By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
For many of us, the Good Housekeeping Seal is as emblematic of bygone eras as butter churns, home ec class and the pre-computerized American kitchen.
Step inside today's Good Housekeeping Research Institute, though, and that notion is history. The place is sleek, modern, ergonomic and green: an 18,500-square-foot, two-year-old facility that occupies the 29th floor of the Hearst Tower in midtown Manhattan.
With four test kitchens, each equipped with both gas and electric ranges, there is ample space to develop the quick, easy recipes that readers of Good Housekeeping magazine request. Side by side are sophisticated, computer-monitored laboratories for examining cosmetics, textiles and hundreds of other household products. In a hushed realm of investigation, lab-coated staffers move about quietly, testing and retesting until satisfied with the results.
Good Housekeeping remains a rock-solid advocate for consumers. It has tested and evaluated food and recipes, appliances and housewares for nearly 100 years. And there are plenty of fans who appreciate the efforts: "Thank you for helping me live better," wrote reader Mary Proctor of Des Moines.
Despite its unglamorous image as a middle-market monthly, Good Housekeeping magazine has a hefty circulation of 4.6 million: more than Real Simple and Martha Stewart Living magazines combined; more than Family Circle's 3.9 million and Southern Living's 3 million. Most of Good Housekeeping's readers live in the mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Southern states. The magazine's average reader is a woman in her late 40s.
Last year the publication, founded in May 1885, posted the best revenue period in its history. The company attributed the spike to an updated look, initiated in late 2006, creating 10 distinct "Good" sections, such as Good Health, Good Food and Good Buzz (the last covers how celebrities do such things as lose weight quickly and make their favorite spiced tea).
The magazine's goals remain the same. It continues to be relevant to its readers by changing in only subtle ways.
"Good Housekeeping has a warmth and a trust. There's a fondness that readers have for this brand," says its editor in chief, Rosemary Ellis. "What they want is 'Save me time; save me money and the hassle.' "
In the magazine's early years, there was a growing fear of adulterated foods and unsafe household products. Butter commonly was tainted with hog fat, and children's elixirs were spiked with morphine. (Fast-forward to today's issues of diet-supplement claims and children's toys coated with lead-based paint.)
The first Experiment Kitchen opened in 1900 in Springfield, Mass. In that decade, scientists and technicians established a Pure Food Assurance Department, lobbied for the standardization of kitchen counter height at 36 inches (early sinks were far lower, causing users to stoop), developed cooking time and temperature charts for dozens of foods, and began developing and testing the magazine's own recipes.
In 1910, the Experiment Kitchen was renamed the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, with an added model kitchen, a testing station for household devices and a domestic-science lab. That followed the establishment in 1909 of the Good Housekeeping Seal. Products advertised in the magazine that bear the seal are backed by a two-year limited warranty. The magazine reviews all submitted ads and refers those that are appropriate for testing by the Research Institute. If consumers are not satisfied with, say, their Jack LaLanne Power Juicer or Francesco Rinaldi pasta sauce, the magazine will replace the product or refund the purchase price. About 5,000 products have earned the seal.
In a recent visit to the Hearst Tower, home of the multimedia Hearst Corp., we find Sharon Franke, director of kitchen appliances and technology, dressed in a lab coat and silhouetted against a spectacular floor-to-ceiling view of Central Park.
Franke was "personally responsible" for the recent testing of the new Kenmore electric range with AirGuard, a feature that claims to remove nearly all odors from self-cleaning oven cycles and burned foods. For pleasant aromas, shut AirGuard off and you can smell the cookies baking. The range, priced from $750 to $2,150, was one of eight new products chosen from among thousands for the 2008 Good Buy Awards, announced in this month's issue.
The institute tests more than 2,000 products annually. This time, Franke says, she found an odorless winner in the Kenmore appliance.
"I made this mixture of hamburger, grease, grape juice and cheddar cheese in a blender, brushed it on the sides and burned it on for an hour, " says Franke, a 20-year veteran of the magazine who cooks with a 50-year-old Magic Chef range at home. "I burned pizza, roasted salmon, potato and onion casserole, and it didn't produce any odor or smoke."
Down a corridor, past a Launder-O-Meter that tests fabrics for fading, pilling and shrinkage, product tester Fay Carpenter is wrapping up two weeks' work on 26 sets of food storage bags and vacuum sealers. Inside a sealed chamber set at 90 percent humidity, she compares how silicone beads sealed in the bags change color, from blue to pink, as they are exposed to air.
"What we've learned is, it's not always the seal. The air is going through the wall of the bag," Carpenter says. "Clearly the vacuum-sealing bags did better. But our tests show nothing is totally airtight." The best products will be featured in an upcoming issue.
In one lab, a vacuum cleaner attached to a treadmill is getting a workout and making a racket. But overall, there are hushed tones or near-silence.
The most active area this day is the recipe test kitchens, where four chef-testers and food director Susan Westmoreland are preparing a Spanish tortilla, a layered polenta casserole with a chunky vegetable sauce and a strawberry tart, all for an upcoming feature devoted to eggs.
"Basically, we're trying to replicate what people do at home," says Westmoreland, who has led the food department for 12 years.
All recipes are tested at least three times: on gas and electric ranges, and with hand and stand mixers, if called for. At home Westmoreland uses a Viking gas range and would not trade it for a computerized model with a ceramic top. "The dirty little secret is that [the ceramic tops] scratch," she says. Everyone on her staff prefers gas ranges.
For the most part, she doesn't follow trends. "We're not tracking Ferran Adri¿," Westmoreland says, referring to the famed Spanish chef noted for unconventional, deconstructionist cooking. "We're not doing foams."
She likes Spanish cuisine and says her readers are most interested in Italian. In general, she stays away from Indian and Southeast Asian dishes, which are "still a little scary for our readers," as well as dishes involving beets, Brussels sprouts or cabbage. "We could write a chicken feature every month and they'd be happy," she says.
Eyeing the completed tortilla, she likes what she sees. "Ingredient-wise, it looks yummy," she says. After a taste: "But it is a little wet." As for the polenta casserole, "It may be a little firm. If I remember, first time out there were issues with the amount of eggs." Tests aren't over yet.
The most popular and requested recipe over the years has been the Good Housekeeping Popover, a simple, hollow bread that's moist and eggy inside, crisp and brown outside. Popovers are so beloved at the magazine that they are always served to special guests in the private dining room.
"When I first arrived here in 2006, I said, why don't we serve the popovers. People looked at me in horror," says Ellis, who has made the magazine a touch more celebrity- and personality-driven over the past year, with features on domestic diva Martha Stewart and "Today" show host Meredith Vieira. "We're entrenched in tradition."