The real food bible

New York Times

Taste of Home is a magazine that does not print certain words. Like confit. Or microgreens, or extra virgin, or fleur de sel. Or, especially, chef.

Its photo features on kitchen makeovers are not littered with brand names like Garland and Sub-Zero and Corian. Its travel stories wander no farther afield than rural restaurants where the potatoes are made magical through the whipping in of cheese, butter, cream and more cheese. And its party features combine themes like fish or football with homemade touches like fin-shaped place cards and pigskin birthday cakes.

No editor could make this stuff up.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but Taste of Home also claims the highest circulation of any food magazine, about 4.5 million, which is more than Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and Gourmet combined. And right now it may be the most talked-about food magazine in the country.

In the last week, the Reader’s Digest Association has been reported to be in talks to take over Reiman Publications, the obscure but eminently successful company in Greendale, Wis., that publishes Taste of Home, for at least $700 million. Neither company would comment.

But if the deal succeeds, what Reader’s Digest will acquire is a fiercely loyal following for recipes and ideas from a universe far removed from the one that celebrates chefs and esoteric ingredients. And I have to count myself among those devotees.

Taste of Home has been my guilty pleasure for years, ever since my consort’s mother in Buffalo sent me a gift subscription for Christmas and hooked me on its determinedly downscale approach to food. All the recipes are submitted by readers, making it a unique barometer of how America really eats. It’s like a Junior League cookbook in installments every other month.

Taste of Home is just one piece of a unique empire, based in a little town that looks right out of a David Lynch movie but is actually two Interstate exits south of Milwaukee. The magazine has its own visitors’ center, complete with a store selling Reiman merchandise, and even has its name on a surprisingly stylish restaurant. I made a pilgrimage there a couple of years ago and am still thinking about it.

Although the magazine itself has other wacky attributes, the food is the main fascination. I have never actually clipped a recipe for a main course I would serve to company, let alone my consort, but some party staples have been born from the snack columns (Taste of Home does not call such tidbits anything fancy like hors d’oeuvres, or even appetizers). A loaf of round sourdough, crosshatched and stuffed with sliced pepper Jack cheese, soaked in melted butter and baked to irresistible gooeyness, is typical of what I consider crossover cuisine, from a trailer park to a Manhattan co-op. Bar cookies — the heartland’s answer to petit fours — are also generally good bets.

In these pages, one casserole is worth six sauté pans, and a can opener is a cook’s right hand. Jell-O is not just accepted but venerated, and cream of mushroom soup is as essential as stock.

But on the whole, real ingredients add up to real food. Ann Kaiser, the managing editor, who also serves as the magazine’s spokeswoman, says readers are interested primarily in from-scratch cooking. (A new sister publication that relies on convenience foods, Quick Cooking, has cut into the original magazine’s circulation.)

Almost every recipe is depicted in an elaborately styled photograph, which minimizes the need for detailed directions. The magazine has a huge loft at its headquarters stocked with thousands of cake stands, casseroles, pie plates, table linens, salt and pepper shakers and other accessories to give a country look to the food photos, which are nothing like what you see in Saveur’s features on home cooking.

The writing is as much of a hoot as many of the recipes. No one ever “says” anything; it’s always “relates” or “remarks” or “reveals.” The “editors” are billed as “a thousand country cooks,” all of whom contribute recipes, cooking tips, anecdotes and photographs in return for their names and faces in the magazine.

In reality, a small staff translates readers’ letters into deliberately folksy copy and tests every recipe (after first checking an extensive database to be sure it has not been previously printed). Taste of Home is just as calculated as any glossy urban food magazine.

It does dispense solid information, and with none of the humorless pomposity of Cook’s Illustrated. Cooking With Janaan, a question-and-answer feature, reassures a reader wondering if a Bundt cake can be baked in an angel food pan with “yes, indeed” heartiness (as long as the pan is two-thirds full and a foil wrapping keeps the batter from leaking).

Shortcuts Worth Sharing offers reader advice: “For delectable red cabbage, add a cinnamon stick, admits Catherine Stahlmann of Arlington Heights, Ill.” Taking a Trip With Food showcases recipes for ingredients like black walnuts or popcorn from farmers’ wives in a particular state, and those are often winners — who better than a cook with a plethora of carrots to come up with offbeat ways to serve them?

Taste of Home also publishes features no New York or Los Angeles magazine would dare, like Our Family’s Favorite Grace. It acknowledges that America’s obsession with fat and sugar is taking a toll by emphasizing recipes for diabetics, and that the economy has not exactly put a foie gras in every terrine by including a column called Feed Your Family for 99 cents a Plate.

What it does not mention is wine. Apparently this food is meant to be eaten with drinks like the apricot cows in the current issue: apricot nectar blended with ice cream, nonfat dry milk and sugar.

The magazine has been able to go its own way partly because it answers only to its publisher and readers, not mainstream advertisers. Roy Reiman started the business in his basement in 1970, at a time when farm magazines were cutting out their women’s pages because they could not sell advertising. He dreamed up a broadsheet called Farm Wife News that was “dedicated to partners of the nation’s farmers and ranchers” and intended to be “a medium for the exchange of good ideas.” To subsidize it, he turned to subscriptions and built quite an empire. One that is apparently very appealing to Reader’s Digest, which is suffering in the current advertising slump.

Reiman, which publishes nine other magazines, like Birds & Blooms and Reminiscence, also runs tours and a mail-order business. While it constantly boasts about its lack of advertising, each thin issue of Taste of Home comes in a plastic bag packed with fliers for other magazines and merchandise. Its pages are just free of the Baby Gap and Acura ads that make Food & Wine so hefty. A subscription is $17.98 for six issues, 50 percent more than what Gourmet charges for 12. Newsstand copies are $3.99. Some of the content is also available free online, at

Mr. Reiman sold a majority interest in his company in 1998 to Madison-Dearborn Partners but continued to oversee the business, including starting Taste of Home Restaurant. The menu purports to showcase recipes from the magazine, and readers come from hundreds of miles away to eat there. Some even drink wine from a decent list.

The visitors’ center was opened to divert obsessed readers away from the magazine’s hive-like offices nearby. It houses a glassed-in demonstration kitchen staffed by women in lab coats who mechanically crank out cookies (MMMinnesota Munchers when I was there; mix for sale). A shop downstairs is heavily stocked with Reiman merchandise: cookbooks, crockpots, baggy, cutesy sweatshirts like the ones on many of the patrons and gadgets like a knife just for iceberg lettuce.

Until I made my odyssey there, I have to admit my fascination with Taste of Home was tinged by a slightly creepy feeling. As a childless urban atheist living in sin, I was suspicious of a magazine in which virtually every face was white, every woman was married, widowed or single for some other good reason, every family had Mom, Dad, kids and usually grandparents at the table and church was mentioned in every fourth paragraph. I could almost see Pat Buchanan behind the Betty Crocker mask.

But after a couple of days in Greendale, I realized that the magazine literally reflects its readership. The visitors’ center and the restaurant were both full of faces straight out of the magazine’s cluttered pages. Aside from a couple of bus boys with name tags like Fidel and Fernando, everyone was white. Some were even Amish.

Ms. Kaiser explained the magazine’s appeal simply: “People who are reading it kind of feel that sitting down for a family meal or taking dinner to a potluck at church is a very significant part of their lives.” While most magazines project fantasy, Taste of Home creates its own reality. Even if it looks a little alien from here in melting pot Manhattan.


Adapted from Taste of Home
Time: 35 minutes

1 round loaf sourdough bread, about 1 pound, unsliced
1 pound Monterey Jack or pepper Jack cheese, sliced
1 stick butter, melted
1/2 cup chopped scallions
2 to 3 teaspoons poppy seeds, optional.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Crosshatch the bread without cutting through the bottom crust. Insert cheese between the cuts. Combine the butter, scallions and poppy seeds, and pour over the bread. Wrap in foil. Place on baking sheet, and bake for 15 minutes. Uncover, and bake 10 minutes longer, or until the cheese is melted. Serve.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.