Alice Waters is almost as much of a food icon as Gourmet, and when we spoke to the chef today about the magazine, her voice came close to breaking more than once. Waters was first exposed to Gourmet in the sixties and her restaurant, Chez Panisse, was positively reviewed by Caroline Bates in 1975. “It is one of those places that opened up this world of food to Americans, the way Julia Child did,” says Waters. She spoke to Helen Rosner.
What’s your first memory of reading Gourmet?
In the sixties I would go over to visit my friends who were wonderful cooks. They’re ten years older than I am, and they just had a big old stack of Gourmet, they had obviously been collecting them in the fifties. And I just opened them up and looked at the centerfold. [Reading the magazines] I felt like I understood something about my parents. It’s like looking back at Life magazine. It’s just been there for a period of time that has been so historically significant. It’s chronicled the art of food coming into being.
It’s a little bit unfortunate that the word “gourmet” has been so associated with a kind of elitism of food. A “gourmet” is someone who has sophisticated tastes, who cares about food. It feels out of reach for a lot of people, just the name itself, and so many people just don’t understand [the magazine’s] place in history.
What has Gourmet meant to you as a chef?
It is one of those places that opened up this world of food to Americans, the way Julia Child did. And maybe it was in lots of ways a little beyond our reach in that it was beautiful food, it looked beautiful on the page, it just was sophisticated. It had this layer of worldy writing. And I paid a lot of attention. Certainly when I opened Chez Panisse I cared a lot about whether Caroline Bates came to the restaurant, and whether she was going to say something good about it.
What has the food industry lost?
It’s losing a voice — it’s losing a sophisticated voice. A voice that, for me, was representing the future of food in this country.
Who is poised to take Gourmet’s place?
What’s happening are these little small, local magazines - the Edible booklets — but we need that big voice. I suppose these books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, or the New York Times food section [come close]. I don’t want to say it’s shocking — but it’s a little frightening to me that the magazine’s closing. Because it really means that we’re really making a choice about what sells, what people are willing to buy. It’s just really about money here, and that’s what’s frightening to me. There’s a set of values that help us live in this world. We need people who are paying attention to them and enlightening us, educating us.