Four years ago, a colleague of mine showed up in my office holding a pile of overstuffed folders.
“The remains of Gourmet,” she said, nudging the folders toward me.
Inside the folders were printouts of recipes, photos, and a few half-written articles. Some had notes scribbled on them, but most were clean, paperclipped together, and stuck with Post-Its denoting the issues they were destined for: “Dec ‘09,” “Mar ‘10.”
To whomever was smart enough to press print—thank you.
The fact that there never was a December 2009 issue of Gourmet—much less a March 2010—gave the papers an almost mythical weight. Condé Nast (the parent company of Epicurious) in October 2009. The November issue—the Thanksgiving issue—was released, but the December issue was sacked. As far as I knew—as far as almost everybody knew—whatever unpublished material Gourmet left behind was gone for good.
So I took the folders from my coworker’s hands with a little bit of ceremony, puffing out my cheeks as if to say, I accept this responsibility with honor. Then I stuck the papers into a desk drawer, locked it, and barely thought of them again.
Oh, I guess I remembered them sometimes. Once a year I’d flip through and fantasize about publishing them in some grand fashion: A microsite! A one-time magazine! An event…in space! But after a few hours of daydreaming, the files would be back in their drawer.
Then, in October of this year, I passed the power of the papers to Epi’s food editor, Anna Stockwell. We’d been tossing around ideas for our annual holiday menu, so I suggested Anna cook through the Christmas menu in the stack. ”Just once,” I said. “Just to see what happens.” If the recipes didn’t work, or we didn’t like them, I’d walk away from the papers for good.
But of course they worked, and of course we liked them. “We went to a lot of trouble to test the recipes, taste the recipes, blind-taste the recipes,” Lillian Chou, a former food editor at Gourmet, told me. I had tracked Chou down in Los Angeles, where she was on set for a food styling gig. I told her we were about to publish her Christmas menu from the never-published December 2009 issue—not that I expected her to even remember it.
“I remember it very well,” she said. It was the last menu she developed before leaving the magazine in early 2009, a few months before the magazine closed. “I knew I was leaving the country for China. I knew from that point on I was going to go into Asian food for the rest of my life. But I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself.”
So for menu, she went deeply American. Chou’s Christmas menu centers around a grand, garlicky prime rib roast. It’s surrounded by some simple sides like lemony haricot verts and a watercress-persimmon salad, and some slightly more complicated ones (porcini popovers, her answer to Yorkshire pudding). There’s a big bowl of punch, two desserts (three if you count the candied kumquats), and a potato-leek gratin that Chou says she makes all the time. It’s a pricey menu that would require a little sourcing (hello, black truffle butter). And it’s big: twelve recipes total.
Lillian Chou’s Porcini Popovers, one of the lost Christmas recipes of Gourmet magazine.
In other words, it’s about as Gourmet as a menu can get. And the editors knew it.
“Doing the whole big menu every issue was kind of controversial those last few years,” John Willoughby, the magazine’s last executive editor, told me. “The question was, do people really make it? Is it too old-fashioned to have this big fancy menu? Do we really need to do that anymore? But we’d get these responses from readers constantly that they made the whole menu, beginning to end. Which was not something that any of us were doing. We didn’t really cook that way anymore.”
Maybe if Gourmet had lived on, the menus would have ceased completely, or become a little smaller. The magazine was already tucking 10-minute recipes into its pages, and devoting space to food politics, such as the writings of Barry Estabrook. Each issue was a conversation between the old Gourmet and Ruth Reichl’s new Gourmet, which even in her tenth year continued to evolve. It’s possible that if Gourmet were still around, it would have eventually tried to compete with the 30-second cooking videos on Instagram or the Oreo hacks on Pinterest. But I choose to believe that it would have been the respite from all that, just like it was when it was still around.
I admit that I miss it. I think that one reason I kept the last recipes—the lost recipes—of Gourmet in my desk drawer for four years was because I didn’t know how to do them justice. I wanted to do something special, something over the top (see my space idea above). It wasn’t until I tasted this menu that I decided that simply releasing the recipes into the world would be special enough. It’s true that people don’t cook 12-course Christmas menus anymore. But maybe that’s because Gourmet isn’t here to give us the menus to cook.
This content was originally published here.