Oct 6, 2009

In Search of the Perfect Cannelloni: A Tribute to Gourmet Magazine

My mother was always a good cook. As for any harried mother of her era, the pressure of having to present dinner every night meant the occasional Spam, canned franks and beans, even TV dinners. (We loved our Swanson's TV dinners and their foil compartments.) Her inner gourmand was latent, ready to spring into action, as she meticulously copied recipes from Gourmet for dishes like Osso Bucco, complex time-consuming labors of love. She had lived in Rome soon after college in the early 1950s, working for a cooking show at a TV station. My mother and the rest of the production staff ate the food after the show was done. After six months she got sick and had to come home, but even the food in the Rome hospital, served by kindly nuns, was a revelation to her.

So my mother, as an Army wife trundling about here and there with her recipe boxes and issues of Gourmet, sought to call forth la dolce vita with her Italian recipes. In restaurants she would often order cannelloni. After a few bites, she would mourn the gap between her memory of feather-light, delicate cannelloni in Italy, and their leaden, soggy American counterparts, which were inevitably drowning in a sea of thick sauce. Not to be daunted, my mother spread her wings beyond Italian to French, inspired by Julia like everyone else. When she became an empty nester, she ventured on to Spanish and Portuguese dishes. She and my father began traveling to both countries, and they would order adventurously off the menu at some small family restaurant or inn wherever they happened to be.

Throughout all of it was Gourmet, its thoughtful, intelligent writing a constant source of inspiration and instruction, its photography celebrating the sensuousness of food and capturing the atmospherics of its rituals. When I was in my twenties, living in Philadelphia with a tiny bit of disposable income ($12,000 to $15,000 before taxes), I borrowed my mother's old issues and copied recipes from them. By hand, of course. Finally my mother gave me a subscription in 1989. I was a graduate student in English at Temple, with even less money than before, but a houseful of roommates and a taste for dinner parties on the cheap. At the time Gourmet ran a feature called Gastronomie sans Argent, French for "cooking without money." That was where I learned about the quiet glory and dignity of beans. Gourmet discontinued the feature, perhaps implying that almost all readers want to hold back on the caviar and truffles.

Every year at Christmas, my mother renewed my subscription. We would compare notes and point out recipes to each other. In 1996, my husband asked me to marry him. (I said "OK" instead of "Yes" and I'll never live that down.) The September issue had a recipe for Dark Chocolate Wedding Cake with Chocolate Orange Ganache and Orange Buttercream, which we found irresistible, and we had our caterer's pastry chef make it. Naturally, the groom and I forgot to eat the cake until it was only a devastated mess of crumbs and icing. And delicious crumbs they were. Someday I will make it myself.

By that time, Epicurious was up, which helped me find and collect even more Gourmet recipes. I started recycling my old "hard" copies, because I could save the recipes in my virtual recipe box. I'm not sentimental about the actual paper, except the September 1996 issue. Gourmet has been there for me no matter whether I needed an eggplant fix, an unusual vegetarian lasagna, or a wildly popular apple cake.

For my mother and me, Gourmet opened up a space for us to celebrate the bounty of this world and to share that with others. Beyond the recipes and travel stories, amazing writers like the late Laurie Colwin and the late David Foster Wallace, and the living Jhumpa Lahiri, to just think of three. And of course the indefatigable Ruth Reichl. She embraces food as memory, but also charts new directions. Under her watch, Gourmet has become political in the best way, covering plant genetics, fair food, and the locavore movement.

More than anything, Gourmet showed us how to live la dolce vita, whether we are rich or poor. With the advent of celebrity chefs, interactive websites and food blogs (ahem), food porn TV, and the professionalization of cooking, real food writing recedes to the background, unable to compete with its flashy new stepsisters.

My mother died suddenly at the age of sixty-nine, a week after learning she had her first grandchild on the way. My father has faithfully renewed my Gourmet subscription for the past ten years. Although my mother never found that perfect cannelloni, she certainly relished the search. May we seek la dolce vita the best we can, with wine and food, laughter and friends, and generosity of spirit. Here's to Gourmet, and life beyond.


julienj said...

This brought tears to my eyes...what a lovely tribute, to your mother and to Gourmet.

Jill said...

When you said that you spent three hours writing this post, I almost didn't read it because I was afraid I'd be sitting here for three hours reading! But, you are a true nostalgia writer and you make me want to somehow save Gourmet. Though neither of us can, you can and I hope you do continue your mother's search for that perfect cannelloni.

Dan McKinney said...

Great piece, Lauren! I occasionally find old "Gourmets" around the house even now, usually buried in the depths of old dresser drawers.

There were a few at the bottom of the old brass wood chest, along with other oddities, like David's birth notice from the hospital (strangely enough), and miscellaneous hardware like ancient picture hangers & lamp cord holders.

It's comforting to find these little bits hidden away - as the years pass, they'll get fewer and farther between until all the old detritus is gone.

I'm keeping one of Nana's dresser drawers untouched so I'll have at least that little reserve of old family junk to moon over! Sunglasses, spools of thread, old pictures and slides, pens, ticket stubs, bank statements, birthday cards. Historic trash, and a slowly fading very particular perfume of old lady & old furniture that still triggers "Nana" in my mind.

Domestic Goddess said...

Swansons! Those were the days!

But seriously, what they said. You are a great nostalgia writer. I can almost see it, you know?

Nice piece.

Lauren said...

Really beautiful, Lauren. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I've missed Laurie Colwin for quite awhile and now for the magazine itself to cease publication, it feels like the sad end of a long, wonderful era.

I'm enjoying yr blog and hope to find old Gourmet recipes heralded in future posts.

Velva said...

This was a really good blog post! Cheers to your mom!

I am crushed that Gourmet magazine is closing up shop. I depend on Gourmet each month to inform me, take me to far away places to discover food and culture. Certainly not least provide me some great recipes. Today is sad day.

Crockhead said...

Great post. Have you seen Julie and Julia?

MemeGRL said...

Every jackdaw at McKinsey should be required to read this. And I hope you email it to Gourmet. I can't believe of the two, it wasn't Bon Appetit that got the axe. I like BA also, but Gourmet will always be the gold standard.

lotta said...

What a wonderful tribute, to Gourmet, your mother and the true joy of cooking. I am so sad that the magazine will be no more. I have saved many of my issues, and I am delighted that I did. Now they will be treasured and cherished.

Lauren D. McKinney said...

Thanks for all your comments here! I'm trying to be a better blogger by responding to comments.

To Lauren: Welcome, and I also adore Laurie Colwin. To Crockhead: Yes, I've seen Julie & Julia and am ambivalent. I should do a blog entry about my response. To Lotta: Welcome. Hope all you new folks return!