February 2006

Melissa Fischer

magazine whore

Intellectual Gastronomica vs. Low-Brow CHOW

Classic staples of the foodie lit diet like Gourmet and Bon Appetit need to make room on their plates for a new generation of epicurean reads, including Gastronomica, the “fine arts” of food mags, and the youthfully quirky yet satisfyingly substantial CHOW. Rather than adding more of the same to the already bursting shelves of cuisine themed ‘zines, these relative newcomers bring unique approaches that even M.F.K. Fisher would deem finger lickin’ good.

A menu created from all of the recipes in the current issue of Gastronomica would start with spiced honey wine from ancient Rome, move to an entrée of cheese fritters (again, ancient Rome), and finish with MacDowell Colony whoopee pies. This is because Gastronomica is less concerned with recipes than it is with critical analyses of food’s history and uses. An academic journal, Gastronomica goes beyond the mere superficial consumption of food to examine its cultural situation; for example, Mark Morton’s “Boning Up on Language” provides an historical overview of the linguistic appropriations of food words, including the snippet: “Fruit’ has been used as a pejorative name for male homosexuals since at least the 1930s.”

And if that isn’t edification enough, see Margaret B. Blackman’s treatise on the utilitarian nature of refrigerator facades, or Jordan Sand’s “A Short History of MSG.” Also in the Fall issue is a visually delicious essay on the menu collection of Henry Voigt, Deanna Putnam’s memories of belly dancing and Greek wine, and a collection of book reviews ranging from the academic (Roman Food Poems: A Modern Translation) to the obscure (Greek Salad: A Dionysian Travelogue). In short, Gastronomica is a food journal for people who enjoy -- as its editors describe -- “food focused scholarship, fiction, poetry, humor, and exciting visual imagery.” To sample some of their offerings, head to Gastronomica.org.

CHOW, on the other hand, is light and casual fare, though no less entertaining than its erudite counterpart. Unlike Gastronomica, CHOW is rich with recipes, glossy photos of food, and the kinds of semi-useless information I love to retain: “If you ate a pound of anything and stepped on the scale immediately, you would weigh a pound more.” (More importantly, can someone explain how I can go to sleep weighing a pound less than I do upon awakening? Alien visitation?) “I hate the fucking French,” ex-kleptomaniacal drug fiend turned restaurateur Gabrielle Hamilton subtly emotes in a “hardcore” interview, and a list of the top ten most frequently shoplifted items includes Preparation H suppositories taking 9th place. CHOW forgoes uptight connoisseurism to create an arena in which the Cuban Christmas Feast peacefully coexists with the “Old and Improved” Thanksgiving dinner; the results are both mouthwatering and inspiring. Where Gastronomica earns a place on the bookshelf, CHOW is more likely to take on an eggy patina as readers maneuver their way through apartment kitchens to create its luscious concoctions.

Like Gastronomica, CHOW also includes a healthy diet of book reviews, and doesn’t limit itself to the territory of cookbooks. Menzel and D’Aluisio’s Hungry Planet is “a look at families around the world through the food they eat,” while Please Feed Me involves “a collection of anecdotes and vegan recipes from some of punk’s finest.” Food-themed DVDs, kitchen accessories, and table-top embellishments are also reviewed, and an article on counterfeit foods provides recommendations for purchasing high-quality staples like balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The current issue’s “Last Bite” takes the cake, however: instructions for creating the elusive takeout foil swan are guaranteed to make your refrigerator-door poetry more magnetic as its contents swell with a silvery aviary. At Chowmag.com, you’ll find recipes and the bloggish “Chow for now,” a pu-pu platter of food-themed news.