-old magazine is the U.S. version of a venerable French one. Despite its occasional arrogance and self-indulgence, Saveur brings wit, charm, and international sophistication to its dead-serious food talk. The layout is sprinkled with tucked-away nuggets and eye-catching little curlicues. The features are extremely concentrated—each one focusing on a single region, food, or dish—and the magazine’s virtuous dedication to these specificities is sometimes laughably French. One article extols the virtues of the Italian torta, its historical and cultural value, its fascinating variations, its proper preparation; unfortunately, the product is a dreary dough pie stuffed with chard or—pass the starch—potatoes. But there’s levity in Saveur’s asides, charts, quotations, and informational grace notes, like the rundown on weird British pantry-dwellers: marmite, Bovril, horlicks, Hobnobs and all.

Most food magazines are just souped-up chick reading, although the audience is, in reality, more macho than the magazines’ styles suggest. Since there’s no template for gender-neutral food information, anything with a romantic edge or decorative premise tends to err on the far maidenly side. At the girliest extremity of this scale is Hearst’s Victoria, a twee plague of sticky photography and old-money-worship yearning for lifestyles past. Each issue tries to preserve or re-create this historical neverland of gentler times using all modern materials, although who exactly is buying the lithograph of a self-admiring Gibson girl with the admonishing title “Not worrying about her rights” I cannot imagine. Victoria is an impossibility, and yet it exists, a bosomy bombazined matron grimly keeping up her dried-flower arrangements in the midst of an urban jungle. Not strictly a food magazine, Victoria closes out each issue with a fistful of restaurant recipes virtually unadapted for the home kitchen, many of them horrifically difficult. (Plus, they’re always trying to get you to make beauty products out of kitchen herbs and lanolin; it’s a freaky scene.)

Ensconced on the other end of the spectrum, legs planted wide, hairy fingers curled around skillet and zester, is Cook’s Illustrated, the no-nonsense, let’s-test-that-theory, manly man’s cooking magazine. It trims all the fat—read fantasy—from the traditional food-mag format; it is beholden to no old wives’ tales and takes no advertising. Cook’s Illustrated takes a man’s satisfaction in fixing stuff; once the staff can combine two steps or skip one (roast potatoes cut-side down and you’ll only have to turn them once), dispel a myth (leave the shrimp vein in if it’s not big and nasty), streamline a procedure (foil over your serving platter to marinate raw meat, peel off to serve), or fix a recurring problem (no more soggy lemon-bar crust), it’s Miller time. The magazine is even printed on coarse paper in glorious brown and beige. In one issue alone, they compare pie thickeners, butters, electric water smokers, and Gewürztraminers, and explain various cornmeals, potato varieties, tuna types, and single-muscle London broil cuts.

The practical Cook’s Illustrated is actually less of a food mag than any of the others mentioned because, without beach houses, trips to Normandy, or pre-feminist gentility, it must assume that readers will cook from it. There’s something oppressive about all that usefulness; seeing how the staff have worked so hard to calculate that you’ll need exactly one-quarter cup of Triple Sec, no more, no less, now you sort of have to haul the damn thing into the kitchen and whip up a pitcher of “The Best Sangria.” The appeal of the fantasy rags is admiring how frantically the world’s top chefs, the magazine’s test-kitchen staff, and a passel of eager-beaver home cooks have worked so that you can enjoy the restful music of their efforts—two tablespoons of basil, minced; a scant half-cup of olive oil for frying; ask your butcher to trim the pancetta. The magazines offer satiation for mental gluttony—a desire not for more and more food, but for more and more possibility.—Arion Berger