Haute Cuisine: Food Journalism, Once a Throwaway Compendium of Recipes and "What's Hot" Articles, Has Gone Upscale. Newspapers and Magazines Are Dedicating Top Talent to the Food Beat, and They Are Hungry for Sophisticated Stories with Timely Angles

Article excerpt

R.W. "Johnny" Apple, the famously formidable New York Times chronicler of wars, presidents and political horse races, now spends his time scrutinizing such complexities as the bouquet of the French brandy Armagnac, the hybrid cuisine of the Italian city Trieste and the wonders of Wisconsin bratwursts.

The New Yorker every year dedicates entire issues to subjects like the arts, books and money. Last summer, a double issue revolved around food. Food-related features, too, are common in the magazine (including a profile of Apple by prolific food writer Calvin Trillin).

The Atlantic magazine has a full-time food writer, Corby Kummer, and Newsweek's executive editor, Dorothy Kalins, was editor of the food magazine Saveur before joining the newsweekly. Maybe her stewardship of the magazine had something to do with a cover story--smack in the middle of historic debates among Congress, the Bush administration and foreign governments before going to war in Iraq--about organic produce.

Food journalism has long persisted as an oxymoron, with newspaper food pages little more than wire-service recipe dumps and magazine articles barely scraping deeper than "what's hot and what's not."

But that's changing, food writers and editors say. Newspapers around the country are dedicating top staffers to the food beat, and they are hungry for well-reported stories with timely angles. Magazines, too, are hiring accomplished writers and paying them to travel around the world in search of good grub copy. Food writers Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue and Jonathan Gold of Gourmet were both up for National Magazine Awards for criticism and for other categories in 2002. Steingarten won the Leisure Interests category. In 2000, the food magazine Saveur won the National Magazine Award for general excellence, and in 2003 it was a finalist for the award.

The transformation of food journalism from "five things to do with cream of mushroom soup" to the subject of an entire issue of The New Yorker, longtime food writers say, has a lot to do with changing attitudes about food across the country.

"Food is coming into American culture in a really strong way, but I started writing about food 30 years ago and everybody thought it was weird. It was seen as 'women's page' stuff," Gourmet Editor in Chief Ruth Reichl says in an interview in her grand Times Square office. "Food has become a part of popular culture in the way film or theater is."

Cable television is crowded with celebrity chefs wielding knives and shaking saute pans. Supermarkets from Atlanta to Albuquerque carry dozens of different olive oils, heaps of fresh lemon grass, organic poussin and sushi. The same cities might also support one or more of the natural-foods emporiums--for example, Whole Foods Market or Wild Oats Market--peppering the country. And just about every town of any size, says former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes, has "a decent approximation of a bistro now."

"Readers aren't going to put up with wire-service copy and grocery ads," Grimes says. "It was a huge day at the Times when salsa overtook ketchup as the No. 1 condiment. They made that a page-one story. That says a lot about how journalism has changed. The sense of what has a claim on reader interest and what qualifies as news has changed remarkably in a short amount of time."

It wasn't long ago that little more than free-floating recipes and sappy features larded the food section of the Baltimore Sun. The section, says former Sun deputy managing editor for sports and features Stephen Proctor, was "a 1950s idea, with a focus on recipes" and "designed for the woman at home making dinner."

Management had talked about revamping the section since the mid-1990s and finally decided to spend the money on a makeover, which was unveiled in early 2001.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Food "has become more of an entertainment now," says Proctor, now deputy managing editor for news at the San Francisco Chronicle. …