On Lucky Peach 🍑

Looking back at the short-lived, influential, and controversial magazine.

I decided to write about Lucky Peach while sitting on the patio table of the house where I grew up. Then my mom, sister, and I ordered bao for dinner from a sleek place in my hometown called Bird & Bao, which they promised me was good. My steamed buns came filled with fried tofu, peanut sauce, and bean sprouts. They accidentally gave us two orders of a caramelized-to-the-hilt Brussels sprout dish. My sister ate cucumber salad drowning in a chili sauce that numbed my mouth with Sichuan peppercorn. I had to ask myself: Would this place exist in Patchogue, once an abandoned gastronomic desert, without the influence of this magazine and all its major players?

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“When Lucky Peach came out, I had just enrolled in culinary school. That shit was like Crumb's Weirdo for some of us. AND it helped draw a line in the sand between those of us who read LP and worshipped Bourdain, and those who worshipped Food Network Magazine.” Writer Illyanna Maisonet

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My copies of Lucky Peach had been sitting in a plastic IKEA drawer in the garage of the house where I grew up. I hadn’t opened that drawer or the magazines in years, likely sometime after I stopped buying it in 2014. But there they’d been for years, in pristine condition, and whenever I come home I consider the drawer while I rummage through my dusty, makeshift storage space, and I decide to leave them untouched.

That was until last week, when I thought I should take another look at the first five issues of the quarterly, which began publication in 2011 and shuttered in 2017, and figure out what influence it had on me and food media at large, as well as how I understand it in light of revelations of abuse and cruelty on the parts of its top two men: the chef David Chang, and writer and editor Peter Meehan. I can’t dismiss their impact easily, but in the intervening years, I’ve lost sight of what the effects of their perspective really were—the best thing about the Lucky Peach voice was maybe its brashness, its certitude, even when it wasn’t in service to the best ideas or people. That allowed good writers room. Where’s that voice now? I can see, going back, that without my consciously realizing it, these essays were showing me how to write about food, especially in often showing me who I didn’t want to be.

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“I will say this: I don’t think there’s any other media outlet from that era that would have published my prostitution essay in the way it was published, other than LP.” Writer Scott Hocker

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There is a dead animal on each of the first four covers of the magazine (I count hot dog as dead animal), which launched the same year I stopped eating meat. I can’t really remember how I felt reading it at the time; I know it didn’t challenge my decision to give up animal products but it did make me feel a bit sad that they couldn’t respect my or anyone else’s choice to do so. I guess I just wanted to be included in this kind of world, despite it having been created explicitly for men who love meat. But the influence I speak of is present in how I write about not eating meat. I saw the confidence of their voice and I mapped myself onto it—made it vegetarian, made it feminist. It took me a while though, because few editors let me write like myself.

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“I think around 4 issues in, I noticed that each one started with a roundtable of chefs talking with Chang about food (but mostly not food) as if they were the only voices that mattered. I lost interest in the magazine around the time of the gender issue, which had some really grotesque illustrations of women covered in condiments, sexualized in a way that the men weren't.” Writer & “A Hungry Society” Host Korsha Wilson

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The first issue, “The Ramen Issue,” now sells for anywhere between $58 and $425 on eBay, and its most overarching purpose seems to be to get the reader to know Dave, as Chang is referred to: his habits, his likes, his intense dislikes, all the things that would lead to his robust Netflix presence. The only woman with a real presence is Ruth Reichl, whose own tenure at Gourmet had come to an end two years prior.

That is telling, because Lucky Peach, especially in this first issue, feels like a chef’s attempt to continue what Anthony Bourdain began in Kitchen Confidential and create a response to decades of food media driven by women and gay men whose work is in the dreaded “lifestyle” space, where only Ina and Nigella are respected. It’s an intense assertion of heterosexual masculinity—it just is. I’m not even being flippant here. On the first page of the first piece, by Meehan, a woman is described as a “tank.” Chang is set up for “insane success.” It’s all too on the nose.

One year before Lucky Peach launched, Adam Rapoport would go from style editor at GQ to editor-in-chief at Bon Appetit. He left that position only last year, amid revelations about the racist and toxic atmosphere at the magazine. In his role, he applied a men’s mag ethos to the food world.

Mari Uyehara writes in the essay “How Fashion Hijacked the Food World” from Women on Food that “the value system of fashion magazines, with a greater emphasis on trends, beauty, and consumerism, displaced the old practical ethos of cooking ones.” Though LP and BA still emphasized cooking, they did it while emphasizing the chef as an arbiter of taste and a very specific idea of cool that left a whole lot of people out. You were in, or you were out.

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“I will never forget the political campaign trail food story where they highlighted ZERO women politicians but had a large photo of a woman politician biting into a sausage.” Chef Preeti Mistry

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As a recipe book and culinary encyclopedia of the topics it covered, Lucky Peach was superb. Many who read it at the time still reference it, and have pieces that have stuck with them for years and writers whose byline for which they always searched the table of contents. The one I remember best and think about often is the comedian and podcast host Marc Maron’s essay about his cast-iron pan. This was the piece for me. And there was fiction, poetry, and the translation I’m always going on about that should be a serious aspect of food publishing. The visuals tend to be if not always stunning, always novel. Lucky Peach did redefine what a food magazine can do.

Unfortunately, it generally did so from a perspective that came crashing down like a ton of bricks, where the chef is a badass rock star, a heartthrob, not just a boss—and usually a bad one. One must cringe now, though from what I’ve been told, many people were already cringing then, especially women who’d worked in kitchens.

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“From my perspective, Ying, Meehan, and Khong trusted writers in ways no other food pub of its influence has. My first story (Travel issue) I pitched Ying cold. He encouraged me to expand the pitch. ‘Or,’ he said, ‘you could just write the story.’ And that’s what I did.” Writer John Birdsall

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The chef-lionizing in food media has been hard to put a stop to, though now we are trying to laud only chefs and other figures in hospitality whom we see as “good,” though we have little evidence to back this up other than taking their word for it. Chefs are still the defining force of how we discuss, rank, and understand food; I’ve said that should change with a metaphorical death of the chef, but what emerges in its place? We haven’t quite figured it out yet.

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“It was a snapshot in time reflecting the cool kids club in food. Looking back—at the writers, featured topics, editorial staff—I’m pleased some in the community (me as a writer/reader, especially) have evolved. To be fair, there were some stories that stood the test of time.” Writer May Tien

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A few years after Mario Batali—a friend of the Peach—became one of the few truly “cancelled” people, we see the widely lauded Edouardo Jordan being accused of similar behavior. Why is sexual harassment and assault so seemingly endemic to restaurant culture?

Bourdain is a major presence throughout the magazine’s run, as one would expect, and I’m reminded while reading of the times I heard him say that he didn’t intend his first book of food writing to inspire more toxicity in restaurants; that he would be mortified when young chefs would offer him cocaine. He didn’t mean to glorify that, he said. And while drugs aren’t amply present in Lucky Peach, a whole lot of fucking romanticization and bloviating go on about the work of being a chef. That romanticization has allowed for abuse. In that first issue, Bourdain, Chang, and Wylie Dufresne rant condescendingly about the concept of mediocrity. Gabriele Stabile writes that authenticity interests him more than “these hot-button notions of ethics and ecology.” It’s good to know some things never change, like how uncool it is to consider the health of our planet.

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“For me, LP in the beginning was a cool look into the industry. The first issues were like getting a look into the industry, something that was written for us cooks. Being from a small town (worked at a shitty golf club), it showed parts of the industry that we didn’t have access to… In retrospect I look at it like it was all the things that were wrong within the industry. Celebrating chefs as gods, shitty kitchen behaviour.  Though also now realizing that there were some really good writers and it gave me a better understanding of food media.” Chef Fabrizio DeCicco

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A few years into my writing about food and after Lucky Peach shuttered but before he left the L.A. Times food section, I got an email from Meehan. “So I'm coming to you asking: what's a good big story we should do about veganism today?” he wrote. Validation from this crew, for me and for veganism. Nothing came of it, other than a later all-caps email about how Puerto Rico should be a state. (There was no inquiry into my opinion on the matter, which I’m sure you can infer.)

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“I knew I wanted to be a reporter, but I didn't understand the power of food journalism until I read a copy of Lucky Peach. It was their Chicken Issue, right before they killed the magazine. I remember poring over the spreads, especially the one with all the different types of chickens illustrated, and running to order back issues on the internet. I had never read anything so beautifully designed with riveting writing that tackled identity and systems at that point in my life (although I could be looking back with rose-tinted glasses!). Because of Lucky Peach, I started reading more food journalism and writing from all sorts of places. I was devastated to learn Lucky Peach shut its doors a few months after I first got my hands on the Chicken Issue, especially since I had wanted to intern there. … But I dodged a bullet! The growing pains were tough, as someone who viewed journalism with so much reverence and respect at 14. In retrospect, I'm grateful I got to read a publication that tried to do something fresh and different.” Managing Editor at Spoon University Izzie Ramirez


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After the first issue, the magazine gets more compelling, seemingly thanks to the influence of Rachel Khong, who came on as managing editor in issue two. The work of folks like Khong, Naomi Duguid, Hua Hsu, Jonathan Kauffman, John Birdsall, and many others broadened its scope beyond the navels of all those mononym chefs (Dave, Massimo, Rene, Ferran, etc.). It gets better and it gives some great writers big opportunities, yet it remained rooted in the mud of a chef culture that would only ever be exposed as more and more toxic in the ensuing years. As an archive, it is instructive: What questions should have been asked? Who was ignored here?

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“I realized I was having a tough time truly encapsulating the level of bitter disappointment with LP — I came to food from music (I published a music zine way back) and those early issues reminded me of the scrappy, ugly and often downright aggressive punk rock zines printed on newsprint that smudged off in your hands. But the part of LP that’s aged so badly is that it was, in point of fact, a tight bro circle brimming with noxious self-satisfaction. I hadn’t actually looked at those early covers in forever — but few are as hideous and tone-deaf as issue #3’s “we’re going to out-hipster the hipsters by snark-tattooing this porcine haunch.” On the other hand, I still adore the recipes and often find myself using particular issues (like ‘Pho’ or ‘Chinatown’) as references. I can’t hate it, try as I might. I’m weirdly fond of it, hideousness and all. Oh! And it has Mark Ibold’s charming love letters to regional potato chips. I’m pretty fond of those, too.” Writer and Editor Andrea Feldman

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Vittles editor Jonathan Nunn told me to be sure I read the piece of fiction in issue 5, “The Chinatown Issue,” titled “The Mother of All Cuisine,” which tells a story through emails of a fake writer’s search for a fake chef named Yun Ye Su who can prove that all European food is indeed Chinese. It is brilliant, both a send-up and love letter to the chef obsession of this magazine and its time—how myth is built and perpetuated in what is a small world with outsize influence; how the pursuit of food history is always a nerd’s errand; how much we trust chefs—we would follow them anywhere, when we probably shouldn’t. (It was Lucky Peach on mind when I biked with one down a highway.) Will the day come when chef profiles regularly interrogate the claims of chefs? When we let the artist and the boss coexist, in all its complications? When will we tease out that tension?

The energy of this short story is what we should be in search of, probably, in food writing: the absurd and the glorious, laughing at ourselves every step of the way because it is funny to revolve our lives around something everyone does every day. Lucky Peach did change the game, and perhaps its over-the-top glorification of the chef figure helped bring about its demise. No glory without the fall—is that a saying? What is clear now is that the game needs to change once again, in an as radical, self-assured way. Will it? I think it is, and none of these major players are involved.


This Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature chef and writer Taffy Elrod, talking about growing up with health food, becoming a chef in New York, and moving to the Hudson Valley to open a pizza restaurant with her husband.

For paid subscribers, the second recipe of the month is sweet plantain rum cake with a walnut-maple oat streusel.

Annual subscriptions are $30; monthly, $5.

Published:
Nada, baby.

Reading:
My Struggle Book 3 with an interlude for César Aira’s The Divorce.

Cooking:
Was craving Dishoom’s jackfruit biryani intensely, so made it again. Was craving chocolate-chip cookies, so made them. Was craving a nice mushroomy noodle stir-fry, so made that.