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Learning from Momofuku (McSweeney's: Lucky Peach)
How a magazine about food can teach us how to read, write and publish


Have you read Lucky Peach yet? If you haven’t, do. It’s about food, and it’s a damn good magazine about food. But what really smacked me in the face was its unapologetic expertise.

This is a magazine for the masses — its look is post-Vice sewer funk, at least for its current issue — and yet, unlike much media for the masses, it doesn’t back out of its own smarts. This isn’t the first publication, print or otherwise, to do this, but it is part of a revolution that the mainstreamier press might want to take a look at.

This may have hit me a little harder than it would someone who hasn’t spent much or any time trying and failing to convince editors to run stories about things entirely outside an “average reader’s” ken. But, if you think about it, you’ll probably realize you’ve not read much that’s been framed, or rather unframed, in such a way either and, upon looking into David Chang and Peter Meehan’s Lucky Peach (“Lucky peach”, I’m told, is the English translation of Chang’s restaurant, Momofuku), you may find yourself feeling a little poorer for it, and a little happier you picked it up.

The magazine — I’m talking about the Spring issue here, the one with the tattooed pig’s butt on the cover — is put together in a way that should come as little surprise to those familiar with some of its publisher’s other works, like McSweeney’s and The Believer. Some of the articles are Q&A’s, one’s a presumably edited transcript of a conversation among chefs eating clam chowder out of bread bowls on a patio in San Francisco, others are various sorts of things spliced together, like a profile and a recipe, or several interviews on the same subject printed end to end. It seems they went with whatever form suited the writer or subject. How clever is that? The resulting pastiche is variable enough to entice you to read the whole thing right through, while assuring you it’s fine to skip around and come back for more later.

Now, Lucky Peach is about food, of course, so it can assume that anyone who buys it (for $13.95 in stores) is interested in food, so they can dismiss with the carnival barking angles and ledes the traditional mainstream press traffics in. Just like Bass Angler Magazine can presume its readers not only want to know something about bass angling, but that they may, in fact, already know a thing or two about it.

As I read through it on Tuesday at a very Portuguese Coffee Time on one of Dundas West’s hipper stretches, across the street from the Cormarama fundraiser for Derek McCormack, [footnote: Derek’s the other Gen X guy with a serious health problem I referred to in a piece last week about Russell Smith, who was there; my deadline arrived before permission to speak about his condition did. If you want to donate please do.] it struck me that despite its culinary fluency, this magazine wasn’t put together for a rarefied audience. All Lucky Peach has done is acknowledge that people read what they already are or can easily imagine they may be interested in. The same could be said of any section of any newspaper. If I’ve started flipping through the books pages, why not speak to me as someone who may like books, and who may even have read a few?

So these notably multifarious articles go on for thousands of words. That’s one thing. In those thousands of words, chefs’ names are hurled about, sometimes with explanatory context or notes (there are footnotes), sometimes not. (Who’s Bocuse? He sounds important. Look him up.) That’s another.

There’s a bit on different ways to make eggs, a fermented rice wine known as jiu zao is listed along with its name in Chinese characters, because the author knew them, because some readers are likely to know Chinese, and because others may be bright enough to take the magazine along shopping to one of those Chinese grocery stores that don’t translate the products names and labels and either look for those characters on the shelf or show it to an employee to see if they’ve got it. That’s a third thing.

There’s also the fact that there’s a multi-page feature on Chinese-style eggs that doesn’t feel the need to explain why it’s being quite so exotic, or, as is sometimes worse, revel in the exoticism of what it’s doing. This is a piece, well written, by Tienlon Ho, that doesn’t think there’s anything odd about a Chinese writer writing about Chinese eggs for an English-speaking audience.

The writing’s uniformly good, often extraordinarily so, even when the byline belongs to a celebrity chef (damn fine editing, was my first thought, though what do I know about Mario Batali’s writing chops?). The design and printing are also lovely. But what sets this magazine apart, is its realization that in a world suffused by instantly accessible information, people long ago got into the habit of looking up what they don’t know, and expect to learn things and hear stories that are substantial enough, expert enough and well told enough to beat whatever it is that pops up on subject on the first page of a Google search. The bar’s not that high but it is higher than it’s ever been before. And it’s a bar most print publications — and this one exists only in print — can’t reach in heels.


Bert Archer writes about media and real estate for Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter:@bertarcher.

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