Generations of Minnesotans baked — and swooned over — Al Sicherman’s “Extreme Brownies” recipe.
Tens of thousands of Star Tribune readers laughed at his pithy, humorous and often self-deprecating columns about food, about his Milwaukee childhood, about his cars, about his dogs.
Even more cried with him in November 1989 when he wrote on the front page about the death of his 18-year-old son, Joe, who was on LSD when he fell from his seventh-floor dorm room at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was a rare Sicherman column that wasn’t at all funny. It was reprinted in papers across the country and again in the Star Tribune in 1999.
“Hug your kids,” Sicherman said at the end of that first column and on each anniversary afterward.
Sicherman, of Minneapolis, died early Sunday at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. He was 75 and was battling two rare blood diseases.
He wanted no funeral service; his body was donated to the University of Minnesota Medical School. Friends and family members plan a gathering for late fall, open to everyone.
Sicherman left the Star Tribune in March 2007 but he never left his beloved wordsmithing. He continued writing a popular blog until his death. He wrote the “Tidbits” column for this newspaper until a little more than a year ago.
He authored two books: “Caramel Knowledge” in 1981 and “Uncle Al’s Geezer Salad” in 2007.
Sicherman was an electrical engineer before he was a writer. Originally from Milwaukee, he went to the Illinois Institute of Technology and came to Minnesota to work for Control Data on some of the early computers.
He quickly found, though, that he didn’t like engineering, and went to study journalism at the University of Minnesota. He was hired as a copy editor in 1968 at the Minneapolis Tribune, where he became known for his humor and pun-filled headlines.
Because of his background, he helped install the newspaper’s first computerized publishing system, called Atex. An editor friend persuaded him to move to Paris for a year, too, to help the International Herald Tribune become computerized. He grew to love the city and wrote about it often in his columns.
At the Tribune, he edited first the Perspectives page, then the Neighbors page. By the time the newspaper became the Star Tribune, he had moved to what is now the Taste section.
“Al was the one you wanted to have check your work because he could spot an error from across the room,” said Taste editor Lee Svitak Dean, who worked with Sicherman for 25 years. “Once a copy editor, always a copy editor, with Al. This made him a terrific food writer because accuracy was his guide: He knew that an error in measurement — say ½ teaspoon instead of ¼ teaspoon — could make a difference in a recipe, and he did not want to disappoint a fellow cook.
“He would make wild desserts and bring them in to the newsroom and the newsroom would fall all over them,” said Dean, recalling that Sicherman also wrote a column called Just Desserts.
Dean also remembered Sicherman’s homemade recipes for Hostess Cupcakes and Twinkies. His used real whipped cream, and they were much better than the store-bought version.
Catherine Watson, former travel editor for the Star Tribune, was Sicherman’s wife for seven years in the 1980s and ’90s and his best friend and chosen family until his death. He referred to her in print as “the woman who would become my second ex-wife.”
Watson said his columns were practical, as well as funny. One was about “how to make popovers because everybody’s fail,” she said. “It comes down to fresh eggs. That was sort of a breakthrough. Nobody had ever demystified food, and that’s what he was doing.”
Sicherman wrote about Watson’s dog, Lucky, and gave the dog a voice and a wisecracking persona. He wrote about his own dogs, too — Fuzzy and then Gus, a long-legged rescue mutt that Sicherman insisted was part corgi. When Fuzzy died, two fans sent him pictures they’d drawn of the dog. Those still hang on his living room wall, Watson said.
He wrote about collecting old convertibles; his latest was a 1974 Chevy Caprice, Watson said.
In the Tidbits column, he wrote funny reviews of packaged food, whether it be a new flavor of Oreos or a new soda pop.
He could fix any piece of electronic equipment, or anything else for that matter. He had lunch six days a week at the old Modern Cafe in northeast Minneapolis.
He was immensely proud of his two sons, Joe and David. David lives in New York City. After Joe’s death, he started a scholarship fund at UW Madison.
On Sunday, friends and former colleagues all wanted to tell their favorite joke, pun or line. They recalled that when asked how he was, Sicherman would reply, “odd, but likable.”
Executive Editor Rene Sanchez eulogized Sicherman, too.
“Al, or Uncle Al, or Mr. Tidbit, was beloved by Star Tribune readers for decades,” he said. “You couldn’t beat his wit in print, and like any great American humorist, he was slyly doing much more than being funny — he was writing about life and culture in ways that were wise and true.”