In the summer of 2011, chefs were the coolest people alive, Gourmet was two years dead, and food magazines, as a whole, were crushingly boring.

There was no single, homogenous "food media," of course, nor is there one now. But there is still an identifiable set: the mass market easy-dinner rags, the aspirational travel-fantasy glossies, the servicey weeklies, the slew of general-interest pubs that reserved a page or two in most issues for a little writerly musing on this or that, plus a cocktail recipe. Not to mention all the local papers, not yet all the way dead, and the entirety of the internet, which by 2011 was finally being acknowledged as something that would require, of the people in charge of all the aforementioned, a slightly more nuanced approach than their prior strategy — which had been to forcefully ignore it in the hope that it would all just go away.

Everywhere there was terror on the business side and paralysis in editorial, and in all of this chaotic human drama the publications themselves were getting lost. Audiences were fleeing magazines and newspapers for the internet, which meant everything in print needed to appeal to as many people as possible, to catch whoever remained, and so did everything online, to catch everyone who'd left, and all of this meant everything needed to be easy, which meant everything was boring. Every magazine cover looked the same. Every web page looked the same. Every photo of food looked the same. Every portrait of every chef looked the same.

And then the first issue of Lucky Peach hit newsstands, and everything changed.

That's a dramatic declaration, I know. But the mythos of Lucky Peach is great — greater, at times, than the magazine itself — and nothing casts a legacy into the stratosphere quite like an unexpected, yet agonizing death. Since the publication's demise was first reported a month ago, with editor Peter Meehan confirming Eater's break via parental divorce announcement, the accounting of its legacy has largely taken the form of reading lists of its most memorable pieces of writing.

Honoring the words that appeared in Lucky Peach is a fine and proper thing; the writers and stories the magazine showcased were always fresh, and frequently thrilling. The troika of editor-in-chief Chris Ying and editors/polestars Peter Meehan and David Chang created an expansive, well-lit space for writerly experimentation and muscle-stretching. You always knew a Lucky Peach story when you read it, with its long sentences and cockeyed-conoisseur perspective and inevitably macho denouement. But in the end, stories are stories are stories. Good writing will find its reader, no matter what masthead it runs under. It wasn't the words in Lucky Peach that blew up the stagnant world of food media. It was the design. Lucky Peach looked like nothing else out there — that is, until everything else out there started to look like Lucky Peach.

The first issue of Lucky Peach, summer 2011

I sat down to read the first issue of Lucky Peach when it came out, or at least I'd meant to. What I actually ended up doing was stare at it, page after page. I stared at that issue voraciously. The cover was hideous and glorious. It showcased a pair of flabby raw chickens, ass up, gripped by disembodied hands under awful kitchen lighting, overlaid with a drawing of eggs shooting out of their puckery cloacas. The dissonance only increased once you'd drag your eyes off the birds' mesmerizingly pallid skin and realize that the cover declared this to be THE RAMEN ISSUE, and yet there was nary a noodle or a chopstick to be seen. The whole thing was a blaring klaxon that Lucky Peach didn't really care about whatever it was you'd been expecting to see.

Inside, there were no serene beauty shots of recipes, no recurring, urbanely serifed display font. There were barely any photos, and the ones that were there felt snapshotty and scrapbooky. Instead, it was a riot of illustration styles and color palettes and visual references: You could spot references to boxing screenprints, movie posters, science textbooks, anime storyboards, Japanese woodblock, junior high desk scratches. There was a multi-page running illustration of a single, massive ramen noodle tangling up icons representing key points in the history of the soup. Nowhere did Lucky Peach announce its difference more than in this, what New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells described on Twitter as its "totally unfashionable, uncommercial, counterintuitive, Instagram-resistant devotion to the art of illustration."

I wasn't the only person mesmerized. When Lucky Peach launched I was working at one of the old guard food magazines, which was — as they all were — struggling to retain its identity as the web pyrrhically dismantled print, and Lucky Peach was all anyone in the office could talk about. It was all my friends at other magazines could talk about. It was all anyone could talk about: David Carr dedicated a column to the launch, calling the first issue "rugged, expressive, and streetwise," with illustrations that "look as if they were conjured in a tattoo parlor." It's possible that the Washington Post called it "a graphic pulp pastiche of drawings, photo essays and kitsch," but the original source is lost to the mists of the internet; the quote, at least, is preserved as a blurb on Lucky Peach's Amazon product page. Even the design world, populated by folks who see cool and innovative things all the time, was starry-eyed: influential blog The Fox Is Black praised its "left-field, experimental approach to publication design."

It's not that no one had ever published a drawing in a food magazine before — in early issues of Bon Appetit, which coincide with the early days of photography, the drawings outnumber the photographs, and midcentury issues of Gourmet are peppered with zingy little single-color line drawings of bunches of grapes and vaguely orientalist cruets. But the straightforwardly presented photo had reigned as king for over half a century. The rigid dinner-table still-lifes of the '60s and '70s may have been replaced by a messy-sexy culinary verité (perfected by Christopher Hirscheimer at Saveur in the '90s, all drips and cracks and splatters), but they were still photographs.

The sheer quantity of illustration in Lucky Peach would have been novel enough to have a ripple effect. But what catapults it to the status of icon is that the art was often weird and unbeautiful and profane (in Issue 2, an unsettling illustration of blue-haired, half-unpeeled bananas violently penetrating quarters of luridly orange cantaloupe), and most importantly, often in vivid contradiction to so many of the established tropes of what a page in a food magazine ought to look like. The third issue had a story by Anthony Bourdain, Bourdain-ishly titled "Eat Drink Fuck Die," illustrated with a quadtych of cartoons each representing one of the four acts. Gourmet never ran a headline like that; more importantly, they never ran a black-and-white sketch of two sets of feet orgasmically entwined atop a roller bed.

(It is worth noting that throughout the magazine's life, the illustrations weren't just weird and occasionally difficult — sometimes, they were flat-out upsetting, occasionally misogynistic or racially stereotypical in their pastiche of parodied and upended tropes. I suspect much of this was in pursuit of edginess, not offense, but it was nevertheless jarring to, for example, be flipping through issue one and find myself face-to-face with a sailor-suit upskirt. Lucky Peach has also done an imperfect job of preserving the credits for its illustrations online.)

That first issue, published and distributed by the San Francisco indie house McSweeney's, lists two art directors: Brian McMullen, a designer and editor who'd been on staff at McSweeney's for a while, working on books and other projects, and Walter Green, who was on his first-ever real job. McMullen had started developing some of what would become Lucky Peach a year before, when he and Chris Ying (at the time a co-publisher of McSweeney's) produced the food section of issue 33 of Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, which took the form of a one-issue newspaper called The San Francisco Panorama. He's also the guy responsible for the Lucky Peach logotype, which he told me he scribbled out with a Sharpie at 11 p.m. — "fist clenched, tears in my eyes" — the night before the issue went to print.

Beyond what was inherited from Panorama (the flow-chart recipes, for example), the look and feel developed more out of necessity than intention — a visual vernacular constructed in fairly equal parts by the overall tightness of the budget, McSweeney's institutional commitment to illustration, and Green's — well, his greenness. "In the beginning we couldn't really afford studio photography and we had to come up with other ways to make food look interesting or delicious," Ying wrote to me in an email. (He stepped down as editor-in-chief after the Fall 2016 issue, but remains an editor-at-large and a co-owner of the brand. McMullen and Green have also parted ways with the magazine — McMullen after what he describes as "three-and-a-half" issues, and Green in October 2015; Lucky Peach's current art director is Rob Engvall.)

It wasn't just the illustrations that made that first issue so visually shocking. The much-vaunted trialogue between Chang, Anthony Bourdain, and Wylie Dufresne is done in the style of a particularly horrible zine, the chefs represented via sloppily silhouetted newspaper-pixelated portraits, their speech bubbles punctuated with all-caps instances of Comic Sans, the popularly loathed typeface. The letters making up the title of a Harold McGee essay are connected like atoms in a molecule. There were spreads that required you to turn the magazine 90 degrees, centerfold style. Yes, the five full-page letterpress prints honoring global ramen masters were visually arresting, but so was the fact that five full consecutive pages were dedicated to letterpress prints — no copy, no apology, no ads breaking them up.

Green and I spoke on the phone for a while, picking through the early days of the magazine and how over its lifespan it evolved and, in some ways but not others, professionalized. As our conversation wound down, he was quiet for a second, and then he told me that over the years, he'd hear pretty often from designers and art directors who worked at food publications or on food stories, who wanted Green to know that they felt emboldened by Lucky Peach's irreverence — or, more to the point, the commercial success of its irreverence. "They'd say, 'Well, why can't we do this, if Lucky Peach is printing something like this?'" he recalled. "They would say, 'Here, we can try more stuff, because obviously readers will accept it.'"

It's one thing to be different. Plenty of food magazines have been different; the world Lucky Peach was born into was already full of an extraordinary complement of indies, like Diner Journal and Put a Egg on It and the wonderful British title Fire & Knives, all of which thrillingly rejected calcified visual conventions the big titles still clung to. But difference isn't legacy — legacy is a matter of influence, of being the engine of change. Due to an alchemy of Chang's celebrity and Meehan's celebrity access, Lucky Peach got into the hands of more people than most newly launched independent magazines, including almost everyone who was in a position to make decisions about what other food publications looked and felt like. I think often about an apocryphal quote that someone, maybe Brian Eno, said about the Velvet Underground, whose first album sold hardly any copies: "But everyone who bought one of those copies went out and started a band."

Magazine media moves slowly, both temperamentally and operationally. Issues go to print a month before they're on newsstands, stories may be assigned and shot a year or more ahead. But within two years of the quarterly's launch, both Saveur and Bon Appetit started toying with the idea of treating the typography on their covers as art; the former wrapping the coverlines around the circumference of a pizza, the latter dipping a toe into the waters of hand lettering. Jamie Oliver's magazine Jamie started edging into more unconventional territory, wrapping the TV star in illustrated ribbons and scribbled text.

The insides of the magazines started changing, too. Sometimes you'd see a spread that felt like a direct recreation of the Lucky Peach style — raw meat resting in a puddle of its own grease. More often, the inspiration was more about liberation: the notion that the art for a food story didn't need to be a glossy advertisement for the recipes that followed, that instead, it could be actual art — conceptual, challenging, even ugly. The photographer Grant Cornett started shooting food for the New York Times Magazine in 2013, but in 2015, his images abruptly shifted from conventional beauty shots to something that felt more like fine art: rigidly formalist, dazzlingly saturated, with campy props and skewed compositions that present food and drink as curious objects rather than enticing subjects.

Cornett's photos aren't always beautiful — in fact, they're often deliberately unattractive, grotesqueries on par with Lucky Peach's naked chickens, but with a hypnotic allure brought in by intentionality, rather than offhandedness. The Times Magazine's shift from pleasant food photos to jarring still lifes happened without warning or explanation — not presented as a special fine-art package with a statement of creative intent, as was done for a similarly garish, midcentury-inspired portfolio from artists Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari in 2015 (though that feature, I think, also owes Lucky Peach a certain debt of gratitude), but as regular, unremarked-upon spot art, that just happened to ask more than usual of its audience.

In an email after our phone call, Green wrote to me that at times he's heard people say that Lucky Peach's designs were "sometimes illegible." His issue isn't with the observation, but rather with the fact that it was presented as a complaint. "I always thought of it as a kind of sign of respect to the reader," he wrote of the occasionally high-difficulty aesthetic. "The whole magazine was an agreement like that: The writers and editors would try their best to make engaging stories, I would try my best to figure out the best way to visualize those stories, the artists we hired would try their best, and then when it got to the readers, they would have to put in a little effort too. And if the design required you to go the extra mile, hopefully the content would be worth it."

As with any magazine, Lucky Peach's style evolved over the years. When it launched under the McSweeney's aegis, the publisher's other magazines included McSweeney's, which was redesigned from zero with each issue, including trim size and paper stock and even whether it was a magazine at all (sometimes it was a DVD, or a collection of ephemera, or a bundle of mail — or, as with Panorama, a broadsheet newspaper), and The Believer, whose rigid formalism allowed minimal visual distinction between issues. Green told me he conceived of Lucky Peach as something that could live between these two extremes, while still retaining some of their gimmicky allure. His original plan was to do a radical redesign of the magazine every four issues, so that each year would have a totally distinct look and feel.

"That didn't work," he said, laughing. What he describes as the "hand-drawn and crude" style that helped the first issue land with such a bang stuck around for almost twice as long as Green had planned it to. Much of this was thanks to the magazine's seat-of-the-pants production schedule — McMullen described working on issues after the first as "if an arsonist went back to the same skyscraper and lit it on fire again, and our job was to repeat the miracle of extinguishing the flames" — but also, even after four issues, the look still felt right. This is as good a time as any to note that while Issue 1 and its chickens tend to get most of the love, Green and McMullen followed that cover up with a photo of a dead fish bleeding onto a grinning cartoon face, then one of a pig being tattooed with a butcher's diagram of a human body, and for issue 4, Spring 2012, a snapshot of a cow fellating a hot dog. My god.

But change came inevitably, with the magazine — and, as they launched, its website and cookbooks — becoming more aesthetically and conceptually polished as both its editorial ethos and Green's design tastes evolved. The covers of the 2013 issues dedicated to, consecutively, travel and gender, are probably the most emphatic visual turning point in Lucky Peach's evolution. They're ordered, pattern-driven, exquisitely balanced and obsessively styled. They also coincided with Green doing some freelance design work for the New York Times Magazine; he told me that he credits his immersion with that team — led, at the time, by Arem Duplessis, who shortly thereafter would leave to work for Apple — with Lucky Peach's overall shift away from unfettered maximalism, and toward a more tweezerlike aesthetic precision.

Lucky Peach had a hard time shaking its initial aesthetic reputation. "I find it a little discouraging when I hear people talk about the magazine as 'punk rock' or 'zine-y,'" Ying wrote to me. "It really has not looked like that in a long time. I don't think it ever has, to be honest. We used hand lettering a lot in the early days, and people will forever associate the magazine with that look." The easiest way to see how radically its aesthetic had evolved is to look at the publications (including this one) that have followed the trail it blazed.

The magazine's most flatly dramatic change was its Fall 2015 cover. The image is a three-quarter beauty shot of prawns en flambee, soft-focus peonies in the background, with coverlines touting "America's Best New Restaurants" and "Three Chefs Changing Food Forever." It was, of course, all a joke, right down to the Bon Appetit-esque all-lower-case logotype — and like all good jokes, it suggests a slightly unsettling truth. By one read, the cover was a Halloween costume, one magazine dressed up as another in the festive spirit of fall; by another, it was a riff on the issue's theme, "Fantasy": a print-edition changeling. But for sharp-eyed subscribers to both publications, Lucky Peach's transformation into Bon Appetit was a clear middle finger, a cool-kid playground taunt. Of course Lucky Peach turned itself into Bon Appetit: to even a casual observer, Bon Appetit had spent the previous six years slowly but steadily turning into Lucky Peach.

I want to be clear right now that this is me speaking, not Walter Green or Brian McMullen or Chris Ying or anyone else: Lucky Peach completely changed the visual language of food media, full stop, no qualifier, and its influence on the entire industry is both immense and subtle. And starting in 2014, that influence on Bon Appetit — the highest-profile food magazine in America, if not the world, the magazine that sets the agenda for how virtually everyone reads and sees stories about chefs, restaurants, recipes, and products — got a little uncanny.

When Conde Nast decided to shutter Gourmet, its flagship food publication, in 2009, it also made the call to redirect all its culinary readership and energies into Bon Appetit — a magazine that, at the time, had a higher circulation. This included a wholesale revamp of the brand, a multi-year process which culminated in a grand relaunch with the May 2011 issue, hitting newsstands just weeks before Lucky Peach debuted.

Under the leadership of newly installed editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport, Bon Appetit was undeniably gorgeous, drawing on design elements from outside the established food-media canon. Unlike Lucky Peach, the inspiration seemed to come mostly from the high-end: The mandate seemed to be to make the magazine look more in synch with prestige glossies like Vogue and GQ (Rapoport's alma mater). But its forward-looking design ethos was undeniable; I don't think anyone was surprised when Bon App started experimenting with simple hand-lettered coverlines in 2013, but the style was more hipster wedding calligraphy than Lucky Peach's indie brutalism.

It wasn't until the April 2015 cover — a dark, moody photo of a T-bone steak, its elegance jarringly subverted by a scatter of cartoonish block letters and blazes in bright neon colors — that a raised eyebrow may, perhaps, have been warranted. (I've reached out to a few people at Bon Appetit in the last few weeks to talk about Lucky Peach; all of them seem to have been away from their desks.)

That issue marked a turning point for Bon Appetit's covers; the next four followed the same high-low ethos: conventionally beautiful hero shots of food and landscapes, scribbled over with messy, youthful, zine-y type. The August 2015 issue — which hit newsstands at the same time as Lucky Peach's fantasy-themed Bon Appetit homage — is so skater-doodled, such an unabashed riff on Green's aesthetic morphology, that I wouldn't be surprised at all to hear that hurried travelers ducking into Hudson News in search of either title found themselves leaning back two inches in their economy-class seats only to realize they'd paid for the wrong damn magazine.

Even when they were referencing other magazine styles, Lucky Peach's interior spreads looked wholly original — like ultra-skinny columns of text fitted inside knife blades, or watercolored lobster carcasses.

"It's really like Freaky Friday," Ying wrote to me of the dueling covers. "Their cover is all bubble letters and hand lettering, and ours has this chopped-up version of their logo and mostly clean serif typeface." He and the Lucky Peach team had no idea what Bon Appetit had in the works, but he'll happily admit that their side of the face-swap was no accident. The story of its genesis is straightforward: "I spent a couple hours with [David Chang] on the basement level of a Chinese restaurant, during which he gently and politely encouraged me to be more proactive about the fact that other magazines were copping our style while we just sort of sat around and took it," Ying said. Green draws the line just as directly, recalling that the issue's all-lowercase masthead was "poorly frankensteined from the Bon Appetit logo," a ransom-letter rearrangement of its actual letters, curves, and lines.

Green, McMullen, and Ying all emphasized to me that throughout the magazine's life, what they brought to the design of Lucky Peach didn't originate in the world of food media; that despite the magazine's often emphatic parody of classical food media tropes, they very rarely set out with the explicit intent of subversion. This may have been true from time to time, but I suspect some of it is myth-making (or myth preservation). Certainly none of them existed in some state of virginal media purity — Lucky Peach referenced other styles regularly, even food magazines.

The Bon Appetit cover was the most open-handed of their meta-media inside jokes, but you could regularly spot them quoting other publications' styles. Men's magazines, sports magazines, and comics were frequent reference points. Slim vertical lines between the text columns and small, centered, semi-abstract illustrations by Roman Muradov made "Wedding Crashers," Gideon Lewis-Krause's expansive ode to celebratory drinking in the Spring 2014 issue, feel like something from a 1990s Harper's or Atlantic; from its normcore photo selects to its needle-edged, Eileen Fisher-red header typeface, a Summer 2014 story about the Oregon coast pegged to the 30th anniversary of Goonies is a middle-of-the-road regional bimonthly, exquisitely rendered, displaying equal parts love and mockery.

It's possible that food media didn't need Lucky Peach in order to look how it looks today: more visually multifarious than ever before, with editors and art directors bringing illustrators and sculptors and hand-letterers into the pages of our publications, not just limiting their presence to mood boards. Maybe aesthetic zeitgeists are destiny, unavoidable confluences of an infinity of trends and pressures, unstoppable forces. I don't know how else we could have arrived here; all I know is how we did.

I'm pretty sure the folks at Bon Appetit and the Times Magazine — all of them dazzlingly creative, independent-minded people who probably don't like to see their work compared to an upstart that often eclipsed their coolness — would tell a different story than the one I see, though maybe people in the art department at Every Day With Rachael Ray or First We Feast or Munchies would be more willing to cop to the sources of their inspiration. I know for my own part, in assigning roles wherever I've worked since 2011, it's helped me go weirder and more arch and less safe with the art direction of the stories I've worked on, and the artists and photographers I've hired.

In the end, I think the truth is this: It doesn't really matter if other magazines were already starting down the same path, or if Lucky Peach just hit a sweet spot of doing their thing early, and doing it loud, and doing it right. It made for a really, really cool magazine — a magazine that spoke to its readers, but also spoke to all the other magazines. (Well, except Cook's Illustrated. Cook's Illustrated is immovable.) We could have ended up here any number of ways. But the way we did get here — with websites and magazines full of doodled-on photos and scribbled pull quotes and bowls of noodle soup photographed next to sculpey-clay anthropomorphic bunnies wearing, I don't know, Dodgers caps and Stan Smiths and uncomfortable leers — was by way of Lucky Peach.

Helen Rosner is the executive editor of Eater.