Have Food Magazines Lost It?

That was the question posed Monday on Chowhound by d8200, a longtime Food & Wine reader who wrote that in the last couple of years, "I'm not as excited when I find the latest issue in my mailbox. That day is far from the glorious and momentous occasion that it once was."

Citing recurrent quinoa salad recipes and "more b.s. about why Napa Valley is the greatest food/wine scene on earth," d8200 asked, "Has the quality and content been decreasing as of late, or is it that I'm just becoming more jaded or discerning in my expectations?"

That latter question gets to the point: Has the food media gotten so hopelessly overstuffed that it's starting to digest itself? Glossies like F&W and Bon Appétit are but the tip of a very large hand-chipped ice cube. And because they're the most visible, they're also the most illustrative of readers' changing expectations.

You could argue that mainstream food magazines aren't as gratifying as they used to be because they cater to the modern taste for recipes served alongside articles about hot fauxhemian travel destinations and loft parties hosted by photogenic industrial designers. Discovering that Ali Wentworth, comedian and consort to George Stephanopoulos, favors seashells as table decorations (F&W, February 2012) doesn't really carry the same thrill as discovering "Consider the Lobster," the David Foster Wallace essay from Gourmet's August 2004 issue.

It's easy to fetishize the old Gourmet—magazines, like people, are most beloved after they're gone. Perhaps what we're really idealizing is a not-so-distant past when our phones didn't tell us where to go for dinner and the processed-food industry hadn't yet appropriated the "underground" restaurant concept, or before it was even a concept. It was easier to feel like you'd actually discovered something that a thousand food blogs hadn't already claimed ownership of and bragged about, before forgetting it in the rush to "discover" something else.

Maybe it's also that nothing really seems to be much of a risk anymore. Offal's gone as mainstream as salted caramel ice cream, Sriracha has its own cookbook, and eating insects is so Brooklyn 2010. Instead of going out on a limb, magazine editors prefer to huddle in the treehouse, trying to wring novelty out of barbecue, burgers, and the Thanksgiving turkey.

A former coworker spent the better part of 2010 and 2011 declaring that "the age of foodism" had finally hit a plateau, with the food media poised to tumble right over its edge and into the abyss. I'd like to think we'll find something deeper: more stories about food politics, more nuanced explorations of cultural traditions, more about why we're always looking for the next big trend.

Some would argue that publications like Saveur, The Art of Eating, and Gastronomica fulfill that function quite nicely. Plenty more would argue that food doesn't need to be covered so seriously anyway—we're not talking nuclear disarmament here, but what to make for a Seder. But the larger question lingers: What will satisfy our jaded palates? Whoever can answer that stands to make a lot of money. Until then, maybe it's time to look those mainstream food magazines squarely in the eye and admit to ourselves that it's not them—it's us.

Image source: Flickr member SteffanyF! under Creative Commons

Rebecca Flint Marx eats and writes in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.