Food Rules

Once the province of how-to cooking shows, food media has extended its reach—but has it become too big?

Bon Appétit publisher Pamela Drucker Mann attributes much of the change to packaged food advertisers like Kellogg’s and Nestlé, which have had to scale back their buys in some food titles, as rising production costs and consumer flight to generics simultaneously squeeze their spending. From January through July of 2011, Kellogg’s advertising, for example, was down 28 percent across the titles Bon Appétit defines as its competitive set: Cooking Light, Everyday Food, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Food Network Magazine, Food & Wine, and Saveur. But increased interest from other categories helped offset that drop. Business technology was up 45 percent, health and pharmaceutical up 35 percent, beauty up 14 percent, and auto up 10 percent in those same titles, according to Mann.

Niche media has grown as well. Even author Dave Eggers is getting in on the game: His publishing house, McSweeney’s, recently launched the new food and lifestyle quarterly Lucky Peach with chef David Chang. The politics of food alone—having mostly to do with where it has been sourced and whether it's organic—has given birth to a deluge of popular blogs, such as Sustainable Table (, and magazines like Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. Readers, says Darra Goldstein, editor-in-chief of the quarterly, “range from hip 20-somethings to the kind of well-heeled readership that also likes The New Yorker.” Andrew Knowlton, restaurant editor at Bon Appétit and a former Iron Chef America judge (a Food Network program), adds that “those celebrity chefs people love and some of the food community takes for granted … are educating the public on the politics of food. People might roll their eyes at spending so much on an heirloom tomato, but the fact [that] they have an opinion on an heirloom tomato can only be a good thing.”

Indeed, the more we think about food, the more aware we are of what we’re eating. It’s no coincidence that the boom in food media comes when obesity in America is at an all-time high and Americans are realizing their bad eating habits are shortening life expectancies.

But the expansion also suggests that a bust is on its way. The sheer number of choices is overwhelming, which may be why there’s been some slippage in the TV landscape: Food Network’s Nielsen rating slipped 4 percent year-over-year, Top Chef’s most recent season premiere drew 1.66 million viewers, down more than 1 million from the series’ highwater mark of season five, and Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine lost 14 percent in ad revenue from last year, according to the MPA, Association of Magazine Media. And critics say the glut of reality-show competitions associated with cuisine has cheapened the culinary landscape. The field is becoming so crowded, goes the argument, that food media is being pushed to absurd extremes.

More likely, however, these slips are not indicative of the larger picture. Not only has consumer interest in food translated into increasing gourmand tastes, food is also a leveler of class, as Pollan has noted: “If Julia [Child] took the fear out of cooking, these shows take the fear—the social anxiety—out of ordering in restaurants. … Then, at the judges’ table [in shows like Top Chef], we learn how to taste and how to talk about food.”

“Being a chef or tasting good food doesn’t mean eating at a fancy French restaurant with 17 knives and forks and 15 wineglasses anymore,” adds Gail Simmons, Top Chef judge and special projects manager for Food & Wine. “Anyone can eat well if you learn tricks of the trade. Now when I’m out at dinner, I overhear strangers at another table discussing the acidity of a dish.”

And larger societal trends may continue to drive America’s fascination with food and the media that surrounds it. “The smaller the world becomes, the more similar it becomes,” says Bon Appétit’s Knowlton. “But as much as there is a Starbucks on every corner, food is one of the few things left that defines who we are. It gives us insight into a culture.

And that’s not going away. In fact, we’ll all probably have to work harder to keep up with it.”