For the first time ever, I was disappointed by something I read in Gourmet magazine. It wasn't an ineffective recipe or mediocre essay, but rather, a letter to the editor written by a reader named Marlynn Marroso from Brighton, Michigan that was printed in the August 2009 issue.
In her letter, Ms. Marroso expresses dismay over the apparent excess of internationally-influenced recipes in the June 2009 issue. She asks sarcastically if she's expected to serve her friends "slab bacon adobo" or "refried black beans" as if the concept of doing so were completely absurd or even disgusting. "This is the United States of America, not Latin America," she notes by way of explanation for her disgust, and sardonically wonders if July readers looking to celebrate Independence Day will be subjected to "some great Mongolian or Ethiopian" recipe. She muses how in the past she would save each of Gourmet's "lovely issues," but notes that she will be "tossing out the June issue." Her reason that there is nothing in the issue worth saving is tacitly understood.
Readers have the freedom to think and write what they want, but it is up to the editors of the magazine to make the selection of which of the hundreds of letters they will print. These letters are selected and, as noted at the bottom of every issue, edited by staff. Most publications choose letters that show an equality of opinion and are representative of the many that they receive. They print both positive and negative letters, and sometimes respond to ones that pose a question or request further clarification. This is the first time, however, that I've come across a letter criticizing the magazine for, essentially, portraying too much diversity.
I understand that perhaps Gourmet was simply trying to allow "equal time" by choosing to print this letter, but in fact what they showed was a lack of judgment. Xenophobic and prejudiced people exist all over this country, but they certainly do not need to be provided with a soap box within the pages of a popular national magazine. On the most basic level, Ms. Marroso's letter lacked the clarity and organization of a well-thought out argument and should have been rejected on that basis alone. And her bigoted refusal to attempt what is quite possibly one of the most perfectly prosaic of all Mexican-influenced dishes, certainly did not merit the four-inches of space she was granted on that page.
Gourmet is a magazine that celebrates food and the experience of the "good life." Recipes both old and new, travel, restaurants, and traditions are all a part of this. Any reader, whether picking up the magazine for the first time, or a subscriber for 30 years, would instantly recognize this. Someone who finds the inclusion of a story about "El Barbecue," a popular tradition among Latin people living in, yes, the United States of America, offensive or who groans at the mere suggestion of trying an "Ethiopian" recipe, is reading the wrong magazine.
The idea that because this is a US-based magazine it should not feature recipes that are actually very deeply ingrained traditions for thousands of citizens of these United States is preposterous, offensive, and incredibly short-sighted. For many Americans, the recipes in the "El Barbecue" story are just as traditional to them as the homemade burgers on page 38 and the steak on the cover. Even if these were completely new recipes, discovered in the deepest reaches of the Amazon and never before heard of in the United States, they would be worth mentioning.
As a full-time magazine editor I know better than to print a letter that blatantly insults and dismisses a significant percentage of the readership. As a budding food writer with aspirations of one day seeing my own byline in Gourmet magazine, I understand the value of being within the pages of that magazine and can't believe that the editors that I respect so highly would have seen fit to include her words--even if only to make a point. Had it been up to me, I could have thought of quite a few ways to better fill that space.
For example, I might have chosen to remind Ms. Marroso that, with the possible exception of corn, nearly everything we eat in this country originated somewhere far away. That there was a time when extra virgin olive oil was not a staple at every dinner table. That pie, the quintessential American dish, originated in the filled flaky filo pastries of the Middle East. I would have pointed out that had it not been for a few clever traders passing through India, the Dutch would have never perfected the art of pickle-making and our all-American burgers would have been left seriously lacking. And (just for fun) I would have pointed out that the very word "gourmet," was appropriated from the language of a country an entire ocean away.
On Independence Day (the holiday whose menu seemed to cause Ms. Marroso much consternation), my boyfriend and I joined my family at a friend's condo in West New York, New Jersey. There, we spent the day watching the Mets play, winning thousands of imaginary dollars on a rerun of Jeopardy, and waiting for the Macy's fireworks to be displayed just a few feet away in the Hudson River. Our table was covered with a selection of alcapurrias, a traditional Puerto Rican yuca fritter filled with sauteed beef that my dad purchased at a nearby Cuban cafe. A guest brought flaky chicken empanadas and grilled Argentine churrasco. And our hostess, a native of Mexico, served us a platter of sliced cucumbers and mangoes served the way she grew up eating them, topped with sprinkles of salt and chile sauce. There were hot dogs, too, and a huge bowl of roasted peanuts. As the day waned and our bellies started once again to grumble, a few of us scrambled across the street to the newly-opened P.F. Chang's, returning with bags heavy with shrimp lo mein and oolong marinated sea bass.
The conversation throughout the day was a blend of English and Spanish, with a sprinkling of Russian when my Ukrainian-born boyfriend called home to speak to his parents. We drank Coca-Cola, Corona, and a couple bottles of Australian shiraz. Our hostess's dog, an adorable half German Shepard/half Chow, scrambled at our feet gobbling up the scraps that dropped to the ground. When the sun set, we grabbed our sweaters and walked down the street to the riverfront where we joined hundreds of other families staring up at the sky. My little brother, who completed five years of active duty in the United States Marine Corps just one year ago, winced visibly as the fireworks soared through the sky; the sound, he told us later, was exactly like that of the rockets that whistled through the sky during the year he served in Iraq. All around us, cameras flashed and families murmured and exclamations from the crowd rose up in a blend of Chinese, Spanish, French, and Arabic. The languages may have been different and the food might not have been "traditional," but the sentiment was absolutely united.
I have no idea what Ms. Marroso did for her Fourth of July, but I can assure you that it was no less American than my own.
UPDATE: Thank you all for your incredible support! If any of you would like to send your own letter to the editors of Gourmet to let them know how you feel about this, you can do so here: http://www.gourmet.com/contact/contact_the_editors