Wednesday, Oct 17, 2018
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Mary Bilyeu

COMMENTARY

Still mourning the loss of Gourmet

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Publication of Gourmet magazine was shut down in 2009, and to this day — five years later — faithful readers still mourn the loss.

“‘Mourn’ is the right word,” says Jan Longone, adjunct curator of culinary history at the University of Michigan Library (who is also a very dear friend of mine). Those who loved the magazine still miss it, speaking of it with near-reverence.

When Conde Nast bought Gourmet, it found itself with two food magazines, as it also published Bon Appétit. Both dealt with the topic of food, but they were quite different in scope and audience. While each had approximately one million subscribers, Gourmet had been losing some advertising funds. Thus, it was decided that two magazines in the collection was one too many, and Gourmet was ended.

It was shut down so abruptly that even then-editor Ruth Reichl had been given no warning, Jan says. All of the employees were instructed to leave their offices, taking nothing from their desks. “Ruth was blindsided,” says Jan.

How could this have happened to a magazine that was so beloved? How could this have happened to a magazine that had been thriving for nearly seven decades?

Jan will tell you on Nov. 18, in a lecture to support her newest exhibit: The Life and Death of Gourmet - The Magazine of Good Living.

The story began for Jan in 1954, when her husband Dan gave her a special present: a copy of Gourmet’s first cookbook. “I opened it up and inside was a little note from Gourmet,” she says. It was an invitation to become a lifetime subscriber to the magazine, and it included a $2 coupon.

The Longones were graduate students at Cornell University who had recently married, and the remaining $48 to purchase that subscription was a near-fortune for them. But they saved it up, and Jan’s life subsequently changed.

She loved the magazine for many reasons, just one of which was the magazine’s depth and variety. “I was always surprised by how much there was to learn.”

“The minute the postman brought it, I stopped everything and read it cover to cover,” she says.

She “discovered food history,” and learned about places to travel to and foods to eat once there, things “we never would have done if we hadn’t read about it in Gourmet,” she says.

Over the years, Jan has become one of the world’s foremost culinary historians. She and Dan, a retired chemistry professor and an authority on wine, have spent decades collecting books, menus, pamphlets, and other culinary materials. The couple has donated more than 20,000 of these items to the University of Michigan to form the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive.

Jan even has her own entry in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, where she is described as a “Scholar, sleuth, collector, rare book dealer, lecturer, and ... a mentor and prime resource for countless food professionals, academicians, authors, entrepreneurs, and journalists.”

She purchased a subscription to Gourmet magazine and was subsequently inspired by it. Very simply, she says, “That’s how I became who I am.”

Because of the magazine’s profound influence upon her life, Jan says, “I decided I would like to show the life of Gourmet.” She wants to “tell what it meant for Gourmet to go out of business.”

One issue from each of Gourmet’s 69 years of publication, from 1941 to 2009, is on display in the new exhibit. There are also several cases filled with books published by Gourmet and books written by its many contributors. “You walk into the room and the impact is stunning,” says Jan. The Life and Death of Gourmet is a story of travel, of discovery, of humor, of passion, of history, and of intrigue. And even a story about food.

The Life and Death of Gourmet exhibit runs through Dec. 1, Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., in the Special Collections Library on the seventh floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library on the campus of the University of Michigan. For more information, call 734-764-0400.

Contact Mary Bilyeu at 
mbilyeu@theblade.com
 or 419-724-6155 or on Twitter @foodfloozie.

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