ENDLESS FEASTS edited and with an introduction by Ruth Reichl

To celebrate its 60th anniversary, GOURMET MAGAZINE elected to publish a book, a compilation of some of their finest food and travel essays in the magazine’s extensive archives. (One has to wonder what happened to those archives when Gourmet magazine folded a few years ago).  Chosen to edit their masterpieces, was author/editor Ruth Reichl.

Now, the name of Ruth Reichl is one you should recognize if you have been reading food-related books for any length of time. Reichl also was editor for the magazine for about a decade prior to closing their doors. I began re-subscribing to Gourmet when I discovered she had become their editor—I admire her writing very much.  I reviewed her books TENDER AT THE BONE and COMFORT ME WITH APPLES   for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange years ago. Both books were intriguing, bet-you-can’t-put-it-down memoirs of experiences in the author’s life. Reichl was at one time restaurant critic for NEW WEST magazine, CALIFORNIA magazine, the Los Angeles Times newspaper and the New York Times. At the time of my original review of ENDLESS FEASTS she was also editor in chief at Gourmet magazine. That said, perhaps you’ll understand that it was the name Ruth Reichl that caught my attention first, on the cover of ENDLESS FEASTS. I thought anything she was involved with just had to be good.

ENDLESS FEASTS is not a cookbook in the strictest sense, although you will find an assortment of recipes included within its covers. I hasten to add, however, that the recipes included in ENDLESS FEASTS are printed exactly as they originally appeared. Reich explains, “Gourmet inaugurated its test kitchens in 1965. We now scrupulously test, and re-test, every recipe in the magazine.  But in the early years, editors assumed that readers (or in many cases, their cooks) could fend for themselves in the kitchen…”

When Gourmet began testing recipes for the 60th anniversary of the magazine, they discovered many that were not to modern tastes, while some did not work with modern ingredients. In the anniversary issue of the magazine, they changed the recipes to meet the times. However, while compiling ENDLESS FEASTS, it was decided, in the interest of historical accuracy to run the recipes as they originally appeared.

ENDLESS FEASTS is a series of articles, essays written over the decades GOURMET has been in print, by authors whose names you are sure to recognize—from M.F.K. Fisher, whose “Three Swiss Inns” was originally published by GOURMET in September, 1941,  to “JELLIED CONSOMME: A REMINISCENCE” by William Hamilton, published in August, 1985.

Readers who were fans of Laurie Colwin’s books were sure to relish “A HARRIED COOK’S GUIDE TO SOME FAST FOOD” published in Gourmet in the February, 1992, issue—and will enjoy, I am sure, the inclusion of Katharine Hepburn’s brownies (which happens to be one of my favorite brownie recipes too!)

In the Introduction to ENDLESS FEASTS, Ruth Reichl writes this about M.F.K. Fisher: “America’s greatest writer on the subject of food once described her own work as being about ‘eating and what to eat and people who eat’. The careful reader will note that this left her an enormous amount of room to turn around in…”

“It is,” Reichl adds, “also a perfect description of GOURMET magazine in its early years. When M.F.K. Fisher talked about her chosen subject, she was staking out territory, declaring her intention to write about much more than what was on the table. GOURMET, at its inception, demanded the same latitude. There was almost nothing that the editors considered outside the Magazine’s purview, no voice that could not be heart within it’s pages…”

Reichl credits the “largeness of this vision” to Gourmet’s founder, Earle MacAusland, “a man,” she notes, “who saw nothing strange about inaugurating a ‘magazine of good living’ just as the world was on the brink of war (i.e., WW2).  He wanted to make his mark, declare his belief  in the importance of living well even in the face of disaster. Bringing his magazine into the world was a decidedly optimistic act, an impulsive vote for the triumph of good sense and the value of good taste…”

And, Reichl notes, “In a time when food was not considered a serious subject, “He [MacAusland] believed it was the only one.”

MacAusland encourage GOURMET writers to “venture far and send back reports from the front. They went by rail, by bus, and by ship, and they covered every continent. Sometimes they brought back recipes; often they did not. In later years, food magazines would come to rely on recipes, but in MacAusland’s GOURMET they did not hold pride of place..”

“In looking back,” Reichl claims, “What stands out is the breadth of the coverage and the quality of the writing….”

You will find that each essay stands on its own merits, and has also stood the test of time. You will certainly recognize some of the names of authors, such as M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Jane and Michael Stern. Others, perhaps, you may not.

ENDLESS FEASTS was a delightful introduction to writers whose names I did not recognize. At the back of the book is a list of contributors;  I frequently turn back to that section to learn a little more about a particular author. While reading “In a Tibetan Lamasery” by Ruth Harkness, I turned to the list of contributors and learned that “Ms. Harness attracted widespread attention in 1936 when she became the first person to bring a live giant panda from China to the United States.  She is the author of “THE LADY AND THE PANDA” and “PANGOAN DIARY.”

Many of us never travel beyond the borders of our own country, much less venture hither and yon; ENDLESS FEASTS allows you to become an armchair traveler, not only discovering foods and customs of other countries. But traveling through time as well, for some of these essays were written while America was in the throes of world war. Ruth Harkness’s “IN A TIBETAN LAMASERY” published by Gourmet in March, 1944, is a perfect example of this. Ms. Harkness also wrote “Mexican Mornings” which appeared in Gourmet in February, 1947, and presents the reader  with  time and place in Mexico that is certain to charm you.

Much of the prose in ENDLESS FEASTS reads like poetry; I thought this more than once but particularly while reading “SHANGHAI: THE VINTAGE YEARS” written by Irene Corbally Kuhn for GOURMET in January, 1986.  Ms. Kuhn writes about the Shanghai that existed for a short span of time, during the years between the end of World War I and the capture of the Chinese part of the city by the Japanese in 1937.

Just to reach Shanghai, in those days, was a seven week journey by sea. Ms. Kuhn describes her arrival there, on a Japanese freighter after a six week voyage from Marseilles. She was, she says, young and innocent but her limited experience as a journalist was enough to get her a job on the staff for THE CHINA PRESS, an American-edited, English language newspaper. However, since Ms. Kuhn was the only single woman living there, she had to have a housekeeper-chaperone. Some months later, Ms. Kuhn married a fellow journalist and they moved into their own home.

“Wages were so low,” she wrote, “that one could afford a houseful of servants on even the most modest of incomes. And, indeed, one was expected to. For there was always Chinese custom to consider, custom born of the pressures of over-population and expressed in the saying: One does not break another man’s rice bowl. In other words, the available work was extended to provide as many jobs as possible, and the subsequent divisions of responsibility were punctiliously observed…”

Consequently, the “standard requirements” for a small Western household consisted of a “Number One Boy”, a “Number One cook”, a coolie, a gardener, and a rickshaw coolie (who came complete with his own vehicle). This was the minimum. For larger families, if there were children, a “Baby Amah” was hired to wash, feed, and dress the children, and take them to the park for outings.  I love the expression “One does not break another man’s rice bowl”—I fell in love with Shanghai in the Vintage Years.

There is much within the pages of ENDLESS FEASTS to captivate. Consider, perhaps, Richard Clark Cassin’s “A Harvest Dinner in Taos”, wherein he writes, “I’ve always had difficulty in deciding which season I prefer in the high alpine valleys of northern New Mexico, but in the end, October almost always prevails: fresh snow above the timberline, a blaze of gilded aspens beneath, and a luxuriant carpet of summer’s green grass….”

Or, Pat Conroy’s  “The Romance of Umbria,” which is sheer poetry, when he writes, describing a little marketplace in Italy: “We wander from stall to stall, the food so fresh that the smell of the earth itself is the strongest, most assertive odor in the marketplace until we pass the store that specializes in the sale of local white truffles. The odor of truffles is as distinctive as the giveaway scent of marijuana. It enlarges the air around itself and gives you some idea of what a tree must smell like to itself…” or, later, when he writes “It is a pleasure to watch a southern farm girl wander about an Italian food market, stunned by the profligate abundance taken from the countryside…” (Pat Conroy is the very same Conroy who wrote “The Prince of Tides”. This article appeared in GOURMET in September, 1999).

There are over forty essays presented in this fine, little book (small enough to carry with you on an airplane or while running errands around your neighborhood. I like to always have a book with me when I go to the bank or post office, in case there is a line and I have to wait.)

There is so much more I would like to share with you from ENDLESS FEASTS but to do that, I would end up quoting from the entire book. I can only urge you, if you only buy one more book about food this year, or give your significant other a wish list for Christmas, that you put ENDLESS FEAST on top of the list. You’ll love it!

Sandra’s Cooknote: I originally wrote this review for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange in 2002. *I’m now thinking it’s time to re-read the entire book.  You can find ENDLESS FEASTS on Amazon.com starting at ONE CENT for a hardcover book. Paperback copies also from 1c.  New copies starting at $8.70.  Albris.com has a lot of very good hardbound copies at 99c.

Gourmet magazine closed its doors in October, 2009, after 70 years of publication.  I found the answer to one of my questions in an article by Kim Severson for the New York Times:

“One of the first things Ruth Reichl did after telling her staff…that Conde Nast had closed GOURMET was to lock up the library with its landmark collection of 70 years of cookbooks and typewritten recipes.

“That’s not going to disappear,” she said, adding that she had strongly suggested to S.I. Newhouse Jr., the company’s chairman, that he donate the archives to the New York Public Library or to a university.

Then she had her staff gathered bottles of wine and liquor from the office and held a wake at her apartment…”

Elsewhere in the Times article, “Over the course of nearly 70 years, Gourmet has a recipe database enviable in both size and quality. The pool is so deep that GOURMET  compiled a cookbook of more than 1,000 recipes in 2006 and then turned around and published more than 1,000 more in “GOURMET TODAY” which arrived—in one of the industry’s  great moments of bad timing—in September…” (I have both GOURMET and GOURMET TODAY. I also have THE GOURMET COOKBOOK, VOLUME 1 which was published in 1965. I haven’t researched to discover whether or not there was a Volume II. All three are heavy–as in weight—books.)

*I have one final thought about Gourmet—it is with even greater regret that I recall giving away decades and decades of back issues, when we moved to Florida. Back then, people weren’t renting storage units that now seem to be on almost every street corner of commercial areas.  I began subscribing again to Gourmet when we returned to California in 1982 but let my subscription lapse in 2008 when we moved to the Antelope Valley. Sigh.

-Sandra Lee Smith

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6 responses to “ENDLESS FEASTS edited and with an introduction by Ruth Reichl

  1. Gourmet’s cookbook collection is now at NYU’s Fales Library courtesy of Rozanne Gold.

    • Thanks for this update, Susan–I figured SOMEONE woudl know what the outcome of the archive collection was. FYI to anyone interested; I found a copy of the NY Times article by Kim Severson on Google.

  2. Hi Sandy,

    May I sigh along with you? I had Gourmet back into the 60s (when I was just a teen), and about 12 years ago, I was thinking they took up too much space, so I started chopping them up. What a mistake, for a variety of reasons. Once again, you remind me that I wish I still had those old issues.

    Sigh,

    Jean B.

    • I wont make that mistake again–but it grieves me just the same. Ditto the first collection of recipe booklets I began collecting when I was about 12 or 13 and started sending for them with penny postcards–the ads were on the backs of most kitchen staples (Hershey’s cocoa, baking powder, etc)–I dont know what happened to those; I think they were amongst the things I lost when a shed we had stored things in when we first went to California collapsed one winter in Cincinnati. All of my scrapbooks and dolls were lost too. another heavy sigh.

    • its just too bad that having a storage unit wasnt a common thing in the 1970s. If I had KNOWN my stay in florida would only be 3 years I wouldnt have taken any of my books or magazines nor disposed of anything. Hindsight is always 20/20.

  3. yeah, we’re in the same boat. There were a lot of other magazines I let slip through my fingers, like the Tower Press publications. I think I had Gourmet magazines dating back to the 1950s. I dont even remember where I got some of them – but it was a large collection. so now my old Bon appetit, Gourmet, – and some other cooking magazines – are boxed up and labeled since I dont have enough shelf space but I can get to them when I want to. (A medium size post office box is just the right size to hold a lot of magazines).

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