The very last issue of cultishly loved, boundary-breaking indie food magazine Lucky Peach published last month. Arriving three months after the last original issue, it’s a “best-of” retrospective with a tombstone-esque cover and a survey of a wide variety of essays, articles, artwork, and recipes.
The highlight for avid fans, however, will not be an old hit but a new oral history of how every cover came to be. Known for its bold and original design, Lucky Peach and its covers featured the work of talented illustrators, photographers, street artists, graphic designers, and whatever you call people who put food into piles. The behind-the-scenes stories from editors Peter Meehan and Chris Ying and art directors Walter Green and Rob Engvall are, in pure LP style, funny and self-effacing, and catalog fuck-ups, inspiration, serendipitous surprises, and more than a little annoyance at not pissing off PETA.
Because Meehan is a good sport, he’s letting us republish it here. Enjoy:
ISSUE ONE: RAMEN
PETER MEEHAN: I remember this coming together and seeing it on my phone at the airport in Newark when Chang and I were flying, I think, to Copenhagen for the trip that would be in the second issue. All the early attempts were too sterile or too weird. Ying got Ben Jones on the hook to do it and he put his character Alfe on the cover and flattened a picture of ramen from the Momofuku cookbook for him to be eating... but then he never emailed us back. Like ever. Which is a fine choice for him to have made because he’s a great artist and we were a doomed food magazine but it was sad to us, his nerd fans.
CHRIS YING: I held out hope that Ben Jones would get back to me until the very last moment. Once he ghosted us, we were really at square one. That was the night before we sent the issue to press. We went through four or five completely different looks, none of which felt right. Dave Eggers said it was looking too much like a food magazine, and that it needed to be bolder or louder.
WALTER GREEN: Brian asked me to handwrite the cover lines — I don’t really like my handwriting, so I think I needed some convincing. Eventually, I did ’em, dropped them into the files and handed them off to Brian. When I came back to work the next day, he’d drawn a new logo overnight. I remember thinking he was poking fun at my handwriting style with it (the kind of deranged thinking that comes at the end of a stressful deadline) but I quickly shook that notion aside. It was approved, shipped, and ended up becoming Lucky Peach’s most enduring logo.
ISSUE TWO: THE SWEET SPOT
PM : The only fun story about this image is that the day we went to get it, the seas were wild and the captain discouraged us from going out. But we — me, photographer Gabriele Stabile, Jon “the Fishmurderer” Heindemause, and Helen Cho — would not be deterred. After a couple hours, the captain told me he’d never seen someone fish so much while barfing so hard, which I took as a compliment. Later, when I caught my first striper, the first mate said the tradition was to eat the beating heart of the fish, and I did it. Cured my seasickness and tasted good, too. Sweet and irony.
CY: The little protest signs in the bottom right are reversed on the subscriber copies, which is the sort of useless thoughtfulness that I love.
ISSUE THREE: COOKS AND CHEFS
CY: The world had reached peak pig-tattoo saturation, and the most common one among chefs seemed to be the pork-cut diagram. I thought it’d be funny if we tattooed a pig with a human-cut diagram, so I got a pork leg and schlepped it over to Black Heart Tattoo on Valencia and Duboce in San Francisco. It took about an hour to ink the pig and they didn’t even charge me.
Not one to waste food, I roasted this pork leg at home. The tattoo stayed perfectly clear and legible, even as the skin browned and crisped. So if you’ve ever wondered what would happen to your body art if someone were to cook you, now you know.
WG: Um, thanks for the invite to roast pork leg party, Chris.
ISSUE FOUR: AMERICAN FOOD
PM: One of the preliminary sketches Walter submits is of a photoshopped pile of all the foods featured in the issue. This is not a relevant detail to the wonderful cover we ended up with — which, disappointingly, did not anger PETA — but is provided as foreshadowing.
CY: It was Dave’s idea to have a picture of a cow eating hot dogs. We thought this would make people angry, but nobody was angry (or probably nobody was paying attention). And it was actually more difficult than you’d think to get these happy cows to eat (vegetarian) hot dogs.
WG: Rachel Khong art directed this photo shoot! I hated doing the hand-drawn type but was too nervous to move away from it since it was such an established Lucky Peach thing. So I would do it, and always dislike how it ended up looking. But, like, why didn’t I just try to draw better?
ISSUE FIVE: CHINATOWN
PM : Walter did some very lit sketches of “Chinatown” neon signs that we hoped to have made to hang in a Chinese restaurant and photograph for the cover ... and that’s when we learned some of the truths about the cost of neon sign making.
CY: Walter and I both had hopes that this explosion would be a little more clear, like, you’d be able to discern the contents flying out of the container. Shows how much we know about explosions.
WG : It’s true. We asked the photographer (Alan Sailer, an incredible guy who has a Flickr full of wonderful exploding food pictures) for so many versions of it and after something like, the fifth exchange, he had to write me and essentially say, you’re paying me less than how much it would cost to rent this high shutter-speed camera I’m using for like, an hour, and I can’t keep buying chow mein, and it’s extremely hot in the garage I shoot these in.
ISSUE SIX: THE APOCALYPSE; ISSUE SEVEN: TRAVEL; ISSUE EIGHT: GENDER
PM: I remember shooting these covers at my apartment with Mark Ibold, Hannah Clark, and Gabriele Stabile, the team I’d use for pretty much all photography stuff going forward from that point on. Walter wanted the ingredients all piled the fuck up in gross mounds but we didn’t have enough of them to achieve that effect so Hannah and Mark just arranged everything real artful like. I remember feeling we’d disappointed Walter immensely almost immediately afterward.
WG: I must say I wasn’t disappointed, but I did ask if they would try to do a more packed-feeling version. I think I was just too dedicated to the original conception. I love it now, I’m sorry.
CY: Were people impressed that there were back-to-back magazines that met in the middle with a sideways art package? I think maybe we were just piercing our own nipples with this one. That’s not a phrase, I know. I’m trying to say we were maybe getting fancy just for the pain of it.
ISSUE 9: COOKS & CHEFS 2.0
CY: I think it was my idea to show a little eight-bit cook leveling up as he progressed through his career. Is that what the idea is? I’m not even sure anymore.
ISSUE 10: STREET FOOD
PM : There was, like, a plan for the SF crew to spray-paint some designs Walter had done on a wall somewhere there for like a street art vibe for the cover. As we got closer to press time that plan started to fray and then I went all aggro and contacted Steve Powers, aka Espo, a famous artist/ex-graffiti guy, and started negotiating with him to paint a wall to be a cover for us.
After a lot of back and forth we got to the point where he and his team would paint stuff, scan it in, and we’d build the cover digitally ... which was not that far from where we started except that now we had a real honest-to-God sign-painting artist doing it and his stuff was cool. There were some last-minute East Coast-West Coast shoving matches over final details, and we went with a black logo instead of the green one that Steve wanted. He sent me an email after that said, “green means go, and money, and growth. that one’s free, you’ll get ’em next time.” We eventually were parents at the same school and I saw him a couple times after that but we never spoke or anything and I’m pretty sure I was dead to him for fucking up his color scheme.
Walter: I also wrote to Steve to apologize later. But the green was quite hard to see. The wall was originally bright red but Steve wanted it to be grey, I think. Steve, if you are reading this, I’m sorry. All of my notes for these covers are just, like, apologies. Everyone, I’m sorry. I’m not perfect! I was going to paint these on a wall, but then it’s like, hey, wait, I actually don’t know how to paint. I bought all the materials I needed though. They remained in my room untouched for years afterwards.
ISSUE 11: ALL YOU CAN EAT
PM: One of my favorites. Didn’t know Jordan Speer’s work before this and have loved it ever since. Notice that it’s PILED-UP FOOD which was a major mental hobgoblin for Walter at the time.
WG: What is better than a pile of food? Nothing.
CY: Walter snuck bride and groom cake toppers into the upper right, because I was getting married around then. Love you, Walter.
ISSUE 12: THE SEASHORE
PM : I got to know Robert Beatty, the artist who did the cover, through Pete Nolan, my bandmate in Spectre Folk. Our note to him was that it should be, “Like it’s 1981 and we did a lot of acid in the ’70s, but now we have a bungalow in Venice and deliver pizzas to make ends meet ... real orange/pink sunset vibe, some little things crawling around on the beach.” Robert pretty much hit it out of the park.
WG : Look at the spine of this issue. It says Sumner instead of Summer. I will never hear the end of this. It’s like ... move on, people! We all misspell easy-to-spell words on the spines of magazines every now and then. Live and learn!
ISSUE 13: FEEL THE JOY
PM: The little gingerbreaders we ended up using were a second-round last-minute order, and while they were of good quality, I think we had to pay like $400 or $800 because nobody asked for an estimate before we ordered them. Our artist friend Michael Tunk sent in a pro-bono fan cover after the fact and I think I like it better.
ISSUE 14: OBSESSION
CY: I think that this looked a little cooler in person than it did on the cover. We brought every pastry on the Tartine bakery menu to Maren Caruso’s studio, laid them all out on the floor and shot them at once. I’m not sure if that comes through here — it looks almost like we just Photoshopped it.
WG: I was trying to date a girl who worked at Tartine at the time, and she wasn’t into it. I remember thinking, maybe she will come to this photo shoot and fall in love with me. Today... that girl is my wife. Just kidding, she’s my girlfriend. Also, do people not like this cover? I think it’s really cool to look at!
ISSUE 15: THE PLANT KINGDOM
PM: The back cover features Walter’s food piles. His trauma is resolved.
WG: It’s not one of my better food piles, btw. Also my initial idea for the back cover for this wasn’t “food pile” but “food jungle.” The cover itself was inspired by the artist Stacey Rozich. She posted a picture of a mural at a hotel on Instagram and I thought, “we should have a magazine cover that looks like that mural.”
ISSUE 16: FANTASY
CY: What’s left to say about this cover? Everyone was saying that the glossy mags were looking more and more like ours, so I suggested we run with it. A few food nerds thought it was funny. A lot of readers thought we were abandoning our aesthetic. When I sent the cover to Chang, he said, “Awesome. Is this what the magazine is going to look like from now on?”
ISSUE 17: BREAKFAST
CY: Way back around issue 2 or 3, we talked about making a Lucky Peach breakfast cereal. Christina Tosi even came up with a sweet, peachy prototype that was very addictive. It never went further than that, but this would’ve been the box. So good.
ISSUE 21: LOS ANGELES
ROB ENGVALL: There was an Instagram trend of big weird fancy inflatable things — like swans and unicorns — happening at the time this cover came together, so the thought process was like, “Let's throw all the food of LA in a pool.” We added some cigarettes as a shout out to LA model Instagram styles and it was done.
ISSUE 22: CHICKEN
RE: We started planning this issue’s cover by going online and looking up photos of chickens. After about two months of that the real #design started. We added the Lucky Peach logo and a barcode to this photo we took (pretty quickly because at this point there wasn’t much time left until our deadline). In hindsight we shouldn’t have spent so long just looking at photos of chickens, but that’s something to improve on next time. After we add all the fun barcodes (we draw ours by hand) you are left with is what we here at Lucky Peach like to call a “perfect cover.”
ISSUE 23: SUBURBS
WG: It feels so appropriate and Lucky-Peach-y that the final (non best-of) cover would look so different than the previous ones. Also Rob was nice enough to put a picture of my dog in there. Rob Engvall is a creative genius.
RE: Everything concrete, everything real, relates to aesthetics. Art as pure aesthetics is even in danger of distracting attention from the aesthetic needs of the real world. There is no case in which there can be different aesthetic categories, a pure one and an everyday one. In moral terms we can also not distinguish between religious morality and the morality of everyday. I stole this entirely from a Otl Aicher book, is that ok?
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