I never planned to be a food writer. Food found me.
In 1979, while in graduate school in journalism, with a side gig as editor of a community newspaper, I set my sights on a reporting position at the Minneapolis Star, which I read daily, or at its competitor, the Minneapolis Tribune, which I followed for its design.
As I paged through the Star's Taste section on Wednesdays, something caught my eye beyond the weekly food extravaganza with dazzling poster covers: There were plenty of freelance bylines.
Could the food section be a back door into the newsroom? I offered a story to its editor about a pick-your-own vegetable farm near Osseo — then a novelty — and, to my delight, she gave me the nod. With that, I was on my way.
One year later, with a 9-month-old at home, I walked into the Star as a part-time copy editor where, to my surprise, I would work with Taste stories, among other articles. Making $6 an hour, with child care at $1.50 an hour, I realized that, after taxes and the hours spent on the bus, I was basically working for free. "I sure hope this pays off in the long run," I thought.
Forty years later, I have to say, the years at the Star Tribune went far beyond my expectations. What a glorious, inspiring and challenging run it's been — a marathon, not a sprint.
And now I'm ready to move on, not "retire" (writers never retire) but to work on my own literary projects without daily deadlines, though there's still this year's Holiday Cookie Contest to judge (because some deadlines matter more than others).
Today marks the anniversary of the Taste section's first issue, published 51 years ago, on Oct. 1, 1969. I'm proud to have been part of this collaborative, award-winning effort for four of its five decades — and to serve as its de facto historian.
In the right place
Encouraged by the publication of my first story, I offered more to the Taste section outside of my editing duties, soon replacing "freelancer" for Star staff writer.
The focus of those articles reflected my world, the one of children and food, which resulted in stories on outdoor nutrition classes, a school "restaurant" with students as cooks, and homemade baby food.
When the Star and Tribune merged in 1982, and the Taste team needed a writer, I was the first to be asked. On April 22 of that year, I was introduced to readers in an issue with a cover illustration on "Pan-demonium." (Taste writers loved puns and, not surprisingly, the cover art featured the mythical god Pan, with flute.) Its focus was on cookware, a topic determined a year earlier by the very organized plan-ahead Taste crew.
In 1994, I was named food editor. My mission was to update Taste visually and look at food stories in a less traditional way. Over 26 years and more than 1,350 Taste sections, we did.
Lessons from the past
Cooking was not new to me as I put on the mantle of Taste. For several years, I had worked in the summer as an apprentice guide at two wilderness camps: Camp Amnicon on the south shore of Lake Superior in Wisconsin, and Wilderness Canoe Base, at the end of the Gunflint Road outside Grand Marais, Minn.
Besides mastering how to paddle and portage a canoe, I learned how to cook over an open fire, experimenting with technique and the limited amount of ingredients we carried on the trail. I mastered the reflector oven to make cakes and bread with a campfire and dabbled with sourdough starter, which was kept warm and alive in a sleeping bag.
Beyond that, many of my favorite memories have been around a table or in the kitchen with the cooks in my extended family. By today's standards, the food in those early years was modest, but the laughter and lessons created warm memories that have guided me throughout my life. The importance of breaking bread with family and friends not only shaped me as an adult but influenced my focus as Taste editor.
I figured I would be in Taste for a short time and then would move on to a news beat where there was more prestige. As it turns out, few writers leave the food section, and I was no exception. What was not to like about food? Readers welcomed us into their homes — cooks, entrepreneurs and the occasional chef from all over the Twin Cities inspired stories, more than 2,500 for me alone. Where I once planned to be an English teacher, my role as a journalist felt as if I had the whole metropolitan area as a classroom.
And throughout, it was a family-friendly role. My earliest job description included testing eight recipes a week, which kept my household well-fed, if not always well-pleased with what was on the dinner plate. (A cover story on cabbage, with a week's worth of related recipes, was the toughest one for them to face.)
But Taste went beyond both recipes and the city limits. In 1982, I descended into the downstairs kitchen of La Côte Basque in New York City to interview a Minneapolis native in charge of the restaurant's fish dishes. A flight to Hibbing, Minn., in 1983 focused on its food crisis due to unemployment on the Iron Range. There were forays to Duluth, the first in 1992 to write a profile of cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas, then with 14 books to her name (now 30).
A trip up the Gunflint Trail in 1998 offered a taste of the much-talked-about food of chef Ron Berg at the Gunflint Lodge. Multiple trips to Washington, D.C., and the White House looked at food, with meals at the Spanish Embassy (and a lesson prior on diplomatic etiquette) and years later at the Swedish Embassy (much more informal). In 2015 I slurped ramen and sipped sake in Tokyo. Yes, indeed, there was nothing routine about food.
We tackled subjects far from the recipe world at a time when no other food section did — school lunches in 1989, Minnesota food history in 2001, hunger in the Twin Cities in 2002, obesity in 2003 and 2004 — and did so with depth and clarity that continued over the years. Taste was never a traditional "women's page." The section became known nationally for its adventuresome topics, design and sense of humor.
My favorite stories were ones that made me laugh. Our Halloween parodies over several years made that list, including an "interview" (fake news alert) with the Creature From the Black Legume.
"I am not a cook," proclaimed Richard Nixon in a July 4 issue based on historical quotes that got a little help from Taste. "Ask not what the picnic can bring to you; ask what you can bring to the picnic," according to John F. Kennedy. "Read my lips: No new recipes," announced George H.W. Bush. "The only thing we have to fear is salmonella itself," from Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And then there was Grapegate, the New York Times blooper that designated grape salad as a classic Minnesota dish. Outrage ensued, in typical local fashion, with an undercurrent of humor and loads of indignation. The story made the NYT ombudsman column and onto the front page of the Star Tribune.
There were delights over the decades: lunch with Julia Child in Minneapolis, where she had her first bite of walleye and gave me a ride in her chauffeured car; chats with Jacques Pépin and just about every cookbook author in the U.S. Onstage with José Andrés of World Central Kitchen (who seemed to know everyone, so I asked if he knew Oprah, and after a meandering response, he smiled and said "Yes, I know Oprah," as the audience roared). Fishing with Magnus Nilsson in Lindstrom, Minn., he of the Swedish restaurant Fäviken. Interviews with Anthony Bourdain and Frances Mayes (of Tuscany fame).
Over the years, we welcomed the voices of many new writers, including author Amy Thielen, now completing her third book, who got her start in the Taste pages and later landed on the Food Network. "
I soon found that writing about food takes as much resourcefulness, ingenuity and diligence as reporting on any other news subject. It just tastes better.
A last word
The Taste section thrived because of its readers. Phone calls and e-mails have brightened my day on many occasions and challenged my assumptions on others, always for the better. Thanks so much, readers, for your support and encouragement over the decades.
But before I leave, I still have advice:
Keep hot foods hot, and cold foods cold. And wash your hands before and after you cook. That's pretty much the basis of food safety.
And, as I always tell my kids, it's no more work to make a meal taste great than it is to make it taste dull. You only need to know a few culinary tricks. Learn them and eat well for life (a variation of the proverb "Give a child a fish and you feed the child for a day; teach a child to fish and you feed the child for a lifetime").
As has been true for more than 50 years, you can find out how in Taste.
A cook's beginning
We all have to start somewhere. I must have been in grade school when I ordered my first cookbook, "Joys of Jell-O," from the company, sending in six box tops from Jell-O packages and 25 cents (still noted on the back page of the book). We ate a lot of Jell-O when I was growing up and this book inspired me. Wow. All you could do with that colorful wiggly stuff: Whip it. Layer it. Mold it. Suspend fruit in it. Mesmerized, I worked my way through what was really a bulky advertising pamphlet.
Recently I ordered a new copy on Amazon, mine having disappeared long ago. My granddaughters found it on my bookshelf this summer and pleaded that we "cook" our way through it. We did until they realized they didn't really like the taste of Jell-O after all.
Then came "The Hippie Cookbook," by Gordon and Phyllis Grabe. In 1972, when I was headed to my first college apartment, a relative in California sent me this, a true classic of its time. I never cooked from it (and I may have rolled my eyes when I unwrapped it). There are directions for how to brown-bag-it for a peace march, and recipes include brown rice, Jell-O ("Eat Your Light Show" with layers of flavors), Earth Mother's Bread, Commune Beans, Good Karma Casserole, and a chapter on how to cook with your automobile engine, billed as for "Pilgrims following the sun, rock festival commuters and draft-dodge convoys …"
I've been asked if there is any food I won't eat. There's only one that I'm reluctant to nibble, and that's rabbit. I love, love, love pet rabbits and have had many over the years. And I don't want to eat them any more than I'd want to eat a pet dog. I banned all rabbit recipes from Taste until colleague Rick Nelson talked me into running one from a chef. I gave the OK, figuring that maybe I should lighten up. But I regretted it, and there has never been another one in Taste.
An award-winning section
The critics have praised Taste over the years, whose writers won:
• Four James Beard awards, including its first Best Section in 2003, and five additional nominations.
• A regional Emmy for a Baking Central video with staffers Kim Ode and Lee Svitak Dean in 2010.
• Recognition in 2008 for Lee Svitak Dean in Saveur magazine as one of five top regional food editors in the U.S.
• 26 awards from the Association of Food Journalists.
• Numerous awards from the Penney-Missouri Lifestyles competition, the Society for Features Journalism, Society of News Design, the Society of Professional Journalists, Le Cordon Bleu World Media Awards and Les Dames d'Escoffier.
Lee Svitak Dean at firstname.lastname@example.org until Nov. 1, or anytime at email@example.com.