I originally started this project nearly eight years ago.
I decided to cook and eat every recipe published in the October 1976 issue of Gourmet Magazine, the one that hit the newsstands the year and month that I was born.
“I will photograph each and every recipe, no matter how hard or weird or dated or boiled or brown,” I said. “I will stay true to the original recipe and I will endeavor to make each recipe beautiful,” I said.
“I will do this before I turn 40!”
Sadly, I didn’t make the deadline. I got through a mere four recipes before I lost interest, got busy, forgot. So a few weeks ago I was sipping a nice bourbon as I frequently do and thinking, “You know what, I should give that Gourmet project another go.” Also, not for nothing, but about once I year I get the urge to do a little food blogging for some reason anyway.
The good thing is that I now have eight more years of food photography and food styling under my belt, I have cooked hundreds, if not thousands of meals since the last go-round, and I have a commercial kitchen at my disposal. So now seems like a good time to resurrect this project and do it for real.
Gourmet was probably the first food magazine I ever read, mainly because it was ubiquitous in my house growing up. My mother is a collector of all things readable, and over the years she acquired dozens of issues of Gourmet. For those of you who are not familiar with Gourmet, it is credited as the first U.S. magazine focused on food and wine. It was first published in January 1941 (an interesting time historically speaking considering World War II) and continued monthly publications until it shuttered in 2009. The last issue was November 2009 (although Conde Nast still owns the name and uses it for various publications).
My personal collection of Gourmet Magazine includes a number of issues spanning a period from the 70s through 2009, as well as several compendiums and cookbooks. Reading some of the older issues is really a fascinating look into how food and food media has changed over the years. Back in October 1976 you could maybe find re-runs of Julia Child’s The French Chef on the television, but food TV as we know it today did not exist. You couldn’t pull up a YouTube video of how to make a certain dish, and you certainly couldn’t Google a recipe.
Back then Gourmet didn’t exactly make it easy for the home cook to prepare the recipes either. For example, a good recipe starts with a list of ingredients in the order that they are used in the recipe. Gourmet skipped that part in favor of a run-on sentence approach that slipped ingredients and quantities in almost as an afterthought:
Transfer the bacon with a slotted spoon to a cocotte and in the remaining fat brown 3 pounds of beef chuck, cut into 2-inch cubes, in batches over high heat, transferring the cubes with a slotted spoon to the cocotte as they are browned. In the remaining fat sauté 2 onions, chopped, 2 garlic cloves, minced, 1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced, and 2 carrots chopped, adding more oil if necessary, until the vegetables are softened.Excerpt from A Recipe for Daube Camargaise, Gourmet Magazine October 1976
Not having a real list of ingredients can be infuriating, and I’ve found that the only sure-fire way avoid missing something is to basically re-write the each recipe before I start. That helps with my shopping list if nothing else. It is nearly impossible not to miss a step otherwise, particularly when you’re elbows deep in bacon fat and butter trying to find your place in a 300 word paragraph of 12 point type that is cut across two pages. Oh yeah, and then in the middle of the recipe they’ll helpfully refer you to a recipe in an entirely different issue of the magazine, which if you don’t have handy will leave you stranded mid-stir.
Recipes aside it is somewhat charming/cringe-inducing to see ads for cigarettes and extinct products like Boggs Cranberry Liqueur. You also get a sense of how dated this magazine is by the fact that all of the readers letters are address “Dear Sirs.”
In the nationwide restaurant section there is one recommendation St. Louis, a restaurant called Port St. Louis in Clayton which closed in 1991. And there is an article about the Grand Central Oyster Bar, which to this day is a favorite spot for me and my wife whenever we make it back to New York City. In a time when world travel was less common, Gourmet seemed to be striving to bring foreign lands back home, with stories about holidays in Goa, Christmas shopping in London, the cuisine of St. Martin, and an article about spending a day in Naples. But they also covered spots closer to home, like autumn in Vermont and a trip to Acadia Country in Louisiana.
My Game Plan
- There are approximately 73 recipes in the October 1976 issue. I say “approximately” because many of the recipes refer to previous issues for various elements (for example, it refers to a recipe for Perigieux sauce from the January 1976 issue) as well as recipes that are predicated on you already having other dishes prepared. I mean, I usually have an entire lamb roast in the fridge but some people may not.
- The recipes are rough by today’s standards. Most recipes require you to have a working knowledge of various cooking techniques, while others contain outdated methods. These days, science and proliferation of food media mean that we are used to having all questions answered in a recipe, while in 1976 the editors left it up to you to maintain a working knowledge of French cooking techniques. This wasn’t the Food Network, this was Gourmet. I have done my best to modernize each recipe while staying true to the vintage nature of the original.
- I am going to style and photograph each dish. I am not going to try to make them look specifically like food from the 1970s but I suspect that we are going to see a lot of browns. Just a hunch.
- While I am an experienced cook, I do not have any formal culinary training. I am a food photographer, not a test kitchen cook. I am not extensively testing each recipe, so your mileage may vary with any recipes you find on The Insatiable Lens. I don’t plan to pull any punches, if a recipe is bad or something I don’t like I’ll be honest about it (I’m looking at you Celery `a la Grecque). If I can find an alternative recipe or a modern take I’ll include that as well.
That is the plan. Time to take a trip back to 1976.