How has food writing changed since 1937? Not as much as you’d think

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Jane Nickerson.
San Antonio Express-News food writer packs groceries at H-E-B for a story in 1988.

San Antonio Express-News food writer packs groceries at H-E-B for a story in 1988.

I’m a little behind in pointing blog readers to a big story I published on Sunday about the history of newspaper food writing in Texas and a book called “The Food Section” that digs into a little-explored piece of journalism history: the early food editors who laid the foundation for our current foodie culture.

Clearly, I’m invested in this subject because I am a current food writer for a mainstream newspaper, but I think the subject has wide appeal because so many of us feel a special connection to the food section of a newspaper and, by extension, the writers and editors who oversee it. Historically, this kind of “soft news” didn’t earn much respect in journalism circles because it wasn’t as “serious” as the hard news.

I put quotes around the word serious because the more you think about what matters in people’s lives, what they serve on their dinner table has just as much impact on their day-to-day lives as how much their property tax is going up or the latest political scandal at the Capitol.

Americans spend more on food than just about every other expense besides housing, and food writers help them spend that money wisely and gain confidence in the kitchen. Former Austin American-Statesman food writer Kitty Crider has said that she thought of herself as a “recipe lady” when she started the job but quickly realized that her beat would encompass far more than that.

Think about it. A writer who can help someone understand the latest in nutrition science can mean the difference between someone having confidence in their own weight management and someone who struggles to figure out why the numbers on the scale keep climbing. When covering a new food technology or product, a writer is also helping put that evolution into a wider context about how life in America is changing, such as how the invention of frozen dinners, convenience foods and the microwave allowed women to work longer hours and earn more money for themselves and their households.

When interviewing five of the longest tenured food editors in Texas, I realized that for all the changes in both media and food, the job is still very much the same as when, in 1937, Hattie Llewellyn took what was likely the first full-time food editor position in the state at the San Antonio Express-News.

We keep track of food trends and news and inspire readers to try new ingredients and techniques in the kitchen. We answer their questions — once by snail mail and phone; now by email, social media and phone — and find ways to make that conversation a two-way street. Food writers have always coordinated recipe exchanges, but now, instead of asking readers to mail or drop off their favorites, we have them do it through Instagram or email.

The network of food writers used to be limited to those who worked at traditional news outlets, but blogging has widened that circle to encompass anyone with enough interest and aptitude to set up a WordPress site. (In the early years of blogging, that change made many in the industry nervous, but I think most established food writers now see that it’s beneficial to everyone to be more open-minded about food writing from “non-professionals.”)

Within this growing food writing industry and hyperactive foodie culture, we need to acknowledge the pioneering work of the women who persuaded their editors that food was a subject worthy of professional pursuit.

Jane Nickerson.

Jane Nickerson.

One of those women whose name I want you all to remember is Jane Nickerson, the founding food editor of the New York Times.

Nickerson, who took the job in 1942 and “retired” to raise her family in 1957, was at the helm of the country’s most influential newspaper during the wartime rationing of World War II and later reported from Europe on how cooks there were trying to make due with a slowly recovering food system. She was responsible for introducing James Beard to the culinary community in New York and preceded Craig Claiborne, whose name is nearly as well known as Beard’s, by nearly 15 years, but her name has almost been lost to history, even in Times’ own reporting on the history of its food coverage.

Six months after Voss’s book brought her story to life, Nickerson still doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

There’s still much to be written about this subject, which I hope to do in the coming years. As my food writer friend Ellen Sweets pointed out of Facebook, even less is known about the women of color who were also writing about food at this time, and each year that passes, the likelihood of recovering that information declines.

Right now, I’m on the hunt for more information about Opal Washington, who was perhaps the first African American columnist at the Statesman, and any other food writers and editors whose names didn’t pop up in that story.

I know their relatives are out there, sitting memories and clippings that document these careers and, by extension, the history of food culture here.

It’s a story that I look forward to continuing to tell as my own career in food writing evolves.

 


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