Pros: Great art. Great writing. A few recipes. Really smart people. No advertising.
Cons: Not cheap. Only four times a year.
For a few months, this magazine had been appearing on my recommendations list over at Amazon.com; being rather burnt out by food magazines, I had ignored it at first, and then I took a closer look. Then a name jumped out at me -- Anthony Bourdain -- and I said, what the hell, and ordered it. It arrived in the post, and I started reading. And then I started to laugh, and really found out that I was really enjoying it.
You see, I belong to that group of foodies best described as subversive -- I eat what I please, refuse to follow fads, and feel that you should try everything at least once. Yes, I know that food is just meant to be fuel for the body, but I also think that it can sustain our delight in the joy of the senses as well. And when I come across cooks and epicures who embrace that philosophy, well, I'm there, baby.
Lucky Peach met that need, and far exceeded it. The first issue (and I assume that future issues will be built around this concept) takes a single food item, and then takes it in all sorts of different directions. This one was built around the food product known as RAMEN.
Ramen. That disgusting, foul-tasting, foul-smelling thing that was cheap, and what I lived on mostly during the first years that I was on my own and really struggling. Ramen. I shuddered at the memories, but pressed on.
But by the first few stories, I was enchanted. Ramen, I discovered, is something else entirely in Japan, the country that invented it in the post WWII years when food was scarce, and people needed to eat. Forget sushi, forget western fast food, forget all that -- it seems that when the Japanese are hungry, they head into ramenya, little neighborhood food shops that seat maybe ten people, and slurp down an amazing variety of noodles in all sorts of sauces. And it seems, ramen in Japan is good.
The magazine starts off with an introduction as to why there is this magazine. First started as a vague concept by Korean American chef David Chang, owner of Momofuku (which means Lucky Peach), it evolved to this loosely themed quarterly.
Beginning with Things Were Eaten, a brazen joint venture by Peter Meehan and David Chang, this was a travelogue about traveling and tasting ramen through Japan with some hilarious observations and sheer gluttony along the way. Then there was an article by Anthony Bourdain titled Chang: The Rise of a Ramen Boy, which looks at how David Chang got from there to being the chef at Momofuku. Then there is Tokyo Ramen Gods by Mike Houston, a series of full-page black and white letterpress prints that are great, funny riffs on well, ramen chefs. (I've already got one of these prints ordered and hanging up in my kitchen, but that's beside the point) Ivan Ramen, by Ivan Orkin and David Chang on a nice Jewish boy from New York City who went to Tokyo and decided to make ramen by hand, along with a long interview by the two authors. The Specifist's Guide to Ramen in Japan by Nate Shockey is just that -- a look at the different styles of ramen in Japan, along with what's in it, what it looks like, and other little details. Yum. Seven-Ward Ramen by John T. Edge looks at this wonder-noodle in of all places, New Orleans, and why it's closer than you think to what you eat. I found this article fascinating. Mediocrity: A Conversation, a rather drunken, raving three-way 'discussion' between Anthony Bourdain, David Chang and Wylie Dufresne, you might not agree with what they're saying, but it certainly isn't boring. Mankind is Noodlekind by Karen Leibowitz about Momofuku Ando, the man who invented ramen and his philosophy to feed the world. Instant Ramen Showdown by Ruth Reichl, about what is the best of the supermarket brands, and sadly to say, most of the American brands are garbage. A collection of what to do with ramen recipes follows, with varying results. Potato Chips and Oriental Dip then follows. The Question of Authenticity looks at the pasta vs. ramen question in Lower Manhattan with some surprising results and interesting tangents. Then there was another favourite foodie author of mine, Harold McGee in Outre-Space, where science runs headlong into food and made me enjoy it immensely. Winding up is the Egg Chart, a guide to just how to tell when and where your egg is done, and all the glorious things that you can do with an Egg in a group of recipes. Scattered throughout are some terrific sly humour about those chopstick packages, and a very surreal comic strip that took several rereads to actually figure out. At the very end is a short story titled The Gourmet Club by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, which was interesting but not to my taste.
Summing all that content up, it's a great look at a long ignored food that most of us have in our kitchen pantry, and only resort to in times of desperation. In short, this humble, mocked food item is and can be much more, and after reading this one, I wanted to book a flight to Tokyo. Right now. Or hop the next commuter train to the City and find Momofuku and wait in line for however long it took to get a big bowl of ramen. How many times do you feel like that any more?
Now for the technical parts. The magazine itself is slightly oversized, with production design a bit on the skewed side, with outsider art gracing the pages and definitely different in style. The one downside was that the recipes were laid out in very odd ways that were difficult to follow in a crazed flowchart that didn't work for me much.
The page count is high, nearly a hundred and seventy pages and joy of joys -- NO ADVERTISING! I damn near cried when I saw that, and cheered. Which goes to explain the high newsstand cost of 10$US per issue. You can subscribe on the publisher's website for a considerable discount at 28$US per year for four issues.
On the other hand, this was fun to read, made me think and reinspired me to try something new. And that's a damn near priceless thing these days. If you want something different, if you're tired of the food magazines that push expensive products or recipes that simply don't work, give Lucky Peach a try.
To subscribe, go to:
or clip out the form in the back of the magazine and send it to
San Francisco, CA 94110