A Peachy Keen
The first story to tell about Lucky Peach is a purely sad one. If it does fold after the publication of its ‘Suburbs’ issue in May, as Eater suggests it will, then a lot of talented people will suddenly be placed in an unpleasant, uncertain situation (in fact, they’re likely already in it) and we, as readers, will lose a publication that – over its six years in our lives – has produced some genuinely superlative writing on, about and around food.
The second story to tell about Lucky Peach is actually about David Chang. Specifically, it's about the pains you encounter as you start to grow, the questions of quality and integrity and identity that arise as your footprint spreads ever-wider. I am not as cynical as Food Twitter enfant terrible / terrible child @shitfoodblogger, who suggested that Lucky Peach represented nothing more than “marketing spend for a chef’s empire”, but – come on. The title is a literal translation of the Japanese word Momofuku. You can’t not associate it with Chang, and just as he's found his momentum checked as he's expanded beyond Lower East side (into not-great delivery concept Ando, or not-great bricks and mortar concept Nishi), so Lucky Peach has wrestled uneasily with its father's legacy as it drifted further from his span of control.
Like the (brilliant) PBS show that took Chang as the subject of its first season, the early Lucky Peaches are like a direct line to the mind of a chef: his signature dishes (Issue 1: Ramen), his pals (Issue 3: Cooks / Chefs), his unique confluent influences (Issues 4 and 5: American Food and Chinatown). From issue 6 onwards things shifted away from Chang’s orbit and more towards the abstract, both in terms of the nouns employed in titles (Apocalypse, Travel, and Gender in a straight flush) and the articles published. It became less of a chefs’ and cooks’ magazine and more of a writers’ and editors’ one.
This is not to detract from what was published around that turning point or at any point in its run – John Birdsall’s 'America, Your Food Is So Gay’; Francis Lam’s ‘A Day on Long Island with Alex Lee’; and Rachel Khong’s ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ are among the best written in the medium – but just to mark that, at some point, a shift did occur. The net result was an increasingly conflicted publication, where the more servicey stuff (the ever-reliable Atlas, the ever-interesting recipes) rubbed with no little friction against the more (alkaline?) noodly content. Word counts seemed to balloon, perhaps suggesting an editorial conflation of quality, seriousness, and length (just a tiny indicator of a much larger Longreads = Good Journalism misconception afflicting the industry). After a while, I found myself reading it in instalments, rather than cover-to-cover: racing through the short, sharp stuff; then carving out a more pensive, less disposable chunk of time to process the longer pieces.
Even for a dweeb obsessed with food some of them were a tough hang, and more often than not those tough hangs seemed to constellate in the same issue. I get why publications like to have a specific theme, but I’m not sure Lucky Peach was always the best exemplar of why they should: for me at least it was at its best when it was a magazine about chefs, and cooks, and what makes them tick within the specific world to which us normals do not gain privileged access. So: Issue 20: Fine Dining, perhaps my favourite of the lot; Issue 14: Obsession; either of the earlier Cooks / Chefs ones (Issues 3 and 9). In those cases, the theme was almost irrelevant. Conversely, it was at its weakest – the tough hangs piled up most saggily and egregiously – when it trod on the toes of other, lesser publications by focusing on themes so generic and constrained you could envisage a Bon Appétit cover given over to them: Breakfast, Pho, Los Angeles (it is not coincidental to me that all of those have come out since Winter 2015). The gulf between the good and bad issues is perhaps bigger than a lot of people will admit if the seemingly inevitable does indeed come to pass and there is suddenly a rush on eulogies.
Amongst those pieces there will also be a lot of merited praise, and I'm happy to add to it more fulsomely than I do here. If May’s ‘Suburbs’ issue is the last the magazine will leave a legacy of food writing that was at times truly fresh, at times exhilarating, and always at once deeply knowledgeable of the inner workings and history of the industry and willing to take it to task.
But we would be dishonouring that legacy if we did not hold Lucky Peach to the same standards. To observe that it lived and thrived long enough to become part of the establishment it was able at first implicitly to critique (to date it has won nine James Beard awards, including Publication of the Year in 2016). To recognise that as much as it kicked against the tired institution of food journalism it did at times represent something of a monoculture in its own right, privileging (for the most part, certainly in its early days) the perspective of the Cook It Raw cabal of chef-bros, the trinity of Chang, Redzepi and Atala that populated the troubling GODS OF FOOD Time cover.
Dave Chang and Rene Redzepi and the food they cooked was the only stuff I cared about a few years ago – that isn't true anymore of me, or of many others. The magazine had intimated that but wasn't quite sure what to put in their place; perhaps it is a good thing, in a sense, that Lucky Peach is bowing out when it is, since it risked living long enough to become formulaic, something we subscribed to out of a sense of duty rather than excitement. Already the tropes were getting a little tired: the low and high brow blended together in the same proportion, the weird illustrations taking up too much space that could have been occupied by interesting words, the exhaustive surveys of a given food (butter, instant pho) in all its shop-bought varieties, the occasional rants from Tony Bourdain, the grating gonzo frat-house aesthetic of almost studied irreverence and profanity. Best to go out in the white heat of a blaze of glory, rather than a slow simmer into irrelevance.
I don’t know if I wholly endorse that view, but it does leave us with a nagging, ugly question:
Is there a sustainable model of intelligent, knowledgeable food writing, in print, that is also able to turn a profit?
As a reader and a writer I hope so, whatever the evidence suggests. And however grim the news is, perhaps hope is the greatest gift that Lucky Peach gave to us: the awareness that there were other people that thought about food like we did; the hope that, someday, someone might pay us to write like that too. The recent outpouring of support and condolence on Twitter suggests that many former and current readers and writers feel the same way, and so the interpretation I’m going with is that David Chang and Peter Meehan’s work was the start, rather than the end, of something. That people have more of an appetite for this stuff than they did in the past, thanks to Lucky Peach, and that therefore as both a reader and writer you shouldn’t sate your own hunger with puff pieces and disposable listicles.
For that, ultimately, was the promise promised by Lucky Peach. That someday something delicious and exquisite would come round, and you’d be ready, and it would taste so, so good.