Gourmet (the recession edition): Foodies cut costs

Three years ago I made a batch of "champagne brownies" that had been making the rounds of food blogs. I decided to go local, and buy all my ingredients from around Oregon; including the sparkling pinot noir and the Dacoba chocolate. My price tag for one pan of brownies came in around $60 (luckily, I had a little sparkling wine left over). My finished object, though it was so rich it was barely edible, was an image worthy of food mags.

Such were the heady times of 2006 and 2007. Remember the covers of Gourmet and Food & Wine ca. March 2006? A nattily dressed couple drinking cafe au lait and noshing on croissants avec chocolat in front of a European bakery window. In Food & Wine that month, a recipe for lobster udon noodles with bok choy was featured.

This March's magazines are... different. On Gourmet's cover: a ham sandwich. Food & Wine's February 2009 edition sports butternut squash soup (I can make that for $2). On Bon Appetit for March: shepherd's pie (feed a family for $6, I can). '5 Amazing Pot Pies" reads a headline. Inside Food & Wine: tips on bringing your own wine to a restaurant, a classic way to save money while still living the good life.

Magazine editors are quoted in the New York Times this week encouraging their readers to "instead of beef tenderloin, make an eye of round beef roast," and avoiding "recipes that involve loads of foie gras and shavings of truffles." Gourmet has even gone so far as to post an excellent weekly column by W. Hodding Carter, author of the upcoming book on "Extreme Frugality," his editor's name for living within his modest means.

How have we come so far, and, are any advertisers going to stay along for the ride? It's easy to answer the first question: our credit cards are maxed out and the bank is saying "no" to buying caviar and fun trips to Paris for pain au chocolat with our home equity. Advertisers, well, no. They're not going along for the ride at all; at Gourmet, ad pages are down 42% for the first three issues of the year, compared to the same time in 2008. At Food & Wine and Bon Appetit, the declines are around 30%.

This means that, either food magazines have to be so relevant that the content stands on its own (and subscribers are willing to pay higher prices), or some of these magazines are going to start shutting down. Lots of speculation has surrounded Bon Appetit's future; whatever happens, it's sure that the newsstands will be skinnier come March 2010.

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