At first glance, Cured plays like an ill-conceived Portlandia sketch: a food magazine solely about food preservation practices? Put a bird on it! Darra Goldstein, founder of Gastronomica, the nerdy food bible that arguably launched the fervor of food-plus-culture magazines, was equally skeptical. Approaching retirement in 2017 (she teaches in the Russian department at Williams College), she had planned on downshifting when Joe Caterini of Zero Point Zero Productions, producers of the TV show The Mind of a Chef, approached her about editing Cured. She wondered, “How many issues could be produced around what I thought would be such a narrow segment of food preparation?”
She soon came to discover that food preservation “spans the whole history of human survival, the ongoing endeavor to make sure we have enough to eat,” she explained. “Think about how many different forms of food preservation exist: fermentation, curing, brining, dehydrating, using sugar to make jams and syrups… There’s also cultural production. Why would these practices persist if the foods didn’t taste good?” With so much emphasis on the momentary beauty of fresh food, she argues we’re missing food’s slower, more interesting half-life in preservation. “The processes of preservation take fresh foods and carry them to another level,” she says. “Flavors intensify; textures change. The transformation is magical. That needs to be celebrated as much as the first wild strawberries of summer or a crisp apple in fall. Think of opening strawberry preserves in the depths of winter and seeing that ruby red glistening, or the vitalizing smell of kimchi.”
Far from twee and narrow, Cured’s scope is huge. It’s a magazine about how food manifests the passage of time—about arresting, manipulating, and ultimately submitting to time, while enjoying the ride along the way. It also explores a vast terra incognita of food culture, a landscape only glancingly addressed by publications like Cereal, Gather, and SABOR. Cured is more akin to Lucky Peach: less gonzo food traveler, more witty, bookish intellectual for whom a bite of something new awakens a parallel hunger to know more about it.
“One of my goals [with Cured] is to educate,” says Goldstein. “People are making pickles in their apartments now, but do they know the whole history of pickling, why and where it developed, the many different techniques, the science behind it? Any activity you undertake is so much richer if you understand its history and cultural underpinnings.” Describing where Cured fits in a foodie’s overstuffed magazine collection, Goldstein says:
“In the trade world, most food publications are lifestyle magazines… Independent food magazines are stunning in their design, but the articles are secondary to the look or vibe. What we want for Cured is amazing design and intelligent writing that digs deep. That’s the combo that distinguishes our publication.”
Mind of a Chef‘s art director Daniel de Graaf got involved with Cured via a casual email volley. Caterini, Cured’s publisher and a Zero Point Zero colleague, asked de Graaf if he want to do a print magazine. A quick “Of course,” later and Caterini emailed de Graaf a photo for the magazine’s first cover. It was a prosciutto teetering in a high-heeled shoe. “I was immediately, totally engaged with the cover,” he says. “My wife is from Italy, and I’ve sat around many a dinner table talking about the craftsmanship of prosciutto, about genetic predispositions to smelling—” Wait, what? “Yes,” he continued. In San Daniele, where his wife’s family is from, “there are people who claim to have a genetically heightened sense of smell. You test whether prosciutto is fully cured by dipping a horse bone into the meat, pulling it out, and smelling it. My reaction to the cover was informed by an appreciation for all those things.”
He also cites this image as his creative true north for Cured’s visual style. “It drove the process for me. It needed to be there to help me hire the right designers and photographers, and it helped at the end to confirm our original vision had been realized.” Understanding the cover’s controversial quality, the Cured team prepared a statement decoding the image with revealing erudition. To the potential charge of misogyny, they counter that prosciutto is made from castrated male pigs, suitably gender-bending and questioning of preconceptions of many kinds. Furthermore, the hot pink shoe is more than eye candy.
“A stiletto doesn’t merely lift the leg to make it appear more shapely; it also represents the height of Italian style and craftsmanship—as does the prosciutto that wears it.”
So what’s inside Cured’s debut issue? Articles unearth a Neolithic butter stash, illustrate the time-lapse process of making persimmon vinegar, and launch a paean to mold. “The “Pancetta Variations” depicts a series of sliced pancetta, revealing the individual striations of different cuts in cross-section; each illustration is paired with brief commentaries from photographers, linguists, and designers. The feature well is bursting with variety: jeweled treasures from a pickle market in Kyoto; brewing tejuino, a Mexican fermented corn drink; a Constructivist spread about zur, a yeasty bread soup from Poland; and lightly fermented buttermilks from Senegal. We also learn step-by-step how fermentation variously yields miso, kimchi, and cheese; a feature exploring scientific debates on probiotics and the microbiome; and there‘s a nice essay about “Stinky Delicacies.” A recipe guide steers novices away from dangerous mistakes. (“We really didn’t want to include a legal statement,” says Goldstein. “That counteracts everything we’re trying to do. It’s like saying: read this magazine, but retain your fear! I was happy my little proviso was deemed acceptable.”) The magazine closes on a lark, a visual history of majolica, amusing Victorian cheese balls.
Cured doesn’t shy away from disgust; in fact, it almost courts the feeling. A review of Baroo, an L.A. fermentation restaurant, features a full-page photo of grains fuzzing over with mold. One article opens with a vivid description of casu marzu, a Sardinian cheese featuring live maggots. Paging through Cured, you become aware of the tension between seeing food as edible vs. a neutral object of nature. Rot inches towards death. Controlled rot both slows the process and yields a fascinating remainder: of pungent tastes, of unexpected deliciousness, of deeper understanding and connection. Cured’s photographic is similarly brazen. Consider the high-speed photography in one feature, capturing the exact moments when fermenting foods explode in their containers.
“Our approach was macroscopic: get even closer and more personal,” says de Graaf. Any food stylist will caution against photographing too closely, but de Graaf argues that taste—both in aesthetic and gustatory terms—shouldn’t be the sole point.
“It’s always in the back of my mind: ‘Can you make this look better?’ Every designer gets that. But it’s not supposed to look better, it’s supposed to look like that. The design process should be about what you’re communicating versus working backwards from beauty. It’s a risky approach.”
And it pays off. Far from empty beauty shots, the beautiful, wordless images of Cured gain resonance from the longform articles they punctuate. Both Goldstein and de Graaf expect to reinvent the bi-annual’s pacing and sections based on the next issue’s contents, trusting the right form to arise from the material itself. But both are pleased with the debut, eager for reader response, and bursting (in good, sizzling kimchi style) with new ideas for the next issue. Goldstein wants to explore preservation techniques for non-edibles like wood or fur pelts. Transforming disgust into curiosity, seasoned with humor, will remain Cured’s watchwords. “If you can’t have fun and laugh, you’re missing out,” notes de Graaf. That’s so much part of communication, warming someone up, inviting them in. Cured is welcoming in that way.” Venture down to the pickle cellar and see for yourself.