NO doubt about it, food magazines fill a plump section of newsstands: At least 19 food-related journals are available to readers in the United States.
Since the mid-1980s, "the trend in food magazines has been growing but is also more targeted," says Samir Husni, head of the magazine program at the University of Mississippi's Department of Journalism.
Food magazines have been moving toward a "how to" approach, he says. Driving their popularity is a format that offers "good and fast information."
Gone are the frills that defined food magazines of the '80s - the fine-dining guides, fantasy table-top spreads, and fancy gourmet recipes. Present is a pared-down '90s sensibility that is down-to-earth and geared toward quality foods and better nutrition.
"Any food magazine that's based on escapism is going to be a failure," Mr. Husni says. "Now we are more interested in, 'What are we eating?' and 'Can we do it better?' "
Most food-magazine editors interviewed sketched a similar profile of their audience: Their readers are female, between the ages of 25 and 35, well-educated, interested in healthy food (but not willing to sacrifice taste), and in search of a guide to practical cooking techniques and kitchen supplies. As well as knowing their readership, analysts like Husni say, magazine editors must find a niche that sets them apart from the growing competition.
In the racks today - alongside such old-timers as Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and Food and Wine - are newer magazines that capture this latest brand of individuality.
The following are a few standouts: Taste
This British bimonthly is the Life magazine of the food world. The seven-year-old publication delivers big photos and bold graphics. Unfortunately, the cost of the magazine is big too, at $6.50 per issue (most food magazines are half this price).
Inside the United Kingdom, the magazine has a circulation of 40,000. Outside, in its limited US and Australian markets, it hovers at 60,000.
The writing is as strong as the visual elements; language is at once lucid and breezy, and often peppered with humor. The tone throughout is skeptical of the food industry: One reads Taste with a cozy feeling that these editors are looking after you.
Aside from its unsurpassed layouts, this magazine stands alone in its thoughtful investigative coverage of the food industry. Topics in the October issue include a French dieting scam and the politics of espresso.
Editor Drew Smith admits that the magazine has lost advertisers in the past for publishing hard-hitting features. Even so, "there is no point in producing this magazine if we don't uncover the secrets," he says.
Mr. Smith points to "the awful food in England" as the catalyst for his readership. "Our readers are people who have learned to cook good food because they've had to."
The American reader with access to Taste, however, should be warned: Nearly half the contents is tailored for Londoners. Regular features aim to make sense of the city's dynamic food industry, with updates on the latest food products, kitchen equipment, and restaurants.
Such internationally seasoned pages, however, are delivered with enough gusto and clarity to hold the interest of any globally minded reader. Eating Well
Editor Scott Mawbray says his three-year-old magazine is the answer for people "hungering for an authoritative source for good health and nutrition and good recipes." Pausing, he adds: "People are tired of the nonsense that's out there."
Faddish this food magazine is not. It's a smart guide designed by a staff of editors who are nuts about eating. Pages are doused with recipes (most adapted to the Eating Well standards) and sprinkled with terrific food photos. Though the writing tends to ramble, the articles are informative.
The September issue includes a story of a former rancher who bucks the veal industry, a low-fat menu for a Louisiana supper, and "enlightened" chocolate cake recipes. The magazine has a grab-bag feel, which at times can be confusing - especially when the large number of food ads are mistaken for copy. Though the recipe features have a bold international thrust, the magazine look (pastoral and sentimental) is more rooted in its home-base of Vermont.
The magazine's biggest snag, however, may be in getting people to pick it up: It's easy to mistake for a health-food or dieters' magazine. The monthly's newsstand price is $2.95, and it has a circulation in the US and Canada of 640,000. Cook's Illustrated
Christopher Kimbell, who launched Cook's Illustrated for the second time last fall (after a 1980 start-up failed), says he tried it again because "the home-cooking market was coming back."
Looking at the circulation numbers, that's not a bad hunch. Of his current 180,000 circulation, 75,000 subscribers were gained in the past six months.
Mr. Kimbell says his bimonthly magazine aims to "explore techniques of cooking." He's also quick to add, "We don't do anything earth-shattering. We just find the best way to do something that reflects real home-cooking and is in depth."
The publication, based in Brookline, Mass., is not glamorous. Kimbell even hesitates to call it a magazine. "I like to think of it as a book that comes out six times a year," he says.
You won't find ads, color (apart from the cover), or seductive food photos. But you will find a crisp selection of material that takes cooking seriously as a craft. The writing is straightforward and clear (written mainly by food authors and teachers), and most stories are loaded with recipes.
What keeps this publication from drifting into the science-textbook galaxy are the handsome step-by-step illustrations that generously fill the pages. Kimbell's commitment to visual language is glimpsed best in "Notes From Readers." Under each reader's question, an illustrated response appears along with the written explanation.
The price is $4, a bargain considering that every square inch of its 32 pages has usable information.