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Food + Cooking

The Meaning of Gourmet

Published in Gourmet Live 09.21.11
Food historian Megan Elias digs through the archives and discovers the word gourmet has had multiple definitions, but always one true meaning

By 1941, when Earl MacAusland chose the name Gourmet for his new magazine, the term already had a rich history. It had evolved from a simple, functional meaning in French—“a wine steward”—to a philosophical stance. The qualities of connoisseurship and authenticity have clung to the term since at least 1820, when Ange Denis M’Quin defined the gourmet as purely theoretical in his approach to food while the gourmand combined theory and practice, i.e., eating. According to M’Quin, the gourmet “speculates more than he practises; and eminently prides himself in discerning the nicest degrees and most evanescent shades of goodness and perfection in the different subjects proposed to him.” For M’Quin the gourmet’s art of distinction was directly related to the term’s roots in wine selection.

Ur-gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin also associated the term specifically with knowledge of wine, using it only once in his 1825 The Physiology of Taste. When tasting wine, Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Some time is necessary for any gourmet to say, ‘It is good, passable, or bad. It is Chambertin, or something else.” The gourmet did not rush to judgment. And he knew his AOCs. Interestingly, Brillat-Savarin’s translator Fayette Robinson refused to translate the term, inserting this tart note: “Any gentleman or lady, who may please, is at perfect liberty to translate the word gourmet into any other tongue. I cannot.” Instead of gourmet, Brillat-Savarin used the term gourmand to describe the connoisseur of food.

By the end of the 19th century, an 1892 dictionary of “anglicised words and phrases” defined the gourmet as “one who makes a study of the pleasures of the table, a lover of the pleasures of the table in moderation.” The scholar had picked up a fork. The elevation of the simple as authentic and moderation as distinction became central to gourmet food writing. As Philip Hamerton, an Englishman who had lived in France, argued in 1889, a “gourmet…values the commonest things, if they are good of their own kind; he will praise well-baked bread or pure water.”

One of the first American cookbooks to identify itself as gourmet, Allan Ross MacDougall’s 1930 Gourmet’s Almanac associated the gourmet perspective with other forms of high art. MacDougall gathered a potpourri of quotations about food and eating to blend in with recipes that were chosen “because I really like them, either in taste or sound,” rather than because they seemed useful. In the 1930s, food writers began to define the gourmet in opposition to cooking informed by the new science of nutrition. MacDougall invited his readers to “have a gay disregard for vitamins: a pagan attitude of taking what is good rather than what is good for them!”

As constructed in print, the gourmet was almost always male, middle-aged, usually a bachelor, educated, and knowledgeable about wine. He had spent time in France and was a person who defined success through experience rather than worldly gain. The editors of Gourmet explained, “The art of being a gourmet has nothing to do with age, money, fame, or country. It can be found in a thrifty French housewife with her pot-au-feu or in a white-capped chef in a skyscraper hotel.” M.F.K. Fisher, one of the few women in the first generation of American food writers, agreed that “It does not matter how much money or time a person spends on a fine dinner if he cannot sense what is in good taste.”

The gourmet’s palate ran to hearty and simple but also rich foods. He emphatically preferred the savory to the sweet and favored the use of herbs and wine in cooking. He was a carnivore who also valued access to a large variety of vegetables and always preferred fruit and cheese to any other kind of dessert. The archetypal gourmet of this formative era, the 1940s, was Samuel Chamberlain, whose Clémentine in the Kitchen, serialized in Gourmet, helped readers to recognize a common perspective. “We like wine with our meals,” Chamberlain wrote, setting French and American foodways in contrast. “We don’t think cranberry sauce helps turkey or that catsup helps well-cooked meat.… We would rather have a few crisp leaves of lettuce, properly seasoned with olive oil and wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of chopped chives, than the exotic salads which are the delight of wise-cracking columnists in American papers.” For Chamberlain, American food was at best a stunt, at worst stunted. It was not, in a word, gourmet.

Gourmet magazine offered readers two virtual gathering spaces in which to collectively create their own definition of the gourmet. These were the letters section, titled “Sugar and Spice,” and a recipe-request section, “You Asked for It.” In both sections, readers wrote in with affirmations of their own cosmopolitanism, as in the example of Nettie McBirney of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who wrote in search of a recipe, but also to reminisce. “About ten years ago,” she remembered, on a visit to Paris, “My daughter and I found a taxi driver who knew the way to Joseph’s, where we had been told was served a marvelous chicken.” They found Joseph’s, ate the chicken, and had apparently been craving it ever since. McBirney’s recollection shared two important features of the gourmet perspective: a loving connection to France and a connoisseur’s foodscape that included the lowbrow (the taxi driver) as well as the high (her own moneyed presence in Paris).

Readers also constantly praised the magazine’s mission, typically couching their praise in a critique of American food. In March 1941, for example, Mary Knight, who identified herself as “one who has lived in Europe and the Far East for a great many years,” wrote, “I can truthfully say that Gourmet is going to make Americans more food-conscious, and by ‘food’ I mean good food rather than expensive, because they are not synonymous.” She wrote to Gourmet’s readers, and the editorial staff shared her perspective.

Contemporary readers now access that Gourmet society through its online version on Gourmet.com, through its special editions, through its recipes on Epicurious, and now, through this, Gourmet Live, sustaining the interactivity that made the magazine more than just a chronicle of eating and drinking but truly a way of life.

Megan Elias is the author of Stir It Up: Home Economics in American Culture and Food in the United States, 1890–1945. An associate professor of history at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York, Elias is working on Taste of the Nation, a history of American cookbooks from 1865 to 2009.