The newspaper stacks crowd me at the dining room table, more than 2,000 sections in all, many stuffed in boxes, others in bound volumes, vying for space and attention. The disarray is temporary; I’m only weeks into the close of a 40-year role at the Star Tribune, first as a food writer then as the Taste section editor for 26 years. For now, I’m flipping through newsprint, looking for memories hidden among the pages.
My first byline in the Minneapolis Star took me to a pick-your-own produce farm near Osseo, where I gathered strawberries along with a story about two youthful farmers that I later typed out on an IBM Selectric. Four decades later as I worked from home, my final story as a Star Tribune staffer involved a Zoom interview with Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson. Between those two bookends, a crazy quilt of interviews, experiences and developments tells not only my history, but that of Minnesota food culture.
Week after week, year after year, I talked with chefs, home cooks, farmers and artisan producers, all in an effort to answer the age-old question: What’s for dinner? Along the way, I made some observations.
Food writing wasn’t a thing.
Taste debuted in October 1969, as food sections began popping up in newspapers across the country. From the beginning, food writers were journalists who happened to write about food and certainly not “foodies,” a term most of my colleagues from that era disdain. No one landed in these positions because of career planning. We fell into our roles because we were in the right place at the right time, and usually because an editor needed to fill a job fast. It wasn’t until the mid- to late nineties that college students and young professionals began inquiring about food writing as a career. My advice to them? Keep your day job.
Home cooks need shortcuts.
I was a new mother in 1980 when I joined the staff at the Star, one in the early wave of back-to-work women in search of mealtime strategies. In those years, cookbooks with fast recipes were few and far between, and those that dribbled into the newsroom ended up on my desk, ostensibly to reference for a new column on quick cooking but, in reality, to serve as my backup plan for dinner.
In 1990, I interviewed an unlikely author of such a book: French chef Jacques Pépin, who was visiting Minneapolis to talk about his most recent tome, The Short-Cut Cook. I was still making my own spaghetti sauce when he gave permission to use the jarred variety. “Much is made of the notion that homemade quality is superior,” he told me. “But under the name of homemade, I have had some horrendous meals.”
Journalists do their homework.
By the 1990s, as the food world expanded, so too did mine as a journalist. In those pre-Internet and pre-smartphone days, when I sought background information, it often involved a trip to the Central Library or a dig through the newspaper’s files.
When I needed to talk with California chef Alice Waters about her children’s book, I simply called her Chez Panisse and she answered, with only a hint of surprise. That would eventually change as restaurants developed their own websites and chefs enlisted publicists. But to this day, local food journalism is still personal, with Minnesota chefs answering a call or text from a reporter on deadline. (Thank you, chefs!)
American cuisine got its due.
Alice Waters offered a challenge — and made national headlines — with a letter she wrote to president-elect Bill Clinton in December 1992 encouraging him to appoint a new White House chef who would prepare healthful foods and focus on American fare. “We chefs from across the country believe that good food, pure and wholesome, should be not just a privilege for the few, but a right for everyone,” she said. “Good food nourishes not just the body, but the entire community.”
Local chefs weighed in with their thoughts on American fare. “I believe that meaningful cuisines are regional in nature, just like with Chinese cuisine, where Cantonese and Szechuan cooking are not alike,” said Ken Goff, then executive chef of the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant and an early proponent of Midwestern cooking. Minnesota food, meanwhile, earned a significant shout-out a few years later from Julia Child, as she sampled her first taste of walleye at Goodfellow’s in Minneapolis per my recommendation.
Twin Cities dining was transformed.
Some will debate who gets credit for sparking the early transformation of the Twin Cities dining scene. In my unofficial timeline, it’s Marcus Samuelsson, the Swedish-Ethiopian chef who brought the dazzle of New York City’s Aquavit to Minneapolis in 1998 at a time when fancy restaurants still meant special occasion. We weren’t quite ready for what turned out to be a less than five-year stint. (During our first interview, I suggested to Samuelsson that his plans to serve sea urchin to Minnesotans might be optimistic.) But he raised the bar locally for both chefs and patrons. The sheer number of articles about him in the Star Tribune — more than 145 over the course of two decades — reflects both his popularity and his influence.
Minnesotans care where their food comes from.
Much like that scene in The Wizard of Oz that dramatically changes from black and white to technicolor, the 2000s rocked the food industry. Concepts once relegated to the sidelines were embraced by the mainstream: Local! Sustainable! Organic! Seasonal! We would never eat the same again after the sizzle of grass-fed meats, the taste of local produce and the delight of craft-made treats.
With an explosion of restaurants highlighting where their ingredients came from, farmers like Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Farm responded in kind. Among those pioneering chefs were Lucia Watson (Lucia’s Restaurant and Wine Bar), Brenda Langton (Cafe Brenda and Spoonriver), Lenny Russo (Cue and Heartland), and Alex Roberts (Restaurant Alma).
Meat from Thousand Hills, cheese from LoveTree Farmstead, and breads from Steve Horton and Michelle Gayer were some of the many prized staples that found their way onto plates across Minnesota and beyond. And the establishment took notice, with local restaurants getting nods from national magazines as well as the James Beard Foundation, which awarded Tim McKee, then of La Belle Vie, with Minnesota’s first Best Chef Midwest title in 2009 (five others would follow in the next decade).
A wave of new voices joined the conversation.
In the blink of a camera shutter (often on an iPhone), the food world shifted with the advent of Instagram in 2010 — and so did we in the newsroom, though a bit reluctantly at first. No longer were food journalists and cookbook authors the only voices in the discussion, which made the tapestry of food ever richer.
Some things never change.
Sitting down for dinner with family and friends may never have been as important as during this past year, when the pandemic made those moments fleeting or elusive. To all those who have persevered to supply food for our tables, we owe virtual hugs and words of gratitude. To the home cooks, reluctant or otherwise, who have provided three squares and snacks (with or without fresh sourdough bread) to their perpetually hungry brood, we say thanks — because the kids probably won’t. And to the storytellers, more of them than ever before, we urge you to keep writing. There are many tales left to be told.