One of Austin’s most fervent food supporters and influential food writers, Virginia Wood, has died.
Wood, who was 67, covered Texas cuisine as a syndicated columnist in the early 1990s, and from 1997 to 2014, she was the full-time food editor for the Austin Chronicle, where she reported on everything from the early days of the local food movement to Austin’s transition into a noted dining destination.
She died on Friday at a care facility in San Antonio after a long battle with various health issues.
Pamela Nevarez-Fisher, a longtime friend who first met Wood at a cooking class with Martha Rose Shulman in the 1970s, said Wood was a mentor and friend to countless people in the industry.
“She really helped start up food businesses here. A mention in her column could put someone on the map,” Nevarez-Fisher said on Friday. “She was the Austin food scene, but she was very, very generous to people,” even as her health declined. After a bake sale last year to help raise money for her healthcare costs, “she was beyond blown away by the Facebook posts. She couldn’t express her gratitude enough.”
Brandon Watson, who succeeded Wood as food editor for the Chronicle and now holds that title with Culture Map, says he’ll miss their long phone calls the most. “Sometimes, they were to help with a computer problem, sometimes they were just to gossip, but they were always the highlight of my week,” he says. “I can’t thank her enough for always sharing the context and history of Austin food. She was the true encyclopedia — not just of every aspect of the industry, but of the people who form its heart. She mentored a whole generation and inspired the one after that. She was fiercely intelligent, wildly funny and sometimes a little bawdy. And she had absolutely the best laugh.”
As told in a 2014 column about her departure from the Chronicle, Wood explained that she didn’t grow up cooking but learned early on from stories about her grandmothers that a person could achieve a certain status by knowing how to prepare food.
“As a fat little kid, I was always being told, ‘You go outside and play,’ or ‘You shouldn’t be in the kitchen,’” she said then. “But I grew up with this idea that there were things that you had to be able to cook in order to be considered to be a good cook. They were things like cornbread, fried chicken, cobbler. The more food experiences I had, the more that list expanded.”
She and her family used to visit Austin for her dad’s position on the State Board of Pharmacy, and as she grew older, it became an even more appealing place to escape. “There was standing water, trees and grass and hippies and Democrats, and I thought: I’m never going back.”
Woods studied Spanish and early childhood education at the University of Texas, where she often had to cook for her co-op. “It was my first foray at all into vegetarian cooking, which was horrifying to me at the time,” she said. “I had 30 hungry hippies who would show up to the dinner table every night, ready to eat whatever we put on that table. That was a learning experience.”
After a short stint teaching in Florence, she returned to Austin, where her fluency in Spanish helped her land a job at Fonda San Miguel. She worked nights and weekend on the line, making tortillas. On the weekends, she’d make dessert.
That led to yet another career: Professional baker. Wood spent the early 1980s selling baked goods, including quiches, muffins, brownies and other desserts, to restaurants including Ricco’s, Mike & Charlie’s Emporium, Katz’s Deli, Magnolia Cafes, Kerbey Lane Cafe and Basil’s.
She eventually took journalism courses at Austin Community College and started her syndicated column of 500-word stories that published in newspapers around the state. In 1995, however, she started a restaurant column at the Chronicle that would come to help shape the city’s food scene. She chronicled Austin’s growth from a barbecue-and-Texas music town to a city with small plates, charcuterie and James Beard-winning chefs.
In 2005, she co-wrote “Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years Of Food And Art” and continued her weekly column, while also overseeing a team of writers, until 2014.
She is survived by her sister, Ann Wade, and will be buried in Midland, according to Nevarez-Fisher. Local memorial services are pending.