LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

For home cooks, New Year's Eve is not quite the same as other holidays. There's no traditional food for the big night, unless you count champagne. So it's a time to spread the cookbooks and magazines on the kitchen table and improvise. And for millions of people, there's only one real food magazine, and it's big. It's called Taste of Home.

Ms. BARBARA NEWTON (President, Taste of Home): As far as circulation, we are the largest--by far the largest cooking magazine in the world.

WERTHEIMER: Barbara Newton is the president of Taste of Home. If you rank magazines by paid subscriptions, Taste of Home is right behind Time and People, and it's bigger than Sports Illustrated or Newsweek. No other food magazine comes close.

Ms. NEWTON: We have six and a half million subscribers to Taste of Home, and its offshoot brands, which are Light & Tasty, Quick Cooking and Cooking for 2.

WERTHEIMER: Taste of Home's millions of subscribers are in small towns and suburbs, Barb Newton says, but it's not well-known in America's largest cities.

Ms. NEWTON: We do fly under the radar screen in publishing a lot because the magazines that tend to get the most media play are the ones that are really attractive to advertising, and we take no advertising in any of our subscription magazines. That allows us to really focus completely on the reader.

WERTHEIMER: In the spirit of full disclosure, I am one of those readers. And the magazine is all about the readers, aimed at the 50-ish baby boomer with kids and grandkids, someone who loves to cook big dinners for the family and bring a dish to pass to potluck suppers. All the recipes are sent in by home cooks from places like Ruidoso, New Mexico, and Plainfield, Indiana. There are contests for the best ham recipe or muffins, with the winners printed on clip cards in the magazine. There are celebrations with theme menus and cakes in the shape of footballs or snowmen.

The magazine is published in Greendale, Wisconsin, and that's where they try out the readers' recipes.

(Soundbite of beeping; oven door being opened)

Ms. PAT SCHMELLY(ph) (Senior Home Economist, Taste of Home): Today we're tasting a Mom's Meal(ph) that was sent in from a daughter writing about her mother, who lives in Oregon. And this is her mom's favorite meal.

WERTHEIMER: A Mom's Meal is a regular feature. There's an account of what the meal means to the family and when it's served. In the parlance of the magazine, that little back story is called `the romance.' But Mom's recipes are ruthlessly tested in the magazine's kitchens, prepared and tasted at least three times by senior home economist Pat Schmelly and her crew.

Ms. SCHMELLY: Mom starts out by deboning a turkey and cutting it into pieces and filling it with a homemade corn bread giblet stuffing. These are then rolled up, tied with kitchen string and roasted.

WERTHEIMER: So now in order to do this, you prepare it as a family cook might? I mean, like, all of it at once?

Ms. SCHMELLY: We do. For us, when we prepare a meal it's like Thanksgiving every day when we do our testing. Everything has to be done at the same time.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah.

Ms. SCHMELLY: So it is exactly how you would do it at home.

(Soundbite of cooking tools)

WERTHEIMER: This Mom's Meal is not epicurean cooking, it's good scratch cooking with familiar ingredients.

Ms. SCHMELLY: We always look at color and texture because these do have to be photographed and we want them to be as beautiful as they can be. So this meal will have a beautiful red gelatin salad. It will have the sweet-and-sour red cabbage and the green peas. It will be beautiful together.

WERTHEIMER: I can think of one gelatin salad appearing in a Martha Stewart magazine, like, in the last maybe couple years. Gelatin salads have kind of gone out of style.

Ms. SCHMELLY: We just had a Jell-O contest in Country Woman, which is another one of our magazines. It was one of the highest entries we have had in a long time. So while we may all think it's dying, there are a lot of people that like Jell-O.

WERTHEIMER: So it's--I'm wrong, is basically...

Ms. JANAAN CUNNINGHAM (Food Editor, Taste of Home): Our readership, I think, enjoys the gelatin salads. They enjoy good food and good-tasting food.

(Soundbite of frying food)

WERTHEIMER: You also heard from food editor Janaan Cunningham standing up for Jell-O molds. Pat Schmelly says she reads the recipes and cooks them in her head before she actually tests them.

Ms. SCHMELLY: The readers' recipes are all sorted by our test kitchen assistants and then they're put into bankers' boxes. And I literally go into the bankers' boxes and start reading these recipes sent in by people.

WERTHEIMER: Is there an editing process that--into the sorting? I mean, are there recipes that the assistants will look at it and say, `Not happening.'

Ms. SCHMELLY: That doesn't happen. I look at absolutely everything that has come through.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, let me ask you about my favorite Taste of Home recipe that is weird. It was in--the winner of the candy contest months ago.

Ms. SCHMELLY: The cookie dough truffles that was published in December-January last year, yes. And we were surprised when that worked. That was really interesting.

Unidentified Woman #1: ...(Unintelligible).

Ms. SCHMELLY: As I was reading the recipe, I thought, `Now this is really unusual.'

WERTHEIMER: I absolutely picked it because I thought it was so weird. But other things I look at and I think, `This is very regular kind of family cooking.' You must be shooting for a sort of a balance.

Ms. SCHMELLY: Oh, we are. And we want recipes that cook--every skill level of every home cook that we have. So we're definitely looking for some easier recipes and we're looking for some with some techniques, too.

WERTHEIMER: Each recipe is photographed, homey-looking spreads, food displayed with bright tablecloths on Fiestaware or pressed glass. The December-January cover was cheesecake. The dessert, made with Reese's peanut butter cups and served with chocolate sauce. Photographers Robert Hagen and Dan Roberts.

Mr. ROBERT HAGEN (Photographer): I shot that, and the challenge was, of course, getting the drips of chocolate to come down and to stay there for a while. So it was not a simple cover.

WERTHEIMER: What is the worst food to photograph, the most difficult thing to get right?

Mr. DAN ROBERTS (Photographer): I'd say casseroles.

Mr. HAGEN: Casseroles. They're just not appealing. There's little that we can do to make it look fabulous.

Mr. ROBERTS: The longest summer we ever had was the casserole cookbook. It was just god-awful. Most foods do offer us a variety of shape and color and texture, but glop in a pan is glop in a pan, and that's a tough one.

Unidentified Woman #2: They're Grandmalike.

WERTHEIMER: Back to the test kitchen table for a tasting of the Mom's Meal with all the editors. The boned turkey fell apart a bit when sliced.

Ms. SCHMELLY: The only thing holding those two pieces of breast meat together is the skin.

WERTHEIMER: The red cabbage had a surprising agreement.

Ms. SCHMELLY: Maraschino cherry juice. That helps give it the nice pink color.

WERTHEIMER: The least successful recipe was for peas in cheese sauce.

Unidentified Woman #3: And then you stir in Velveeta cheese, which is cubed, and you stir until it's melted.

Ms. SCHMELLY: I feel like I put my spoon in, it's going to sit up.

WERTHEIMER: The tasting panel felt with small adjustments the peas would be fine. The menu might even make it into the magazine next fall.

Ms. SCHMELLY: Makes for a very nice fall meal, though.

WERTHEIMER: With its giant circulation and low overhead, Taste of Home is very good business. With no ads, it's not affected by swings in advertising revenues. That's part of the reason Reader's Digest reportedly paid $760 million cash for the family of magazines three years ago. The new owners expect annual revenues of more than $300 million. The Digest plans no big changes, but hopes to increase circulation even more, moving the magazines onto newsstands and supermarket checkout counters.

If you'd like to check out the recipe for cookie dough truffles, my personal favorite, it's from Taste of Home and it's at our Web site, npr.org.

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