Gourmet, the self-proclaimed "magazine of good living," has been living pretty well. It turns 50 with the January issue, and while numerous other food journals have been published and have perished during its lifetime, Gourmet has survived to become an American institution.

To celebrate Gourmet's birthday, its editors have reprinted their favorites among the many articles and recipes that have brought the magazine unmatched prestige and influence in the world of food and travel since its founding by Earle MacAusland.

This unusual volume not only commemorates the magazine's history, it also documents the evolution of what has become Gourmet's trademark style. Certainly Gourmet has its critics, but no other food publication enjoys the devotion of such a dedicated following. And for culinary historians, the magazine lives as an active record of this country's past gastronomic trends and prejudices.

"If you took all of the issues of Gourmet from the beginning" in 1941, says Jan Longone, owner of the Food and Wine Library in Ann Arbor, Mich., and an internationally recognized authority on American cooking, "and then combined it with the complete run of the magazine called American Cookery {the Boston Cooking School magazine, published from 1896 to 1946}, then you would have a solid picture of the changes that have occurred in America's culinary history."

Marion Cunningham, the noted author who recently updated "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95), notes that "more people than I can think of have collected copies of Gourmet and they wouldn't part with them. They have them everywhere from their attics to their garages."

Cunningham suggests that this popularity may be because Gourmet "imparts more vicarious pleasure to more people than any other magazine in a very ongoing way. It's a brilliant idea to feature the two greatest pleasures of a civilized society -- food and travel -- in one publication. So you can travel and eat from an armchair if you can't get there in person."

Gourmet was unique from the beginning. Conceived in MacAusland's suite in New York's Plaza Hotel, the premier January 1941 issue was unusual in design and content. The front cover featured a colorful illustration of a boar's head with an apple stuffed in its mouth. The table of contents listed such articles as "Burgundy at a Snail's Pace," "Negus and Nog" and "This Little Pig Went to Table." Of course, there were also the now classic columns such as "Gastronomie Sans Argent," "Gourmet's Meal of the Month" and "The Last Touch."

Gourmet became the forum for some of the most talented food writers: M.F.K. Fisher, Clementine Paddleford, Louis P. De Gouy, Samuel Chamberlain and, later, James Beard all became regular contributors. Contrary to its present identity, Gourmet in its formative years had a decidedly male flavor. A traditional "hunt" breakfast was the inspiration for the cover of the October 1941 issue, which showed a wild duck fleeing its nest. Inside, a half-page ad depicting a rakish hunter pointing his rifle at some distant prey proclaimed "Shooting's Only Half the Fun, Gourmet is the Other Half." (The ad also offered a "Sport's Man" special subscription rate of 15 months for only three dollars.)

This was an obvious reflection of founder and owner MacAusland. In a telephone interview from her home in Vienna, Austria, Lillian Langseth-Christensen, a contributing writer with a 35-year history with the magazine, suggests that Gourmet was originally aimed at an audience of male food hobbyists. They frequented good restaurants, traveled and enjoyed entertaining with great style. Their wives, she says, probably employed cooks. In the January issue in 1950, Leslie Swabacker wrote an article titled "You, Too, Can Boil Water." It opened with the reassurance that "yes, you and every other man can cook for the simple biological reason that a man is able (with a single exception) to do anything a woman can, and generally to do it a darn sight better."

"Mr. MacAusland was an extremely attractive man with a very strong character," says Langseth-Christensen. "He gathered a lot of people around himself at the time. It was a group of men and they were all friends. There were a few women like Naomi Barry and Clementine Paddleford, but for the most part, it was very much a man's magazine.

"As the magazine grew, there was a small group of people who were the regulars -- some women, mostly men -- but you could tell that they were all friends," says Langseth-Christensen. "They enjoyed working together, they loved what they were doing, and they were all Francophiles," which explains the magazine's initial strong French sensibility.

But as lifestyles and the economy changed, so too did the demographics and the direction of the magazine. A gradual evolution away from total male orientation occurred. Cooking classes became fashionable and a new audience of interested home cooks emerged. By the late '50s, the cover featured photographs that suggested a gentility the hand-painted illustrations previously had lacked. Tables set with meticulously prepared classic French and American dishes, complete with ornate silver serving spoons and flower centerpieces, replaced the earlier cover drawings of casual arrangements of ingredients and cooking pots.

In 1964, the magazine featured the first of its now-classic Gourmet Menu centerfolds with "Four Lenten Meals" including pictures of lobster stew, brandade de morue, gnocchi and shrimps Mornay, spinach salad and applesauce tarts. The magazine -- more than in any earlier issues -- began to resemble the Gourmet of today.

Two crucial events that greatly affected the magazine and broadened its readership took place in the early '60s: the promotion of a new editor-in-chief, Jane Montant, and the ascendancy of two culinary stars, Julia Child and James Beard. Through newspapers, books and television, Child and Beard initiated a new awareness of food in the American public, creating a larger market for food periodicals such as Gourmet.

Montant is still the editor-in-chief, and it was she who was responsible for shaping the magazine to its present proportions and giving it the style so familiar to Gourmet readers today, according to Langseth-Christensen. "She started the travel and she's interested in good living. After all, it is called the 'Magazine of Good Living' but Jane Montant also made it a home where you eat well and beautifully," says Langseth-Christensen. "Mr. MacAusland in his way did too, but he was a sportsman. He was interested in good eating but especially in fishing and other sports."

Montant joined the Gourmet staff of three editors in the '50s. (Even today, with a circulation of more than 800,000, the staff numbers less than 30.) Her first job was answering reader mail, which taught her reader tastes and curiosities. When Gourmet began photographing food in 1961, she was put in charge, mainly, claims Montant, because she was the only one who could look into the camera and read the image even though it was upside down.

"I did bring in the travel and step up the photography," Montant admitted recently in an interview in her office, "but they became the things the readers wanted -- travel and food... . I don't think there has ever been one person who was influential in shaping the magazine as much as there was the outside influence of the world as a whole.

"As people traveled more," says Montant, "we catered to that trend. We try to use writers who have lived in the places they write about, and they are from all over the world. I would say that they, perhaps more than anyone, have had a definite influence on Gourmet. We had a wonderful writer, the late Joe Wechsberg, who wrote from Vienna {Austria}, and he brought in a whole different feeling to the magazine."

Executive editor Gail Zweigenthal, who works closely with the writers, notes that their approach has changed through the years. "First of all, we're going to more and more places. Second, the people who are writing for us are people who are more sophisticated. They know more, they see more. I'm trying very hard to find writers who bring something more than a knowledge of travel. They bring a love of art, a love of history, or a love of opera. Take a writer like Jay Jacobs; he's extraordinary and so is his knowledge of art. Even though he was writing restaurant reviews for years, every once in a while, other bits of knowledge would come in."

Some readers have criticized Gourmet for becoming too much a travel magazine, a slight to the original food orientation. Montant responds to these complaints by asking readers to count the number of recipes in an issue. Generally, she insists, there are about 100.

According to Montant, there have been other notable evolutionary changes, particularly in regard to the food. "In the beginning," she says, "there was an awful lot of fancy food and many of the dishes were difficult to prepare. Some would take forever and so we got the reputation of being amusing to look at but no one would want to cook from it. It took years to change that image and I'm not sure that it's completely broken down yet."

Also, says Montant, "we've tried to focus more on other cuisines besides French. Mr. MacAusland didn't think that there was anything fit to eat here except New England clam chowder. He mainly wanted French." (Under Montant's direction and at the staff's urging, the long-disputed recipe format was revised, and ingredients were separated from instructions.)

Since the purchase of Gourmet from the MacAusland family by the Conde' Nast magazine conglomerate in 1983, Leo Lerman has been listed under the masthead (as he is in all American Conde' Nast publications) as editorial advisor. Although he has input with almost all of the periodicals owned by S.I. Newhouse, Lerman considers Gourmet one of his favorite projects since he has a background in food: He was Vogue magazine's restaurant reviewer for eight years and reviews cookbooks once or twice a year in Gourmet.

Conde' Nast has changed Gourmet very little, save for the addition of a food column by Barbara Kafka and travel columns by Fred Ferretti and Patricia Bell.

"What's remarkable to me about Gourmet is that it's managed in 50 years to keep abreast while maintaining its own tradition," says Lerman. "It's like a very marvelous house that's been there for years and the kitchen's been changed and updated."

Lerman's words seem to indicate that Conde' Nast is pleased with Gourmet's evolutionary fine tuning. Is merely renovating the kitchen enough for contemporary readers?

Zanne Zakroff, director of the food department and an 18-year staffer, says, "I think that we at Gourmet are very aware of the tradition that the magazine has had of teaching people to cook. Twenty years ago our audience was largely composed of people who cared about food and who were cooks. Today, the average reader is much more mainstream. We want to be there for the people who want to put on a bang-up dinner party, but we also try to gear ourselves to the couple who come home after work and want to whip up something delicious fairly quickly."

As a result, Zakroff says, Gourmet has streamlined its recipes and added several new columns that feature dishes that may be prepared in less than 45 minutes. "Interestingly enough, " she says, "microwave recipes are not all that appealing to the average Gourmet reader."

Zakroff may cite new features, but Gourmet still projects the image of good living that its founder, Earle MacAusland, intended some 50 years ago. "Changes at Gourmet are much more in the form of an evolution," says Zakroff, "rather than a revolution."

Nina Simonds is a Massachusetts cookbook author and freelance writer who has written for Gourmet magazine.