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[whitespace] Newsletters satisfy the grassroots gourmet

By Marina Wolf

I'M BORED with glossy food magazines. Oh, I still subscribe to Food & Wine and let my eyes drift across the food section at the local newsstand. But lately I've been fighting off a certain overwhelmed world-weariness, the inevitable result of constant exposure to the glare of slick pages, the whirl of globetrotting gourmands. I've got altitude sickness in reaction to high prices, attitude sickness in reaction to high noses.

Then recently I stumbled across a lovely piece archived in the Electronic Gourmet about food newsletters by Lynn Kerrigan. After putting a check in the mail for her catalog, A Smorgasbord of Cooks' Periodicals, I ended up sending away for enough sample copies to curve the spines of a squadron of mail carriers. The thin little periodicals that came in response renewed my desire to keep reading about eating.

Quite a few food newsletters exist--Kerrigan counts more than 80 in her most recent catalog--but they are published in obscurity, and marketed and distributed in a way that could be called labyrinthine if it were more organized. As a result they can be disconcertingly ephemeral; Kerrigan doesn't even bind the Smorgasbord anymore because the list changes so frequently. And yet, these newsletters constitute the most exciting body of food literature available today. Of course, there will always be a place in my heart for the kings of the genre--Bon Appetit, Saveur, Fine Cooking. But it is up to newsletters to present an alternate culinary reality.

For starters, food newsletters are personal, almost iconoclastic. They may be written by a team, but the 8- or 16-page format, usually illustrated with quirky clip art, retains the flavor of some lone individual bent over the keyboard or stove. The first-person perspective is implicit. Many of them emerged from a personal discovery or experience: a spouse's heart attack (The Gorgeless Gourmet), for example, or life on the back lines of the restaurant industry (Chew from Madison, Wisc.). Other newsletters offer more explicit reminiscences woven among the recipes, interviews, and the address of the Idaho Potato Commission. But whether fueled by underlying motivation or blow-by-blow experience, these intensely personal tracts make it seem entirely appropriate, for example, to recount the specifics of one's sad dining-out experiences (Convivium) in all their depressing detail, or to lavish 500 words on building a dug-out earthen kitchen, following the example of infantry soldiers in the Civil War (Food History News).

That passion is something that the conventional gourmet glossies can only dream of. Being products of a team effort, mandated by the marketing directives of a corporation, magazines lack the energy behind one person's desire. Sure, they satisfy the basic needs of the widest number of readers, but even that seems incidental at times to channeling product information. The slick photos stir up lust for stoves, dishware, curtains, and truffle oil, while the captions tell where, when, and at what cost you can satiate that lust. Advertising cameos of cars, vacation spots, and watches put in more plugs for the good life. The pressure to consume pervades the ostensible message of good eating, which leaves passion to dry out on a slate-topped counter under the relentless blaze of the photographer's lights.

Newsletter writers, on the other hand, get to keep that passion and combine it with love of words, supplying their readers with compelling and literate prose that is rarely found in mainstream magazines. The writing is eloquent and thoughtful (Edward Behr's The Art of Eating), or bright and schwingy (in the irresistibly retro Hungover Gourmet), or just plain earnest (The Wild Food Adventurer).

COLLECTIVELY, the newsletter genre ends up covering a much wider range of writing styles and topics than you will ever find in the mainstream. Newsletter authors are the voice of their individual efforts, so they don't have to do anything. They can go off on a literate rant about legalizing pot (as did editor Johann Mathieson of Food Words, a catalog/newsletter out of Portland), or indulge in genteel snipery about clueless volunteers at soup kitchens (featured in the holiday issue of the Yountville-based Curmudgeon's Home Companion).

Newsletters don't really need to worry about offending: most don't have ads (which is why some of them cost as much or more than a glossy magazine). Anyway, since the writing is so personal, the objects of the writing rarely assume such importance that brand names and prices are needed. As John Thorne points out in a recent issue of Simple Cooking, it doesn't matter what brand of ramen you buy as long as you know that Vietnamese noodles are best.

All the writers have their own little tricks and tips, but only a rare few opinionated souls care enough to write them down, offering a different view of the dominant culinary culture, like comments scribbled in the margins of society's cookbook. Food newsletters can stretch our consciousness beyond the newest roast-goat variation of some remote Moroccan tribe into a whole new realm of interpersonal discourse: What do you like to talk about at the dinner table? What interests you in the kitchen cupboards of your friends? What was the last good dessert you had, and who fed it to you spoonful by loving spoonful? What are the food habits that you would never have the guts to share with a thousand strangers on a mailing list? Hmph, you say. Even I could write that down.

Well, go ahead. That's what newsletters--zines of the food culture--are all about.


To receive a copy of Lynne Kerrigan's thorough list, A Smorgasbord of Cooks' Periodicals, send $6.95 to Food Writer, P.O. Box 156, Spring City, PA 19475-0156.

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From the February 25-March 3, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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