What if Quentin Tarantino Made a Food Magazine? A Review of Lucky Peach

Monday was an especially good day for my inner food magazine critic as I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Peter Meehan, a food writer, and David Chang, chef and owner of the restaurant Momofuku, whose most recent collaboration is Lucky Peach, a “quarterly journal of food and writing” produced by McSweeney’s.

But Lucky Peach is no ordinary cooking mag.  If you’re thinking Bon Appetit, Saveur, or Cooking Light, you’re way off course.  Lucky Peach is what would happen if Robert Crumb, the macabre and very graphic comic artist, and Gordon Ramsay, the testosterone-laden, macho, British chef-turned-reality-food-TV-star, were put in a jail cell together with some colored pencils and a whole pig.  In fact, the cover design for the newest edition (not yet out, but graciously provided to the participants at the talk yesterday), pictures a slaughtered pig leg being decorated by a tattoo artist with a butcher’s diagram of a person.  Picture an outline of the human form segmented with dotted lines and marked ‘wing’ (arms), ‘ham’ (legs), ‘breast,’ and ‘tenderloin’ (you can probably guess where that is), being etched onto a severed, but otherwise intact pig’s leg.

I first stumbled across Lucky Peach at a local bookstore where I was browsing magazines for some post-holiday culinary inspiration.  While the other cooking magazines had pictures of “detoxifying” New Year’s broths, or “diet proof” macaroni and cheese recipes, Lucky Peach had a picture of a dead fish, dripping with blood, on a butcher block with cartoon flies swarming around it.  The content and images inside pretty much matched the tone of the cover—comic book depictions of rotted tomatoes and articles with titles intended to make the fourteen-year-old boy in all of us snicker.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to pose the question of who they think their demographic is, and was answered with something like the following.

Meehan: “We have no idea who our demographic is, and we don’t really care.”

Chang: “We just want to make a magazine that we don’t think sucks.”

Meehan: “We don’t want to pander to anyone, we just want to write to people who share our sensibilities and like what we like.”

Well, there’s pandering, and then there’s its opposite, self-gratification (I think there’s a word for that…), and Chang and Meehan are certainly not pandering.  To suggest that they aren’t trying to fill a certain niche, which I’ll grant may not have been predefined, is either ignorant or arrogant, and I can’t decide which is more likely the case.

To Lucky Peach’s credit, the magazine, in typical McSweeney fashion (and I mean that as a compliment), is original, visually stimulating, and fun to read, and Meehan and Chang are no Bevis and Butthead.  The two are charming and intelligent, if in a teenaged, stick-it-to-the-man sort of way, and their combined passion for food and writing is certainly entertaining.  The recipes, admittedly not intended to be reproduced by most of their readers, are at least interesting to imagine, and the writing is very sharp, but the angst-y humor eventually becomes trite, the way a joke isn’t funny after the second or third time you hear it.

I may be religious, but I’m no Polly-Anna, and I can tell a frat party from a dinner party when I see one.  If Lucky Peach is to retain a regular spot on the back of my toilet it’s going to have to imagine a broader audience than it currently does.  I love food and I love writing, but I don’t love being the bystander to someone else’s inside joke, especially not for  $12 a pop.  Trying to imagine who might read their magazine, and that we might get tired of Meehan and Chang’s pubescent humor is not so much pandering as, well, just not being so self-impressed.  Then again, maybe there are enough 14 year-old-boys out there who love gourmet food and witty writing that Lucky Peach won’t need anybody else’s readership.

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