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Virtue With a Touch of Gloss

Eating Well returns to fight the good fight


Eating Well is back. For those of us unaware that it had gone anywhere, or what it was in the first place, Eating Well is a magazine. Launched in 1990, its target readers were what the publishers estimated were 77 million aging baby boomers with the means to give dinner parties, but suddenly conscious enough of their mortality to worry that a rich souffle might be their last.

Eating Well would take the fashionable dishes of the day and put them through a nutritionist's sieve. There would be stories about the food industry and feverish food politics of the day. It would be the thinking hypertensive's alternative to the glossy Cooking Light.

Turning counterculture instincts to a diet magazine for the ascetic intelligentsia was the idea of James Lawrence, a journalism major out of Cornell and Syracuse universities and a former Peace Corps volunteer. By the late 1980s, Lawrence was a Vermont-based publisher of several lifestyle periodicals. Eating Well was developed just as the Canadian publishing group Telemedia purchased 85% of Lawrence's company. In July 1990, Lawrence rolled out a premier issue packed with the kind of upscale ads usually attainable only by established publishers.

There were high hopes for the new food magazine's market mix. The original editor, Barry Estabrook, promised the New York Times that he would "treat food as serious journalism."

The "charter issue" certainly had attitude. The typeface was a stylish spin on Rolling Stone Roman. There was interesting white space along with Magritte-style illustrations and a formidable procession of writing and cooking talent, including chef Rick Bayless, authors Martha Rose Shulman and Darra Goldstein.

There was a visit to Robert Mondavi's kitchen and a cracking piece of reporting traced a rockfish caught in the Pacific then sold as a red snapper in Des Moines eight days later.

The magazine was decreed groundbreaking and sophisticated by the national press.

As the months rolled on, the prominent names kept coming. Corby Kummer celebrated Alice Waters and authentic French cookery.

The magazine aimed at money. There were glossy ads for dream kitchens. But look closely, and the theme was using those deluxe rooms to drain the fat out of food. Yogurt was never simply yogurt, but always low-fat or non-fat versions.

By November, the magazine was carrying recipes for eggless mayonnaise, reinventing trifle with skim milk and cornstarch, and promoting a dehydrated egg substitute called "EggZact."

But these were strange times, and the formula was working. Vanquishing calories was a politically correct activity, good housekeeping was suddenly a cause. Washington lobbyists were sending out press releases concerning proper hand-washing and chopping-board maintenance instructions.

However, as successful as his magazine was, trouble arrived for the founder within six months. "There was a shake-up at the top of Telemedia," says Lawrence. "I was soon invited to leave."

But the staff stayed and the magazine carried on much as he had envisioned it for the next five years, he says. Circulation peaked at more than 600,000. Calculating how many copies got passed along, total readership was estimated at 3 million.

But this was still far from Cooking Light's 9.2 million. In 1997, a merger put the New York publishing group Hachette-Filipacchi in charge of Eating Well.

By April 1998, the old Rolling Stone Roman, interesting white space and big-name authors were gone. The magazine was no longer an alternative to Cooking Light, but a thin imitation. A cover done out in lime green and pink shrieked, "Lighten up!"

Inside, the lighteners were in overdrive--readers were offered smoked turkey breasts for Easter brunch. A souffle, described as a "puff," called for nine eggs, but threw away seven of the yolks. There were "creamless" cream soups. Caesar salad dressing was approximated with low-fat cottage cheese and nonfat plain yogurt.

The new managers wanted young readers, says food editor Patsy Jamieson. This was not a logical audience for a magazine dedicated to careful eating, she contends: "Young people still eat out a lot; they still think they're invincible, still bulletproof."

By 1999, Eating Well's ad sales were down, the readers ages were up and Hachette-Filipacchi folded the magazine.

But it was not quite dead. Early in 2001, Lawrence found the rights to Eating Well on the market as part of an Internet kitchenware company. He bought them and gathered a handful of the original staff--including Jamieson--to resurrect the magazine.

Starting Over

This time, however, it would not be bimonthly but quarterly. There would be no large corporate partners, no ad agencies, no advertisers offering dream kitchens. A skeleton staff worked six months for free. At launch, the old staff of 60 was down to more like 15 people, and the magazine that reportedly cost $12 million to develop in 1990 has been resuscitated for $750,000.

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