Julia Langbein was the author of one of our favorite blogs, the Bruni Digest, when we invited her to write bar and restaurant listings for New York Magazine’s website. She wasn’t with us long: Several reviews in, she took a position at Gourmet magazine. With the Gourmet offices now eerily empty (as a Gawker photo gallery attests), Langbein ponders what she’ll miss most.
Earlier this summer I spent an afternoon working next to a writer friend of mine at a coffee shop in Chicago. “Hey,” she said, “what’s a good adjective for a brownie?”
“Which brownie?” I asked.
“This brownie,” she said, and turned her computer to me. On the screen was a website for a café that she was including in a group review of new restaurants for a national magazine.
Sigh. Maybe Gourmet’s way of doing business was proven unfeasible this week; “The cushy days are over,” another writer e-mailed after the news of the magazine’s closing broke. Cushy, classy, staid — these were the surface associations of a magazine that sold, maybe even generated, a mid-century aspirational image of the good life through entertaining and travel. Maybe this mantle was too heavy to shed or renovate. But what makes me sad about Condé Nast’s decision to shutter the magazine isn’t the death of this iconic American image of the good life, but rather the end of the kind of work done behind that image.
Here’s a shocker: I wrote a blog whose favorite terms included “slutbucket” and “grundlestash,” and peppered its (granted) nominally food-oriented criticism with pictures such as one of a circle of naked hillbillies jumping into a puddle of mud. Trust me, no one was more surprised than I was when this blog attracted the attention of Gourmet’s editors. I almost expected it to be a cruel joke when they invited me to come to their offices and talk about writing something for the magazine: Would they dump a bucket of melted Fontina over my head, Carrie-style, and cackle at the ratty, potty-mouthed blogger who thought she was legit for a hot, cruel second?
What happened was that I showed up with a bunch of pitches that must have convinced them I’d never laid eyes on the magazine (one was about my loyalty to a restaurant I knew was terrible: the mathematical opposite of something Gourmet would publish), and the editors — quick, familial, funny, hardly the glossy curators of food-Vogue one might suspect — coaxed better ideas out of me, and I ended up doing a feature about my family’s farm in Southern Finland that summer.
For that piece, I was a “cheap date” — it’s hard to accrue expenses in my grandpa’s birch forest. Not so for the next feature, about the Anglo-American cocktail bars in Paris’s historic “palace” hotels. The magazine flew me to Paris for a week of slinging $50 martinis: Even the editorial intro to the piece had to admit, “Now here’s a plum assignment.” If cushy, then only incidentally so — the humor of the article came from the interactions I had with the bartenders and clientele, from the accidents and hushed asides that you only get from brushing up against the real thing. You could have written that article from a coffee shop in Chicago, weaving obsequious press releases and phone conversations with staff about luxurious ingredients and celebrity bartenders into some kind of travel piece, frothing up descriptive language from online photo galleries. It happens all the time. It would have read as merely classy and staid. And that wasn’t Gourmet.
You can find the author’s Gourmet archive here.