Decades of subscribers referred to it as the bible, the Good Book propped perennially on the kitchen counter, an enticing recipe marked with a wooden spoon.
But now Gourmet, the country's oldest food magazine, has been shut down, its last issue dated November. Condé Nast Publications announced Monday that it will retire the magazine, along with Modern Bride, Elegant Bride and Cookie, a parenting publication. All this on the heels of killing Portfolio and Domino magazines and folding Men's Vogue into Vogue earlier this year.
With a circulation of 980,000 at the end of 2008, Gourmet reportedly experienced one of the steepest ad sales declines in the business. According to Publishers Information Bureau, Gourmet's ad pages dropped 50 percent in the second quarter relative to last year. Another Condé Nast magazine and a Gourmet competitor, Bon Appétit, will continue monthly circulation.
In January, rumors swirled that Condé Nast would retire one of its two food magazines, but the big money was on Bon Appétit's demise. Gourmet, edited by former New York Times restaurant critic and best-selling memoirist Ruth Reichl, has always had the greater cachet, with its luscious photography and impeccable stable of literary titans, from M.F.K. Fisher to David Foster Wallace and Annie Proulx. Perhaps more importantly, Gourmet, established in December 1940, was responsible for teaching generations of post-WWII Americans to cook, with no training wheels and few cans of cream of mushroom soup.
"I started subscribing around 1975," says Sandra Seltzer of Treasure Island, wife of restaurateur Harold Seltzer and a self-described "empty-nest goddess."
"There I was, a young married woman, I'd bought my Julia Child and my New York Times Cookbook, I had my fancy new Limoges china and I was ready to have dinner parties."
For Stephanie Hobson of Carrollwood, Gourmet was a life line.
"I started reading it in the mid 1980s. I was already a decent cook by that point, but because I was raised in the Midwest, it exposed me to other cultures and to what was trendy in the rest of the country."
So what went wrong?
The magazine's demise comes after a three-month analysis by McKinsey & Co. of Condé Nast's costs, and although the company had no comment on Monday, in a staff memo Condé Nast CEO Charles Townsend said the closures were required "to navigate the company through the economic downturn."
Bon Appétit lives, Gourmet dies.
Both contain travel stories, restaurant features, wine advice and recipes galore, but if you listen to the country's voluble foodies on the boards at Chowhound.com, Gourmet failed to stay current. With stiffer competition from recipe Web sites such as Allrecipes.com, Simplyrecipes.com and Epicurious.com (to which Gourmet contributes), Gourmet increasingly turned to exotic travel spreads, think pieces and elaborately themed dinner parties in its pages.
"I've read both of those magazines for 15 years, but they're totally different magazines," says Lorraine Fina Stevenski of Clearwater, a recipe developer and gourmet home cook. "Gourmet isn't really for the average home cook. Ruth Reichl is a home cook, not really a chef, so I'm surprised she's let this magazine get away from her like this. But the recipes aren't really easy to do, and the stories are more geared toward what's going on around the world."
Hobson agrees that tone may have contributed to its undoing.
"The recipes in Bon Appétit aren't as esoteric; it's a little more with it in terms of what the average American likes. In recent years I've felt that Gourmet is talking down to us," she says.
Millions of home cooks will mourn the passing of this 70-year-old kitchen companion. But as Seltzer sums it up: "I've always been a foodie. Gourmet was the bible, the first cooking magazine I ever subscribed to.
"But these days I'm trying to cut down on waste and paper consumption."
Laura Reiley is the Times' food critic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.