Bon Appetit

I'm under the impression it can't be all that hard to cobble together a food magazine. Dump a bunch of recipes, restaurant reviews and violently glazed photos into an anodized aluminum wok, sauté over something vaguely hot (e.g., a NYC subway grate, a circa-1988 photo of Katarina Witt), and voilà: immaculately packaged reading for the chained-to-the-Cuisinart set.

Or maybe it's just that Bon Appétit makes the task look inordinately easy. The January issue of the mag does not attempt to reinvent the foodie genre or any other; it hews closely to the title's longtime cover line ("America's Food and Entertaining Magazine") and boasts a minimum of the obnoxious graphic frippery that makes art directors do somersaults. In short, it delivers precisely what the reader expects. Again: not difficult.

The January issue devotes most of its space to a "Best of the Year" feature, which surveys categories both obvious (top dish, cuisine, desserts) and slightly less conventional (top ingredient, which gives bacon some long-overdue love). Happily, Bon Appétit doesn't wax rhapsodic about any of the award winners; the last thing the world needs is a 2,000-word celebration of the little miracle that is braised venison au Oprah. Instead, the mag offers a few quick notes and then segues effortlessly into the recipes, which themselves are simply written and plainly presented.

The best-of destination piece on the city formerly known as Saigon offers a few bursts of local color and--eureka!--a map directing gastronomes to the culinary landmarks it highlights. The best-of dining room looks story, on the other hand, simply presents an elegant dinner-table spread upon which any slobbo would be delighted to topple his Juicy Juice.

The mag's regular sections are equally low-key and useful. "Wine & Spirits" features a sake primer and buying guide, while "At the Market" introduces readers to star anise (a spice, or something) and incorporates it in a bunch of recipes. The subtlety even extends to product flogging: though Bon Appétit showcases its share of kitchen-y gear, it does so with a minimum of hype. A mineral-water carafe is presented as just that: a sharp-looking container for mineral water, rather than as THE dining-room accessory find of the season.

The issue also got me to thinking about food photography. In the new breed of cooking mags, the trend seems to be towards gussying up food to the extent that is barely recognizable as such. I mean, thanks to exotic lighting and obtuse angles and other in-your-face artfulness, I've seen photos of croutons that somehow resemble my Aunt Enid. Mercifully, Bon Appétit bucks this trend, capturing dishes in the condition that they'll exist on my plate.

I'm not entirely wild about the mag's headlines, where it earns demerits for beyond-obvious puns like "bring home the bacon" and "hello, Delhi." Also, any magazine not named TV Guide that's featuring a Desperate Housewife nowadays oughta broaden its celebrity horizons a bit. (To Bon Appétit's credit, it refrains from flogging her presence on the cover.) What, you're telling me that not a single member of the "Scrubs" cast likes soup?

I don't know much about food preparation beyond the necessity of keeping my appendages way clear of the deep fryer--and boy, did I learn that lesson the hard way--but it's quite clear even to a microwave jockey like myself that Bon Appétit offers just about everything a food-first publication should. Dig in.

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