A recipe is a slippery creature. Understanding how to throw a certain combination of ingredients into a pot and make something edible is one thing. Truly feeling the intention behind it? That's another.
In 1986, a back-to-the-land foodie named Edward Behr had an idea: a magazine for people like him, who wonder about the intricacies and origins of a recipe or ingredient and seek to comprehend its place in the ceremony of the dinner table. He dubbed it The Art of Eating.
What began as a rookie food letter has grown into a trusted quarterly journal and an intellectual and far-reaching source for everything food- and wine-related. Twenty-five years later, it can be found tucked into kitchen shelves in 52 countries across the globe, and Behr is now the author of his very first cookbook: The Art of Eating: Essential Recipes from the First 25 Years. I spoke with him over the phone from his home in Vermont.
"I don't think I could have ever imagined this! I thought I might be doing it for 10 years, not 25," says Behr. "I began without a clear sense of how good a job this could be for me. It's just this huge — it's not quite a grab-bag, but this group of miscellaneous things I'm interested in that somehow are all involved in producing The Art of Eating."
The cookbook in question is a homey collection of recipes a French or Italian grandmother would have memorized. The deliciously classical titles — "Scaloppini al vino bianco o al limone" (veal scallops with white wine or lemon) or "Lapin à la Kriek" (rabbit in beer) — speak of old-school European foundation recipes, exceedingly well researched and explained in an easygoing, familial way. This isn't Top Chef. This is tapping into a time before foams and liquid nitrogen, when meals were more akin to an operatic aria than a rock concert.
By uniting "food, cooking, eating, wine, nature, agriculture, gardening, farming, graphic design, and writing," Behr and his collaborator, chef James MacGuire, have produced a resource celebrated by some of the world's best cooks. Behr's dedication to quality ingredients (his weakness, he explains, is Greek sage and oregano — the real stuff — sold in specialty Greek markets in bunches of foot-long branches) somehow finds a way to inspire readers without sending them scrambling to the nearest Whole Foods. It instills a homegrown creativity, somewhat lost in our time of 30-minute meals and easy access to any ingredient we please.
The magazine found its early fan base in metropolitan college towns, before being recognized by home cooks and restaurant chefs as the only place to find a 15-page-plus muse on the history and components of, say, a particularly good goat cheese or great vineyard. Behr quietly joined the ranks of publishing giants like Food & Wine magazine, which originated in the 1970s, with one major difference: no advertisements.
"The biggest challenge is to produce a magazine without ads that's still a magazine," he says. "We try to produce that same kind of liveliness as exists in a magazine with high production values. That's the challenge. It's arguable that it can even be done."