As writer (and CHOW blogger) J.R. Norton succinctly puts it in the Salon food feature “The Artful Eater,” “[I]f Bon Appétit is the food media’s Newsweek and Saveur is the Economist, then the Art of Eating is the New York Review of Books: sometimes impenetrable, often spellbinding, and never, ever reductive.”
Norton probes the mysteries of the food world’s thinkiest tome by speaking with its founder, Edward Behr, a former carpenter and college dropout whose love of all that is delicious spurred him to found his quarterly publication more than 20 years ago. The Art of Eating doesn’t run ads or publicize itself much. Behr prefers to distinguish his semiobscure yet influential magazine with its editorial coverage, which delves into particular foodstuffs at great, sprawling length. This is a man who thinks nothing of publishing 13,000-word pieces on Roquefort cheese, or of spooling a search for the perfect baguette over innumerable (mouth-watering) paragraphs.
So what makes Behr so different from his publishing cohorts, who have moved from long-form journalism to quick-hit pieces and easily digestible top 10 lists? As his answers to Norton’s queries seem to suggest, it’s partly a lack of interest in mass-market success (Behr is content to labor for a mere 6,000-ish subscribers), and partly a deep, fervent, dare I say it, anal need to go into every detail:
[W]hen you have top 10 lists or really distilled advice, the problem is that that advice tends to be misleading because some things can’t be distilled. Many things can’t be distilled. It’s a flawed concept much of the time. Sure, Cook’s Illustrated just sent me an e-mail saying what the best ice cream maker is. And you can just go buy their top-listed ice cream maker, and sure, that’s maybe well-suited.
But you can’t list the best sauvignon blanc. Because first of all, sauvignon is at least two distinct kinds of wine in my view, a much riper and a much less ripe style, and it depends completely on what the occasion is. You know, do you want it with fish? Do you want it with whatever? And that’s a real can of worms.
Norton’s interview drew praise from Derrick at An Obsession with Food and a sometimes-contributor to the Art of Eating, who calls Norton “one of the country’s best food writers” and names Behr as a role model. Elsewhere he has called the Art of Eating “possibly the very best food magazine in the world.”
Behr himself, definitely a tough customer, must have liked the interview: A quote from the Salon piece went up on the Art of Eating front page within hours of the story’s publishing.