Jocelyn Zuckerman’s original idea was to send David Foster Wallace to the Oxford Food Symposium, an academic conference for wonky food historians. Mr. Wallace couldn’t go because the thing was being held in September and thus interfered with his teaching schedule at Pomona College. Determined to get him into the pages of Gourmet, Ms. Zuckerman came back with another pitch-the Scotch Whiskey Festival—only to find out that Mr. Wallace didn’t drink. So she suggested the Maine Lobster Festival.
Mr. Wallace took the assignment.
The first thing he did, Ms. Zuckerman said this afternoon from a hotel room in Berlin, was ask for an assistant to send him everything that Gourmet had ever published on the subject of lobsters. Ms. Zuckerman gave him some articles by Michael Pollan, too, which impressed him greatly. “He called them ‘marvels of lucidity,'” Ms. Zuckerman said. “He was impressed and inspired by them.”
The piece she received from Mr. Wallace upon his return from Maine—a rigorous, heavy-hearted inquiry into why so many people think it’s okay to boil lobsters alive—was unlike anything Gourmet had ever published before. First off, at over 7,000 words, it was long. But more importantly, it was dark and confrontational in a way that the magazine’s readers were not used to. (In one particularly gloomy footnote, for instance, Mr. Wallace wrote that to be a tourist was to be “alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit.”)
“I thought it was brilliant,” Ms. Zuckerman said. “I was sitting at my desk cracking up and I just thought it was great. But I didn’t know what Ruth [Reichl, Gourmet‘s editor-in-chief] was going to think. She hadn’t read him before and she didn’t know what she was in for.”
When Ms. Reichl did read the piece, the verdict was that it could run provided the hostile tone of some of the passages was softened, and what looked to her like a flattering portrayal of PETA removed.
“There was a little bit in there that just at a certain point got a little bit sanctimonious,” Ms. Zuckerman said. “And Ruth sort of said we need to tone it down… When I first told him, he was very resistant. There were negotiations and he said, ‘I don’t want to make this change. We can just drop the story.’… But then Ruth said, ‘I’m not gonna run it if it’s like this,’ so there was a little bit of a standoff. He was totally sweet the whole way, but you know, he puts a ton of thought into every punctuation mark.”
The negotiations were tough, by the sound of it, and at several points the piece came close to dying on the vine. Luckily, though, a compromise was reached, and afterwards, Mr. Wallace told Ms. Zuckerman he was glad Ms. Reichl had demanded what she did.
“He said, ‘Can you thank Ruth for me? Because she was right, the tone got a little harsh,’ Ms. Zuckerman said. “He was happy that someone called him on it because he so didn’t want it to be that.”
Mr. Wallace never wrote for Gourmet again, but four or five months ago, Ms. Zuckerman received a letter from him–the address scrawled in tiny handwriting on the envelope in purple magic marker– on behalf of one of his students who wanted to be a food writer.
Said Ms. Zuckerman: “It started out saying: ‘Dear Jocelyn, You may remember me as the reporter who went to Maine for your magazine.”