What a lovely spread: The latest food magazines look so good you could eat them

They're creating a mini publishing boom, reports Samuel Muston

In the scrum of a newsagent's magazine rack, you might not, at first glance, know what you'll find on opening The Gourmand. If you cover the page-width banner at the top announcing its name and hinting at its content, you're left with a sand-yellow magazine front with a woman in bright red lipstick biting a shrimp.

It is handsome, stridently so. But confusing. The scarlet-ringed lips seem to belong in a 1980s fashion shoot. However, the general aesthetic and cover, in finest leather-look cardboard, owes more to the pricey design mags you find in independent bookshops. The prawn, though, holds the key.

This, in fact, is one of the new genus of food magazines, sometimes home-grown, sometimes born across the Atlantic, but internationally available, which are supplanting the traditional glossies in the shopping baskets of the younger members of the eating classes, and creating a mini boom in print publishing as they go.

Their names are Lucky Peach, Fire and Knives, and this summer's newbie, The Gourmand, and they owe as much to art title Frieze as they do to Olive or Good Food. They are part literary journal, part food magazine and invariably they are printed on matte paper. The biggest selling, and the one that sets the tone, is New York-based Lucky Peach. Its first issue in 2011 had its print run extended twice, until it hit 72,000 copies. "We printed 39,000 and I thought if we sold half of that it would be champagne time," says Peter Meehan, who edits the magazine with New York chef du jour, Dave Chang. "But then we sold all of them and reprinted again, then again, then again. We had meant to make a TV app and use the mag to publicise it – after, we thought we'd drop the app and concentrate on this."

Founder of The Gourmand, David Lane, tells a similar story. "We started it simply because we wanted to produce a beautiful object which looked at foods place in culture. And the response has been so surprising: we've had request for it from everywhere from LA to Stockholm," says Lane.

What is it that's drawing the crowds and plaudits, then? How do the new comers differ from the more established food magazines? First and foremost, while Good Food or, say, Jamie, tend to be vehicles for recipes, the new lot tend to scorn that paradigm. If recipes are included, they are there to "inspire, rather than instruct", as Peter Meehan puts it. "We don't necessarily expect people to follow them."

The tone, too, is different. Practicality is out and the resolutely literary is in. You won't find any features on what to do with this season's vegetable in The Gourmand. What you will find is a misty-eyed reverie on the Manhattan cocktail. And you will look in vain for 10 ways with an onion in Lucky Peach – because in its place is 5,000 words on the pleasure and pain of rotting fruit. Fire and Knives devoted a spread of its pages to a piece on the food in Withnail and I. High culture is often to be found furtively embracing the low – and sometimes it works and sometimes, well, they seem a little pretentious, if seldom dull.

It is in aesthetic terms that they have been most successful in establishing what they are. Or at least what they are not. The mainstay of the traditional glossy is highly stylised images of well-lit food you can make if you use the recipe they accompany. Cake is usually flecked with icing sugar; a sausage roll is unvaryingly oven-fresh and golden. Lucky Peach, in contrast, put a tattoo artist plying his trade on a pig's leg on its 3rd cover ("we have a poke-you-in-the-eye aesthetic," says Meehan). Fire and Knives chose to put a monochrome carrot on its cover in 2010, under which was written "ceci *'est pas un repas", while The Gourmand recreated the architectural styles of the 20th century using biscuits, pork pies and crudités, maybe showing us what Olive would be like if Vice magazine did an issue.

It is easy to get carried along with the hipsterish enthusiasm that ribbons through, and indeed around, the new mags. But it is worth noting that none can even wink at BBC Good Food when it comes to circulation. The 23-year-old title shifts a colossal 267,164 copies per issue. And yet, all the same, Lucky Peach, The Gourmand and Fire and Knives do have a constituency – and one determined enough to shell out around £10 for them.

So who are they? What type of person eschews the internet and its bulging quotient of eat-a-logues, reviews and assorted food-based ephemera and goes outside and buys an actual magazine? As food writer and author of Small Adventures in Food, James Ramsden, points out, the readership will be diffuse, but will be united in one thing: they consider food a serious cultural pursuit.

"You could speculate that they probably know what is going on in the dining scene, go to farmers markets and they will take pride in their thoughtful attitude to food. There is, after all, an element of prestige in having these types of magazine lined up on your shelves – I do just that with my copies of Fire and Wine," he says. "People want to have nice tangible objects, as with first editions of books."

That perhaps explains their wisdom-defying birth and advance: they act as markers of status, a nod towards a metropolitan notion of sophistication, one that marks you as coming from that ever-more chic interstice in modern culture marked, "home of the foodie".

It is, there is little doubting, a good place to be. Because where once an interest in food meant bow ties, stultifying fine dining and an unshakeable fustiness, for Generation Y, food is a yard stick of cool.

"People don't want to just be interested – they want to be seen to be interested," says Ramsden.

Or, to put it another way: "The new foodie magazines are like Wallpaper used to be," say Meehan. "You'd pile them up next to your Ing chair to show the world you'll be jet set one day."

Are they likely to outsell the established glossies? Probably not.

But while a large swathe of the young and modish are defining themselves as much by where and what they eat as what music they listen to, you are likely to see more of these high-art explorations of what you can do with a prawn, some lipstick and a piece of leather-look card appearing in your newsagents – and that can only be a good thing.

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