The Demise of Gourmet Magazine, A Cultural Icon

After 70 years of publication, Conde Nast is ceasing publication of Gourmet magazine, while maintaining its support of Bon Appetit magazine.  As with many (most?) corporate decisions, it was a precipitous one, announced to its staff on Monday just as the November issue was off the presses.

As an immigrant to this country, I learned about the cultural rituals of my new country through the Girls Scouts manual– obtained from my small, neighborhood library, another American treasure– and later on, the pages of the food magazines.  The National Geographic was too arcane for me, but Bon Appetit broadened my cultural horizons past my family’s tenement apartment in New York’s Chinatown.  It showed me what people really do eat in their own homes and how to prepare their dishes.  It gave me a cultural passport, even before I could afford to travel on my own salary.

The New York Times reported on Gourmet’s demise in its Wednesday’s Food section—my favorite section of the whole week!—and noted that now-prominent chefs and food writers were weaned on the pages and recipes of Gourmet and how it provided a “home for literate, thoughtful food writing.  Its stable of contributors included James Beard, Laurie Colwin, and M.F.K. Fisher…”  It even quoted Alice Waters saying that a “review in Gourmet used to mean everything. ‘Yes, you could be in The New York Times, but that was sort of fleeting.  Gourmet was just a bigger cultural picture.’”

Well, if you’re not a subscriber (who may be getting the good-bye letter by now), you’re out of luck.  The newsstands and bookstores did not get any additional copies and they’re most likely sold out by now.  You could check with your local library.   Me, I’m relishing my September issue of Gourmet, which was billed as the “The Ultimate Harvest Cookbook” with recipes for everything in season from A (apples) to Z (zucchini).

Welcoming the Stranger: A Sukkot Meditation

The other night we had a most unusual guest in our sukkah — a three-inch-long praying mantis.  We didn’t know they even thrived in our eastern part of the United States.  It landed on the cornucopia my husband had placed on the table and it was moving its mouth like it was praying (or most likely, chewing its prey).  It was very appropriate for our Chinese sukkah, as the praying mantis is prominent in Chinese folklore and martial arts.  For us, the praying mantis and the Biblical Yitzhak were among the ushpizin (guests) for the second night of Sukkot.

Before the onset of Sukkot, I’d attended the Pennsylvania HIAS’s annual luncheon billed, “A Matter of Faith: Embracing Immigrants and Refugees.”  HIAS was established over 126 years ago as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and it has an illustrious history of assisting Jewish refugees from all over the world.   In recent years, HIAS has merged with the Council Migration Services and their clients are now refugees fleeing political or religious persecution from places such as Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and Eritrea.

The panel of speakers were members of the clergy of various faiths, including the Reverend Suzan Hawkinson of the Wallingford Presbyterian Church (her sermon gave me shivers!); Pastor David Shaheen of the Christ Lutheran Community Church (whose parents hosted Displaced Persons after WWII); Monsignor Hugh Joseph Shields, who works in the Office of the Vicar for Hispanic Catholics (he’s lived and worked for years in Latin America); Achmad Munjid, an imam of the Al Falah Indonesian Mosque (his doctoral dissertation is on key thinkers of inter-religious dialogue in Indonesia); and Rabbi David Strauss of Main Line Reform Temple.  Rabbi Strauss spoke about how the mitzvah that’s repeated most often in the Torah is the one to “remember the stranger, because you were once a stranger in the Land of Egypt.”  Pastor David Shaheen spoke about how “we are all pilgrims journeying to another Land and we have to learn to travel together.”  The moderator, Abby Stamelman Hocky, executive director of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, noted that Jews would soon be celebrating the holiday of Sukkot and that we can work to make a real Sukkat Shalom with our embrace of the stranger in our midst.

The message of both Sukkot and Pesach is about remembering the stranger.  We can do so with a shared meal, a gift of our time, or a helping hand in learning to adapt in a new culture.  As a new HIAS volunteer, I’m learning about the customs of the Burmese and one nice ritual that HIAS offers is a welcome meal, prepared by other refugees– those who’d landed earlier, that is– for a family newly arrived from the airport.  With my budding interest in Burmese culture, I even made a traditional Burmese dessert, htamane, which is made with glutinous rice, coconut milk, a whole cup of vegetable oil, and generous handfuls of roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, cashews and pistachios.  I served it for Rosh HaShanah, but my guests did not appreciate it.  I guess it was too foreign for their taste.

Back to Sukkot: The Chinese Harvest Moon Festival falls on the 15th of the eighth month and as it’s also on the lunar cycle, it always coincides with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.  I’d never marked the coincidence before, but this year I researched the moon cakes which are traditionally served on the Harvest Moon Festival.   However, the molds used to prepare the cakes are not available to the general public, so I attempted a recipe for Buddha cookies, which Chinese bakers make from the leftover pastry dough of moon cakes.  Alas, my attempt failed and the results tasted nothing like the real thing, but more like the Jewish egg kichel, which is sometimes served on Pesach/Passover (probably from the liberal egg wash I gave the morsels of dough before baking).  The Cantonese-style moon cakes are shaped round or square with a sweet filling of black bean paste or lotus seed paste.  Some have the addition of duck egg yolks, which when baked appear round and golden like the moon, surrounded by the rich, dark filling that can stand for the dark Outer Space.

Well, I did have more success with hospitality than serving authentic holiday Asian food on Sukkot, as my guests did well enjoy the other foods that I served.  And I have hopes for greater involvement in Welcoming The Stranger as I have my appointment with HIAS to discuss my shidduch (match) with a Burmese family due to arrive on the 15th.  I’m looking forward to introducing them to American culture, with a Jewish twist.

Movie Chat: Julie & Julia

Fans of Julia Child would love the new film, Julie and Julia, as the director, Nora Ephron, depicted post-WWII Paris in bright, sunny colors and without reference to deprivations, electrical shortages or municipal strikes.  While I agree with A.O. Scott, the NYTimes film critic, that the cards were stacked against Amy Adams who plays the young memoirist, Julie Powell—the best scenes had Meryl Streep in it, naturally— Adams gave a fine, credible performance.  The director had eliminated the unpleasant parts of Powell’s memoir— the gratuitous cursing and the gossip about her friends’ love and sex lives— giving us a sweeter, cuter, slimmer Amy Adams-embodiment of Ms. Powell.  And 21st century New York City is unfairly  represented by industrial Queens (which does have some lovely neighborhoods after all), although there was a witty juxtaposition of an American water tower compared to the Eiffel Tower.

Meryl Streep continues to amaze and delight her fans with her ability to work her way into a character.  With the aid of cleverly placed camera angles, carpentry (Child’s size-12 feet do not fit on a French bed), a wig (?), and heels, she gives a convincing portrayal of a cultural icon, whom Americans of a certain age remember and love.

The husbands, played by Stanley Tucci (his best role yet!) and Chris Messina, were lovingly supportive, except for one made-up scene in which Eric Powell spitefully spikes his bowl of boeuf bourguignon with salt, then storms out of their apartment after she’s devastated by the last-minute no-show appearance by the renown Child-editor, Judith Jones.  My husband wonders, how supportive a spouse is he, when he lets down his wife when she’s vulnerable?

One of the funniest lines does not come from Child’s memoir:  having failed her examination for a diploma from the Le Cordon Bleu, Child informs the director that she intends to teach French cooking to the American people.  The haughty and spiteful director retorts: you cannot cook, you would never be able to cook, but your American audience would never know the difference.  In actuality, Child did flunk the exam, but only because it asked about housewifely dishes that Child had ignored in her quest to become a real, professional cook. After many appeals, including a faked reference to the disappointment of the American ambassador, Child won another chance to demonstrate her by-then formidable skills and she passed with flying colors.  By the time she met her future collaborators, she had become a certified graduate of an authentic French institution.

One of the most poignant scenes did not dwell fully on the full text of Child’s memoir: after Julia and her sister, Dorothy, had gotten dressed in their best dresses, chicest hats and spiffiest shoes (in sizes hard to find in Paris), they regard their reflections and declaim: nice but not nice enough (for the French).  The film also made much more of the Childs’ childlessness than Julia ever displayed in her memoir, although she did dote on her nieces and nephews.  Her memoir was written with the help of her grand-nephew.

My father-in-law asked if the film left us hungry and I replied that it wasn’t food we would eat anyway— meat and seafood prepared in butter and cream sauces.  No one cooks much in the classic French way anymore, not even the French.

I’d predicted that there wouldn’t be anyone under age 30 at the film and I wasn’t wrong, but we were both surprised by the number of very old patrons, including several in walkers and wheelchairs.  I guess these are the fans of Julia Child, who’d had taught them to appreciate French food.

The cinema we’d visited had been rescued from demolition and restored as an art institute.  It houses a coffee shop that touts its organic, local, and sustainable food, with 80% sourced from within 20 miles around.  My husband scoffed at this, as coffee and tea are not grown here in the Middle Atlantic states, but I said that they’re not counting beverages in their claim.

The sad truth is that Julie Powell never met her spiritual mentor, who died in 2004 at the age of 91.  In both her memoir as well as the film, a reporter calls for an interview, relaying the news that Child regards her blog as “disrespectful and not serious.”  I do not believe this could be fully accurate.  In an interview with Terry Gross, Child was asked if she knew that Dan Aykroyd had made a skit about her–  a crude and bloody one– for Saturday Night Live and Child chuckled and commented, yes and I have a tape of it.  Julia Child loved life and food and good humor, so I do not believe it is possible that she could be mean to an acolyte.  I bet she had not read Powell’s blog and did not realize the extent of Powell’s idolization.  True, one year cooking and blogging does not compare to eight years of recipe testing and writing–  not to mention the years before, in learning French and cooking– but Powell had anointed Julia Child as her lodestar and spiritual guide to what is right and good and just about life, love, and food.  We should all have such a mentor.

Visiting Sustainable Paradise: Berkeley

There are cities with a holy stature (like Jerusalem), and there are cities with cultural eminence (like New York) – but my family just came home from a vacation to a place that holds my nomination for Paradise on Earth: Berkeley, California.

I already knew that Berkeley residents are required to collect their food waste for composting (with weekly pick-ups), but to see it operation, with ordinary citizens scraping their plates (and all food-related paper) into their home-sized composting bins was truly inspiring.

Our friends belong to the modern Orthodox congregation Beth Israel in West Berkeley, which recently voted to allocate money for compostable plastic flatware for their weekly kiddushim. This came after intense discussion about priorities, because the additional expense impacted their educational budget. One of the regulars frets about people absentmindedly throwing their leftovers into the regular trash bins, but they’re already operating at a higher madrega (spiritual plane). Also impressive (especially for an Orthodox shul) is the presence of ramps to the bima from both the men’s and the women’s sections and gates in the mechitza for the Torah to be passed to a woman for carrying through the women’s section. So, this is a shul that believes in total inclusion as well as community responsibility.

Walking back from shul (an urban hike of 2-1/2 miles past gorgeous yards where even the strip between the sidewalk and the street is lushly planted), we detoured to visit Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project, which occupies one acre of a former parking lot on the campus of the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. The students plant, harvest, cook and bake (in an outdoor stone bread oven!) their fruits and vegetables as well as composting the organic waste. A substantial proportion of the students’ lunches comes from this garden. There’s also a lovely chicken coop on the premises. This is a wonderful educational community project that has brought together neighbors to help in its maintenance.

Visiting Berkeley felt like Paradise on Earth to this Pennsylvanian. Where is your sustainable paradise?