Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Foodie Mags: What to Buy and Where to Get ‘em

Along with every other industry these days, print media is suffering a crisis. Unable to compete with the constant informational flow of a 24-hour internet news cycle, newspapers and magazines are losing both readers and advertisers at an alarming rate. Some are in danger of folding. Some have already folded. Some are beefing up their websites, in anticipation of moving online permanently. Most are just kind of panicking.

Food magazines aren’t being spared. Bon Appetit sold 16.5% fewer ad pages in 2008 than in 2007. Gourmet took a 23.5% hit. And the future isn’t promising, either. Chow’s Joyce Slayton paints this bleak picture: “[though] circulation is largely steady, ad pages have declined anywhere from 18 to 42 percent when you compare the first three months of 2009 with the same time period in 2008.” Yikes.

While this heralds doominess for magazines and their staffs, it comes with an unexpected side effect: all of a sudden, glossies are going for well below their regular prices. With coupon codes, we’re talking yearly subscriptions for $13. That’s a highly affordable indulgence for those of us who love reading about food. Plus, think of the gifting possibilities: your mom + Cook’s Illustrated = world peace.

Of course, there are risks. If your favorite magazine goes belly-up over the next year, there’s no telling if refunds will be forthcoming. And there’s always the possibility of purchasing a subscription, having a shiny new issue delivered to your home, and discovering you hate it. Still – for $13? The gamble should be worth it.

When you’re looking for subscription rates, it’s a good idea to check Magazines.com first. The site usually has the lowest available prices (that I’ve seen, anyway), and generally accepts coupon codes from both Retail Me Not and Coupon Cabin. (Ex: as of this posting, entering “COUPONCABIN” will get you $5 off any glossy of your choosing.) It’s a good idea to go to the magazine’s home site next, at least for a price check. Sometimes, as in the case of Cook’s Illustrated, they’ll offer the best rate. Of course, if all else fails, get thee to Amazon. Their costs are comparable, and most Earthlings are familiar and comfortable with their ordering system.

But … what food glossies are worth buying? Which have tastier recipes? Better pictures? More engaging writing? Which have an online presence that makes the magazine kind of redundant? Let’s explore, with two points in mind:
  • All prices are from Magazines.com unless specified otherwise.
  • All opinions are mine, and don’t necessarily reflect that of the greater U.S. population.
Here we go…

Bon Appétit
12 issues for $15
DESCRIPTION: Often mentioned in the same breath as Gourmet (since they’re both published by Condé Nast), BA is a fine food mag for folks who can afford fine food. Pretty pictures and fancy recipes abound, with a few nods to everyday cooks as well. A recent format change upset many longtime readers, but it remains one of the pillars of the upscale kitchen experience. (Meaning: lots of food porn.)
ONLINE PRESENCE: The site for the mag itself is passable, though not stellar. More impressive is its associate site, Epicurious, one of the hugest, best food destinations in existence. If you’ve never seen it (go now!), it boasts big features, lots of columns, and a bazillion archived recipes. The overall tone seems more down-to-earth than either Bon Appétit or Gourmet, which makes it more appealing to dummies like me. When/if either mag folds (and they’re in deep trouble, yo), they shouldn’t have a problem switching to all ‘net, all the time.

Cook’s Illustrated / Cook’s Country
6 issues (12 months) for $24.95 on the Cook’s Illustrated site
DESCRIPTION: Ohmygoodness. If you’re at peace with the lack of photos, it’s the best magazine about food ever to exist, ever. Ever. Taking an Alton Brown-esque approach to cooking, CI makes a single dish dozens of times to find the perfect version, so you can be sure the recipes actually work. The mag itself is filled to the brim with tips, diagrams, and personal touches from Christopher Kimball’s crack team of mad food scientists. Cook’s Country is its pretty spinoff, concentrating on down-home American fare.
ONLINE PRESENCE: BOO, I say. Boo. While content is extensive, major points are deducted for being subscription-only. There’s a 14-day free trial period for exploration’s sake, but it goes up to $35/year after that. Boo.

Cooking Light
12 issues for $18
DESCRIPTION: Occasionally frustrating, sometimes enlightening, and always worth a flip-through, Cooking Light is the bible for perpetually dieting foodies like myself. While I have issues with their serving sizes and oft-unattainable ingredients, there’s no better glossy dedicated to healthy cuisine. Packed wall-to-wall with recipes, it also has substantial sections dedicated to trends, exercise, and lifestyle,
ONLINE PRESENCE: Solid. If you’re just looking for recipes, don’t bother with the magazine. Almost all the dishes they’ve ever published can be found online, and the reviews are worth their weight in bacon. However, if you’re more into tips, feature articles, and all the other fun stuff that comes with a glossy, go for the subscription.

Everyday with Rachael Ray
10 issues for $15 on her site
DESCRIPTION: Your appreciation for this magazine will most likely depend entirely on your appreciation for Ms. Ray. Beyond that, EWRR can claim a truly attractive layout, major attention paid to budget concerns, and tons of do-able recipes. The best part: the ability to absorb this information without having to listen to all those flat "a"s.
ONLINE PRESENCE: Pretty great actually, especially when coupled with her regular site, RachaelRay.com, and the Food Network site, where quite a few of her recipes can be found. (She’s really excellent that way, in terms of user friendliness.) The magazine itself has more longform content, so I might take a look at it in-person before making a decision.

Everyday Food
10 issues for $12 on the Everyday Food site
DESCRIPTION: Published by the Martha Stewart empire, Everyday Food concentrates on … well, take a guess. It’s mostly simple, speedy, largely healthy meals you can do day in and day out. While I don’t have much experience with the mag itself, I’ve whipped up several excellent dishes from the EF cookbook, and can vouch for their general palatability. And really, does Martha ever go wrong with dinner?
ONLINE PRESENCE: Huge, if you take the entirety of MarthaStewart.com into account. The magazine, which I believe concentrates largely on recipes, may not be a necessary purchase if you can easily access the site, then. That said, Amazon reviewers are still head over heels for their subscriptions.

Food & Wine
12 issues for $19.95
DESCRIPTION: I have a new subscription to F&W, and am pretty impressed thus far. The layout is effortless and the writing’s okay, but mostly it’s because an issue doesn’t go by where I’m not all like, “Oo! I want to try that and that and that and that. And that, too.” However, LOTS of attention is paid to wine. (Thus the title.) If you love reds and whites, this is a plus. If you don’t care, you’ll be all like, “Ugh. Stick to the food, dorks.”
ONLINE PRESENCE: Good. Includes a TON of recipes, wine choices, and vacation guides, but very few of the articles and extras found inside the magazine, so you don’t quite get the full effect. You’ll log on and be all like, “Oh, I love the accessibility of the food, but want to know more about road trips through Italy. UNH. YEAH.”

Food Network Magazine
12 issues for $11.99 (Amazon only)
DESCRIPTION: Honestly, I’ve never read it, but its chief advantage over its competitors seems to be the celebrity factor. Amazon describes it thusly: “Food Network Magazine is the only food magazine out there that covers every amazing aspect of food and food culture. The wide range of dishes made on Food Network is reflected in the pages of the magazine, and it's the only magazine that features all your favorite stars.” So, that's fun. (Um ... who wrote that? I'm not usually one to diss another person's work, but man alive, that paragraph sucked.)
ONLINE PRESENCE: Stellar, as it’s essentially the Food Network website itself. There’s nothing you CAN’T find there, unless you’re looking for a semi-sexy 8”x11” portrait of Bobby Flay for your cubicle. (Which? We need to talk.)

Gourmet
12 issues for $15
DESCRIPTION: Edited by esteemed author/ex-New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, Gourmet is one of the oldest and most highly regarded fine food mags. Along with good retrospectives and food politics pieces, it offers a diversity of classic/classy recipes, which frequently include expensive ingredients and/or complex prep techniques. (Some don’t, though.) While this sounds intimidating, many devotees will swear up and down that Gourmet recipes never fail.
ONLINE PRESENCE: Very good, but see the entry for Bon Appétit for Gourmet's similar connection to Epicurious.

Saveur
9 issues for $19.95
DESCRIPTION: The National Geographic of food magazines, Saveur is gorgeously designed, well-written, and boasts pictures that wouldn’t be out of place at most gallery openings. It’s a total feast for the eyes, which sometimes means a dearth of actual recipes. But if you’re reading for the culture, stories, and history of food, you can’t do better.
ONLINE PRESENCE: Good, with a decent recipe archive and a nice section on basic cooking techniques. But of all the magazines listed, this is the one I’d most like to have in my hands – to physically leaf through while sipping a glass of wine. Its prettiness can not be overstated.

Not included in this rundown for one reason or another, but you might consider: Better Homes and Gardens, Eating Well, Fine Cooking, Good Housekeeping, Martha Stewart Living, Paula Deen’s mag, Real Simple, Southern Living, Vegetarian Times, Weight Watchers

Not included, but please don’t consider: Sandra Lee’s mag (*shudder*)

Not included, but I wish existed: a Barefoot Contessa mag. C’mon, Ina! Get on this thing!

Readers, how about you? What magazines do you prefer? Where do you usually purchase your subscriptions?

(Photos courtesy of Wearenotmartha, Annie Blooms Books, and Durham Bull's Eye News.)

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