We were a Minneapolis Star family when I was growing up. None of that early morning newsprint — the Minneapolis Tribune — at our breakfast table as we gulped our O.J. and nibbled on Pop-Tarts, fried eggs or oatmeal before rushing out to catch the bus. We waited for the thwack of the rolled-up paper to hit the front door at 4 p.m. before we paid much attention to the news of the day.
Then my mother would get comfortable in her wingback chair, unfold the newspaper and settle into the headlines before she started dinner. Oh, and give us the evil eye if we interrupted her reading.
By the time I was in high school, I read those pages, too. And on Wednesdays, back then, that meant the Taste section.
It was October 1969 when the Minneapolis Star’s first food section landed on our doorstep, a momentous year by any standard: Woodstock, Neil Armstrong, Richard Nixon, the Beatles, the Vietnam War. “Sesame Street” would debut in a few weeks. The times were changing. And so was food.
A few newspapers nationwide had already begun their own stand-alone food sections and the editors of the Minneapolis Star wanted to try it out, too. They weren’t entirely confident about expanding food coverage to this extreme, however, so they hedged their bets with a title for a section that could be repurposed should food be a flop. Taste, as a name, could be reapplied to coverage of fashion or furnishings.
Well, that clearly wasn’t necessary as Taste, the food section, celebrates its 45th birthday this month (and, as we like to point out, doesn’t look a day over 25!).
For a perspective on our place in history, we turned to Prof. Kimberly Wilmot Voss, who teaches journalism at the University of Central Florida. She has studied early food coverage in newspapers around the country, and her book, “The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community,” covers the years from 1945 to 1975.
When did food coverage begin in newspapers?
Food in some form has almost always been part of newspapers. In 1849, two years after it began publishing, the Chicago Tribune printed a recipe for baked ham. Food stories were often economic: the cost of food or weather-related factors about the crops.
Was there a period when food coverage changed significantly?
Following World War II is when you started to see more of the recipe exchange columns. I see that as the beginning of women’s real voices in food reporting. There was a back and forth with somebody who had traveled across the country and come back with an exotic recipe to share with everybody. Women reporters, who were often relegated to the women’s pages before the war, were able to cover more hard news during World War II when the men were fighting. I think they came back to the women’s sections with a new definition of their role and their power and what they could do in their communities. By the mid ’70s, most newspapers had turned their food coverage from women’s pages into lifestyle and food sections.
Today’s newspapers tend to have a local focus. Yet food was local long before we adopted that term.
Of all parts of the newspaper, the food section was the most local. In fact, they offered the first hyperlocal articles. Food editors knew what was going on in the kitchens of women in their community.
How did food topics change over those years?
We’ve always wanted to cook faster, at the same time we wanted to eat healthier and lose weight.
We’ve had attempts at 30- or 60-minute meals going back into the ’40s. It’s interesting to see how making your own bread went in and out of vogue. It pops up in newspapers about every decade.
One thing that hasn’t changed is interest in bacon. That’s the one thing people always wanted to eat. As early as the 1960s, you had these calls for less sugar, less processed foods, less red meat. The things we hear now about how to eat healthier were there back then, whether we listened to it or not.
Universally, the one topic readers always wanted was how to make desserts. Different vegetables went in and out of vogue but continually readers wanted to replicate how to make a dessert. That was the hard part for food editors because sometimes they were criticized for running too many dessert recipes. But food editors knew their readers, who wrote letters telling them what they wanted.
What kind of future do food sections in newsprint have?
Newspapers have been shrinking for the past seven or eight years. It took a long time to reach the food section. There was at least some sense that there was a readership there. And I still find that to be the case. Readers could go online and Google a recipe, but they still want to go to a newspaper. It goes beyond finding a recipe. It’s a connection to your community.
Anyone can start a food blog, but that’s very different from the credibility that a food section and a food editor has. This credibility goes back for decades. This might be a section that your grandmother or mother read. That connection to the food community and all that expertise that builds up is very powerful.
What changes have you seen since the 1960s?
We look at processed food now and think of it as a horrible corporate conspiracy to eat processed food. But in the 1960s, this was considered being modern. This was the Space Age. There was a food conference during this time and an expert came in and predicted that by the year 2000, we’d be eating only three pills a day — and that’s it. This was thought of as a positive. Our lives would be more streamlined and easier. For a while, the whole idea of eating processed foods was one you were expected to do because that’s what made you different from your grandmother’s generation.
Sometimes you read these stories that blame convenience foods and shortcuts on women going back to work. But I don’t see that reflected in the food section. There was always a sense of wanting potential shortcuts because, even if you were at home with your children all day, the kids might be whiny or you had to cook shorter or faster.
The cyclical thing about food that I find fascinating is that there will be a few years of how to make cooking shorter or faster and then all of a sudden you see a resurgence of spaghetti sauce that takes five hours to make. There’s almost like this guilt response that maybe you’ve been cutting out all this time and now you want to make things from scratch.
What are the early references to vegetarians in print?
Vegetarians go way back further than I would have imagined. I saw a lot of vegetarian recipes — called meatless recipes then — during the World War II because of rationing or because it was patriotic. The spinoff from that was it would result in a better planet or the idea that you weren’t eating those heavy things. That continued after the war.
How has immigration changed our food preferences?
Ken Albala, the editor of my book, who studies first generations of immigrants, says that children of immigrants want to cook like Americans. And then the next generation wants to know what Grandma and Grandpa ate.
When I looked at the Milwaukee newspaper, I found Mexican dishes in the ’40s. We have been cooking more diversely than historians have given home cooks credit for. Sometimes it’s been because of excitement over a particular recipe. Clementine Paddleford [a food writer for the New York Herald Tribune from the 1920s to 1966] had to indicate how to pronounce “pizza” when it first appeared. Ethnic foods were not something you necessarily made but something you read out of interest. Jane Nickerson [New York Times food editor from 1942 to 1957] had to explain to people that it was OK to put cheese on hamburger because people found that to be so odd. She explained it was like veal Parmesan, noting that readers had cheese on meat before. Readers needed some coaxing.
Food history and food journalism are usually written in broad generalizations. But if you go back and see what people were really doing, it’s harder to generalize. They were still trying to cook differently.
Any other consistent topics in the food pages?
In the ’50s and ’60s, it was recipe contests. Most newspapers produced cookbooks over the years, so winning those contests was a big deal. It gained you bragging rights. I’ve found obits that referenced being mentioned in a food editor’s column. You made that kind of connection with readers.
Lee Svitak Dean has been editor of Taste for 20 years. Follow her on Twitter: @StribTaste