A July 6 Food article about the popularity of Cooking Light magazine included outdated circulation information for two competing publications. The Audit Bureau of Circulations reported that Gourmet magazine had a paid circulation of 968,135 in the last half of 2004; Food & Wine's figure for the same period was 927,118. (Published 7/15/2005)
It was 1987. Diet guru Richard Simmons was the rage, oat bran muffins were the health food of the moment and a new magazine was being launched to take on food heavyweights Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine.
The magazine was Cooking Light, and its goal was to present recipes as part of a healthier lifestyle -- a decidedly different approach from those of its competitors, whose focus was on the pleasure of cooking. "We could see a movement in the country toward food and fitness, and we thought we could be successful in that niche," says publisher Chris Allen.
The idea of food to fit a lifestyle turned out to be hugely successful. Cooking Light now sells 1.7 million copies monthly, the largest circulation among the country's top monthly food magazines. (Bon Appetit is No. 2 with 1.3 million, followed by Gourmet at 880,000 and Food & Wine at 840,000.) And the number of publications aimed at helping people cook despite their busy lifestyles is growing.
"In terms of the number of new magazines launched in the last three years, food has been No. 2" among topics, says Samir A. Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi and a nationally recognized expert known as "Mr. Magazine." Crafts and hobbies are first.
Among the most successful newcomers, he notes, is Everyday Food, published by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. Launched just two years ago, the TV Guide-size magazine has reached 850,000 in circulation. Each issue is big on how-to photos and easy recipes that use a minimal number of ingredients. The magazine also is free of long-winded explanations and articles, presumably because busy people don't have much time to read. "It was a big hit because of its simplicity," Husni says.
Not surprisingly, others took note. Food Network star Rachael Ray -- whose three highly rated shows and 10 best-selling cookbooks stress no-brainer recipes for busy people -- will have her own magazine out in September, published by Reader's Digest. Every Day With Rachael Ray will feature (big surprise) no-brainer recipes for busy people. Available at newsstands, it will initially be published quarterly.
Also joining the keep-it-simple bandwagon later this summer is a weekly publication from Hearst Magazines called Quick & Simple. It will focus on food, nutrition, beauty and fitness for women.
For others with specific diet needs -- low-calorie, gluten-free, or low-carb, for example -- nutrition-minded Cooking Smart debuted in January. A bimonthly magazine of Coincide Publishing, it, too, stresses the idea of simple recipes for a particular lifestyle.
Husni believes that food magazines like Cooking Light and the newer publications appeal to a fundamentally different audience from the sophisticated standbys such as Bon Appetit and Gourmet. "Cooking Light is cooking without the guilt. It's reality brought to food," he says. Readers paging through Food & Wine and Bon Appetit might feel guilty that they don't have the time or skill to make the more complicated recipes in those magazines, Hosni says.
Like People magazine, which started as a page in Time before becoming one of the country's most popular celebrity weeklies, Cooking Light debuted as a small column in Southern Living. When that proved hugely popular, two Cooking Light cookbooks were published. "They sold out," recalls publisher Allen, "so we decided to launch a magazine."
Each issue now includes about 100 recipes -- "any more than that, and the reader reaches a saturation point," Allen says -- and most of them are low in salt and contain less than 30 percent of the daily recommended amount of fat. The typical reader is a woman in her forties, married, well-educated and affluent, says Allen.
Cooking Light has also fostered an enthusiastic, community of readers through the message boards on its Web site. When readers began getting together for grass-roots Cooking Light supper clubs several years ago (in which members prepare a menu based on the magazine's recipes), the publishers took the concept and began hosting their own supper clubs around the country.
The first Cooking Light supper club gathering in Washington will take place Tuesday at the Kennedy Center. It has been sold out for weeks, Allen says, as have supper club dinners the magazine is sponsoring in New York, San Jose and Philadelphia. Cooking Chef's executive chef, Billy Strynkowski, will demonstrate each recipe on the night's menu, which is New England-themed.
"The supper clubs have just snowballed," says Strynkowski, who's been hosting them for four years. "Four years ago, there were no men coming. Now we get about 25 percent men. Women are bringing their husbands and sons."
They're also bringing their own supper clubs. "In Chicago, I met a group of women who have been cooking at each others' houses for 20 years," he says. "We have some amazing readers."