Jun 9th, 2011 by Jonathan Sills
I refer regularly to Jim Harrison’s collection of food essays the Raw & the Cooked because even though they were written more than ten years ago their relevance to contemporary culinary trends persists. In one such essay, Harrison writes about the tens of millions of chicken legs and thighs the US ships to Russia annually because the domestic market has a preference for the breast. Mocking America’s stupidity and wastefulness, he imagines the ship sinking and the surprise of a frenzy of sharks as they bite down on tons of frozen dark meat.
When in this month’s issue of Bon Appetit I noticed a side-by-side of features on Fergus Henderson and Gwyneth Paltrow, I recalled Harrison’s essay. Credited for his emphasis on Nose to Tail eating, the BA article features Henderson discussing the traditional British Sunday roast — something that he neither resurrected nor uses offal nor is seasonal for the June issue — and the feature on Paltrow showcases her new family cookbook My Father’s Daughter and the way it places her at the heart of domestic cookery.
Henderson, an architect by training turned restaurateur, is a man whose reputation hinges on having turned his back on our inherently wasteful carnivorous habits, and who, in so doing, inspired a generation of chefs and home cooks to do the same. Paltrow, an actress, celebrity macrobiotic vegetarian and hispano-file turned TV karaoke sensation, is using her fame to encourage families to eat healthily together. Both are laudable goals, with broadly similar underlying philosophies of reduced carbon footprints and personal happiness. However, one is an established giant in the gastronomic world whose cookbooks have been cult classics for years, the other is a bona fide A-list celebrity and first-time cookbook author. Which of them do you think Bon Appetit featured on the cover?
As it happens, in many ways I rather like the new direction BA editor Adam Rapoport is taking the magazine. For me, turning it into a journal that appeals to both ends of the home cook and food enthusiast spectrum – and reclaiming some of the now absent Gourmet magazine’s territory – something these two contrasting features amply demonstrates, is both admirable and sensible. The improved graphics and slightly quirkier editorial line are also significant improvements over Barbara Fairchild’s rather constipated copy and frumpy presentation, but I must descry the bandwaggoning of Gwyneth. People whose entire career’s have been spent innovating and producing excellence behind the burners have never made BA’s cover, and simply because she’s currently flavor of the month after karaoke-ing her way into the spotlight again, to make her the cover story almost at her first foray into the food world seems both perverse and wrong, particularly since she’s not even the first good-looking female celebrity to write a cookbook.
Indeed, the article featuring Ms. Paltrow is little more than two paragraphs long which wouldn’t normally constitute lead article status, even in a publication as light on reading material as BA typically is, so the use of her celebrity to make it cover material is barely disguised. What’s more – and I’m no prude – the photo spread accompanying the article competes with Rachel Ray’s FHM spread in the tasteless stakes for objectifying her as eye candy – perhaps unsurprising for an editor whose own reputation was built at GQ, but the article is at pains to promote Paltrow’s recipes, describing them as being of the same ilk as those of Jamie Oliver and the River Cafe cookbook, the popularity of which suggests some kind of cynicism on behalf of the publisher.
Now, you might argue that the way Paltrow cooks bears a much closer resemblance to the way we cook at home than the magical concoctions of Ferran Adria, and while that might very well be true, if I wanted a celebrity to show me how to cook spaghetti with cherry tomatoes I’d buy a copy of People magazine and expect to find her recipes there.
Nonetheless, I have no personal beef with Gwyneth. I am entirely prepared to concede that she is very likely a great human being: a loving and devoted mother, an abundantly talented actress and singer, and a polymath, able to turn her hand successfully to almost any venture. However, I still maintain that the arrival of her first cookbook should not justify an appearance on the cover of one of the world’s pre-eminent culinary journals, if for no other reason than it somehow cheapens that publishing real estate for subsequent issues and mocks those whose careers should justify such an esteemed location.
On another level, while BA’s final page feature of some celebrity and their food faves has been underway for a while and is mostly tolerable, to devote the cover to a mainstream celebrity when such folk already have an entire press industry devoted to them and their glamorous lives already is very disappointing. Surely the role of the food press is to highlight those really making a difference in the food world not to cravenly devote column inches to Hollywood celebrities parachuting in when they feel like promoting their credentials as lifestyle models? Comments welcome.