Reading Periodically

I just renewed my subscription to Cook’s Illustrated, my favorite cooking magazine. For years and years before the World Wide Web and before cookbooks had become one of the largest categories in book stores I subscribed to Gourmet and Bon Appetit, because those magazines were the best bets for a varied collection of recipes. In those days the first step I took in planning a dinner party was to sit in the middle of the living room floor with all my back issues and a note pad and go through every issue – often multiple times – putting together a menu.

I didn’t actually read those magazines. They’d arrive in the mail, I’d scan all the recipes, flag one or two to try, and after trying them file the issue away. The editorial content on parties in the Hamptons or three-star restaurants in Vienna didn’t interest me.

But in 1993, I received a copy of the charter issue of Cook’s Illustrated and fell completely in love. This was a cooking magazine. The authors explained what they tried, what they ended up with, why the end result worked, and the recipes were, er, spot on. Furthermore, the reviews clearly explained what they were looking for in a sauce pan or tomato sauce. In other words, these were reviews in the tradition of Consumer Reports and the kind of analysis I’d been taught to write when reviewing software. It was – and remains – a magazine for and by cooks without the froo-froo travelogues and parties. I subscribed immediately and, 15 years later, it’s still my favorite cooking magazine.

I confess, I don’t rely on CI as much as I once did, in large part because I’ve learned so much over the years from the magazine. But I still read almost every bit of the magazine as soon as it arrives. Some folks object to CI’s rather dry tone and pedantic attention to detail (no pictures!) but if you want to improve your cooking you can’t do better than subscribing to Cook’s Illustrated.

I also subscribe to Cuisine at Home. Like CI, Cuisine is bi-monthly, unlike CI it provides neither the technical depth nor recipes that are as consistently useful. Nevertheless, I do occasionally use recipes from it (albeit usually with some tweaking) and even a few of my favorite recipes began on the pages of Cuisine. I’ve been a subscriber for about six years.

My other long-term subscription is to Fine Cooking. Again, it’s bi-monthly, but unlike the other two magazines it includes advertising. FC’s production values are excellent, it’s just plain fun to flip through looking at all the food porn (pictures!). In terms of technical content it falls between CI and Cuisine and I think the recipes are generally as good as Cook’s Illustrated.

I’ve twice subscribed to Cooking Light but I’ve never received an issue. I don’t recall what happened the first time, but most recently they wanted me to pay for the subscription before sending an issue – at least I kept getting bills and never got a copy, and I wasn’t going to buy a pig in a poke.

I also regularly try a year’s subscription to the likes of Gourmet, Saveur, and Food and Wine. Currently I get Bon Appetit again. But these magazines simply don’t hold my interest. They are cocktail table publications, intended more to impress guests than provide tools for work-a-day cooks.

If you, like me, are truly obsessed then the food magazine for you is the Art of Eating. If you want to impress a real foodie, have AoE on your coffee table. And if you’re just a food wacko, you’ll read a few pages each night before going to sleep to stretch it out as long as possible. This quarterly publication edited by a former plumber named Edward Behr happily devotes 8,000 words on the cheeses produced in a single valley in France, dwelling in detail on how the product from the northern side of the valley differs from that on the southern.

Readers know I’m not an inverse food snob – I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy dream vacations where I got to cook for friends and family in Spain and Italy. And I’d love nothing more than a couple of weeks spent cooking in Southern France, Greece or Morocco. When I do dinner parties for myself or clients I give a great deal of thought to presentation – and love having the opportunity to do so. But I prefer the work – and the creativity – involved in doing the cooking and presentation myself rather than copying a magazine’s efforts for my table.