Monday, July 11, 2011

New Magazine Review: The Lucky Peach

Article first published as New Magazine Review: The Lucky Peach on Blogcritics.

I just got my first Lucky Peach and devoured it. The Lucky Peach is McSweeney’s brand-new magazine devoted to food writing. As with any McSweeney’s publication (I’ve been a fan since first discovering McSweeney’s issue no. 4), the magazine is dedicated to original voices, strong ideas and opinions, and creativity in all its glory. The Lucky Peach is no namby-pamby whole-hearted endorsement of all things trendy in food, but instead raises questions about the trends and looks at them from fresh angles. From the discussion among Anthony Bourdain, David Chang, and Wylie Dufresne about mediocrity—and especially mediocrity in the restaurant business—to an essay about authenticity, this magazine presents articles that make you think and, more important, make you want to think beyond what you’ve been told or given.

This first issue is almost entirely devoted to ramen, which may seem like a funny place to start a new magazine about high-end food, but in true McSweeney’s fashion, it works. Turns out ramen is far more interesting than those square blocks that could also pass for insulation that at least I used to buy in college because I couldn’t afford to eat anything else. In Japan, ramen is as much a part of the fine dining scene and culture as sushi; nearly as much technique, knowledge, and specialized vocabulary are devoted to it. The magazine presents several articles about it, from a travelogue by Peter Meehan and David Chang to a guide to regional variations on sushi by Nate Shockey to a taste test of instant ramens by Ruth Reichl to a fascinating little story about the American working-class version called ya-ka mein by John T. Edge, which all tell a rounded history of the foodstuff.

And being a food magazine, of course recipes are included, although I wouldn’t buy the magazine for them. Some of them do seem delicious and many articles discuss techniques for making some really special things to eat, but that seems almost secondary to the passionate writing about foods and the cultures surrounding foods. I find that I am inspired to try some of the recipes provided (in particular the recipes for alkaline noodles and bacon dashi), but more than that I am inspired to think about food: where it comes from, how’s it made, the culture that surrounds it, and the people who make it.

I have only two criticisms of the magazine. First, the language gets a bit salty at times. I know, it’s a food magazine—shouldn’t it be a little spicy?—and maybe I am old fashioned, but the use of the f-word gets a little old sometimes. Granted, with Anthony Bourdain as a contributor, the language almost has to get a bit rough, but I find it jarring. I think it’s possible to get the voice of the authors across without having to include every syllable. Second, the layout of the recipes, while visually appealing, is sometimes hard to read. The layout includes arrows to let you know where to go next, but because we are Western readers, we expect a page to flow in a certain way. When it doesn’t do that, reading gets a bit harder; you find the flow is disrupted and you are struggling to figure out what the next step is.        

Despite these drawbacks, I know I am going to hold on to this copy of the magazine for years and I will be experimenting with noodle soups. And I can’t wait to find out what they are going to do in the next issue. I am so glad I signed up for a subscription!


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