It's time to hang up the whisks. After 40 years in the newspaper business — 34 of them with the Chicago Tribune as a food writer and editor — I will be retiring April 1. It has been a 40-year feast, to say the least.
In 1973, when I started writing about food for the Detroit Free Press, consumer issues were finding their way into the food sections around the country. It was a time of rising food prices, supermarket price wars and an unsettling economic climate. I wrote about ways to save money at the market, the most economical cuts of meat and the best ways to cook beans. After moving to Chicago in 1977, I continued the consumer food writing as the Market Basket columnist as well as doing features for the Food Guide and Taste sections.
Interesting, how things cycle back. The food section (renamed Good Eating in 1995) covers some of those same stories today, as the job market remains dismal and food prices are rising once again.
But we also covered changing food trends through the years, from that strange import from France called nouvelle cuisine to the emerging new American cuisine in restaurants. Kiwi fruit made it onto the covers of food sections everywhere. A Cajun blackened redfish recipe brought a young chef named Paul Prudhomme to national attention and the redfish almost to extinction. The age of celebrity chefs was beginning.
Though not a chef, Julia Child brought her French lessons to television and into the newspapers. We did many stories following her shows and cookbooks. Once when she arrived in Chicago for an event, we asked her to help judge our annual Holiday Cookie Contest. She graciously accepted but then may have regretted it.
“I wouldn't make any of these cookies,” she harrumphed, after sampling the 12 finalists' offerings. Admittedly, it was an ordinary group of cookies that year. We didn't quote her.
As food editor, I often was asked to judge contests around the country, including the Pillsbury Bake-Off in Orlando; The National Chicken Cooking Contest in Charleston, and The Beef Cook-Off in Tucson. It's not easy eating beef from 9 to 4, then attending the beef banquet that evening!
Back in the ’70s, ’80s and into the ’90s, robust food sections were the norm, when advertising—often in double-page spreads—supported sections of 20 pages or more. Full-color covers focused on the food, luscious, up-close food you could almost grab off the page. We helped readers with shopping and cooking advice, health-food primers and price surveys. We ran columns in the ’80s on how to cope with those new tools on the market: microwave ovens and food processors.
It's sad to see the diminishing food sections of today and the corresponding shrinking advertising that support them, just when it seems as if food is on more people’s minds than ever before. It's also sad to see cooking at home being replaced by expensive frozen packages of entrees and desserts, or by pizza delivery and restaurant takeout. Sure, everyone's in a hurry, but are those sports events, meetings and yes, TV, as important as sitting down together at the dinner table and talking over a good meal?
What will I miss? Your phone calls and emails with questions such as where to buy exotic ingredients or what to do with a two-year-old frozen turkey. Some of you seemed reluctant to throw anything away: “Can I eat the chicken soup I left out on the stove overnight?” You sometimes expected a lot: “Can you suggest a menu for my bridge club meeting?” And you called for help and advice: “Can I freeze whole eggs?” “I lost that Tribune recipe for chocolate chip cookies” and “Where's the best hot dog stand in town?”
I’ll also miss the excitement of tasting new recipes every week in the test kitchen, tasting wine in the old Ann Landers office, editing six Tribune cookbooks, helping create the perfect photo for a cover story or reading a food story written with wit and passion. (I won't miss the canned chicken broth or margarine tastings, trying to think of a new way to cover Thanksgiving each year or the endless public relations emails.)
Sharing these years of the changing food scene with you has been a privilege. Now it's on to other food projects: hopefully a cookbook or two; a bit of travel to sample again the foods of France and Italy; and also to discover those of Argentina and Chile, Australia, Singapore and more. In between, I’ll feast on the fresh-caught whitefish, wild mushrooms and tart cherry pie in Northwest Michigan. Wherever I’ll be, it’ll be good eating, always.
Chicago Tribune file photo of Carol Mighton HaddixCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun