by Silvana de Soissons•15th August 2011
The Art of Eating is a quarterly food and drink publication from America, created by the food journalist, editor-in-chief and publisher, Edward Behr. Over the last quarter of a century, along with contributing writers, Edward has created what is now regarded as one of the most detailed, scholastic and reliable reference touchstones for those who want in-depth food and drink writing, with no advertising, minimal photography and little reference to celebrity chefs or passing fads. The writing rests on three pillars: quality, interest and significance.
I asked Edward how the magazine started in the very beginning, and this is what he told me:
“I began to think about it, probably, in early 1986, although at the time I didn’t at all envision a magazine but rather a much humbler “food letter.” As with so many other ideas, it became a reality largely through the naïveté of the founder. That is, if I’d know what I was getting into — the complications, the difficulty, the time required — I might never have started. The second component was perseverance or perhaps an unwillingness to compromise.”
There are three main guiding approaches to the writing. Firstly the magazine focuses on traditions: it seeks out those artisanal food and drink producers, farmers, market gardeners, cooks and shopkeepers that either work the land, sow the seeds, harvest the crops, prepare the ingredients or make the food. The main geographic focus of the articles is France, Italy and America, but there are no set restrictions. The Art of Eating tells the tales and explains the methodologies of very ordinary people producing the extraordinary food that conscientious cooks would like to stock in their larders and whose skills should be preserved and passed on to generations in the future.
For example, in the Autumn 2010 edition there is a very long and detailed article about the goats cheese of Soyoung Scanlan, a cheesemaker from California, describing all the stages and challenges that led to her creating her business, and an explanation of how to make your own fresh cheese at home. In the Spring 2011 edition there is a fascinating essay on the cider made from farms in Normandy, written by Charles Neal. Through descriptive prose and meticulous examination you can discover how these artisans work, you can step into their shoes and learn their processes from start to finish.
Secondly, the magazine features simplicity: “Gentle manual treatment produces the clearest, fullest flavour” writes Andrew Behr in his description of The Art of Eating in the website. Much of the work delineated in the magazine may seem simple, but it is always presented in a very informative and educational manner, so that the reader comes to appreciate how layered and detailed production methods actually are. For example, I have gained a deep insight into the history and making of Madeira (“Madeira is History. Long Live Madeira!” by Derrick Schneider), and I have taken apart, annotated and inwardly digested, word by word, the making of Les Canneles de Bordeaux (“When they’re black they’re done” by Molly Wizenburg) as well as the making of Turkish baklava (“Making Baklava in Gaziantep” by Diana Farr Louis).
Thirdly, the Art of Eating upholds a sense of place. Analysing soil, climate, society and local influences, the authors provide the crucial link between locality and larder, topography and table. If we are what we eat, then we also need to consider that where we are born, educated, live and shop defines what we cook and why. We see the bustle and heat of market day in Cholula, Mexico, through the eyes of Deborah Madison, and we taste bright red, smoky Hungarian paprika through the words of Petra Tanos. John Irving has taken us to the fields of “Asparago Violetto di Albenga”, the lilac-purple asparagus stems of Liguria and we can taste the soft, buttery sweetness of Lyon brioches standing next to James MacGuire.
I asked Edward to describe the concerns that underpin the magazine’s approach:
“We’ve lost a lot of skills and tradition — a lot of “cultura”, to use the Italian word. We’ve lost not just the ability to produce some things, but we’ve lost a lot of ability to appreciate them. At the same time, we’ve revived a lot of foods, but not one for one replacing what was lost. And compared with a decade or two, many more people appreciate good food and take an interest in it. And we’ve achieved some things that never existed before. For instance, where I live the quality of bread and the variety and overall quality of cheese far surpass what existed in the past. Many high-quality foodstuffs are available now in the US that were impossible to find in the past. But US mass-market foods on the whole have continued to decline, especially mass-market meats. The condition of the oceans is abominable. We have permanently lost so much farmland in the northeastern US that a sense of ruralness has largely been eliminated from many areas, and they will never produce any appreciable amount of food again.
I don’t think in grand terms of the Art of Eating leaving “a positive educational legacy,” but surely food writers can, should, and are increasing the public consciousness of environmental concerns connected with food.”
The emphasis of the magazine is good research and good writing, very few culinary stones are left unturned, and the structure of each edition is tightly edited and stylised. If you subscribe, make sure you set out a couple of hours of peace, quiet and undisturbed contemplation, maybe over a weekend or train journey, to read it from cover to cover, because there is a natural flow to the content, unlike other food magazines, where you can just dip in and out randomly or cherry pick small sections. Your enjoyment will be much enriched by a more methodical reading endeavour, and you will find that even subject matters that you thought unappealing, through skilful writing, come to life and grip your imagination, inspiring you to research further.
Do take time to peruse and appreciate the quality of the illustrations, feel the weight of the paper, see the clarity of the structure and note the skill of the design, especially the bold front covers. All the individual components of the Art of Eating sit, fit and feel as if they belong together, complement one another and bring pleasure for being brought into a collective whole. This is certainly no easy task.
There is normally a theme that is at the heart of each edition, and the latest (Spring 2011) is all about patisserie. Edward Behr writes about the work of the pastry Chef Shuna Lydon, Pamela Sheldon Johns describes Biscotti di Prato, Lesley Chesterman gets to the heart of Crème Anglaise and Mitchell Davis asks “Where is Dessert Headed?”
There is a restaurant review section and also a cookbook and wine book review, as well as a very detailed wine analysis and review, “Why this bottle, really?”
The very first and (continued) last section of the magazine is the “Letters” to the editor and from this you can quickly grasp the cadre of the readership: intelligent, educated, professional, travelled, articulate and critical.
Subscribing to the magazine from Europe costs $67 for a year (4 editions), and the editions do take a long time to arrive from America (the Spring 2011 edition arrived at my Wiltshire home towards the end of July 2011). It is by no means a cheap read at $1.40 per page. Most off-the-shelf food magazines are obviously quite different, ranging at around £3-£4 each and carrying a great deal of advertising, celebrity Chef coverage and promotions, but, of course, they are aiming their writing at a very different market. Many food and book publishers nowadays just want to publish recipes with beautiful photography, there is very little demand for writers of food history, anthropology and agricultural sustainability in the mainstream market.
All this begs the question, "Is the Art of Eating an elitist magazine?" I will never forget the words that Karen Barnes, editor of one of Britain’s bestselling food magazines, “delicious”, published by Eye to Eye media, told me at a recent interview: “Everything in food writing goes wrong when it tries to become elitist”.
From one perspective any didactic, insightful publication which is stylish, scholastic, very well researched, written and designed is bound to be directed towards the upper echelons of society. At the same time, however, the magazine is showing the craftsmanship of the “contadino”, “paysan” or small holder class, for therein lies the future of our culinary civilisation. One could argue that the single-minded Edward Behr is providing the education that is now, sadly, lacking in the core curriculum of most schools, and as a result he is creating a centre of excellence and debate, regardless of class. Amongst the magazine’s readers, it would be interesting to know which teachers and parents are left, in this rushing, modern world, that are going to show children, step by step, the making of pasta, the growing of apples or the slow fermentation of sourdough. We need more widespread food and drink education, and my wish, were cost not a factor, would be for this magazine to be accessible to all people, of all ages, from all walks of life.
I asked Edward whether, one day, The Art of Eating would join the online community, and this was his reply:
“We hope to find a practical way to publish an electronic edition. After a long hesitation, I think it’s necessary and inevitable.”
The problem is that nobody on the Internet wants to read at length. There are quite strict parameters for word limits in online submissions because the average Internet reader, sadly, wants everything delivered quickly. The Internet is an extremely visual medium, so readers want lots of photography, which, in itself, can be beautiful and informative, although distracting at the same time. There is a vast deluge of unregulated free information on the Internet, and creating a loyal, paying readership online is the challenge of the future. Social media and blogs are the fastest, most fluid and most immediate ways for information to be disseminated in a democratic and fair way, and they play a very big part in raising awareness of the farmers' markets, the sole traders, the family owned artisanal producers and the small village shopkeepers who are left fighting the good fight. The more food publications there are on the Internet that shine a light on these important communities and their crucial work the better, so let us all hope that the Art of Eating makes a smooth and successful transition to the online world.
In the meantime I will continue to enjoy my paper edition, and if what I have written so far enthuses you enough to subscribe to it, then I hope that you will let me know your views once you have had a chance to read it.
The Art of Eating website: www.ArtofEating.com
Peacham, Vermont 05862
Follow on Twitter: @ArtofEating