WHEN FUNGI FAZED A FOODIE
From mushroom mixup to cuisine as newsworthy, Laura Robin has seen it all.
Former food editor has seen it all
Glance behind the scenes this summer as we highlight some memorable moments from the Ottawa Citizen’s storied past. Laura
Robin explains how food coverage over the years has shifted from the back burner to the front.
You might think that, compared to most of the stuff of a daily newspaper — things such as court coverage, crime or politics — the food section would be a peaceful place to work. I know I did. Until my first day as food editor.
That was the day that an article was published in the Citizen urging readers to try foraging for fungi. It ran with a photograph of deadly, poisonous mushrooms, labelled as the ones you’d want to pick and eat.
I think I’ve blocked some of the ensuing uproar from memory, but I remember public service announcements on radio and TV warning people about those mushrooms, and of course a huge screaming correction in the next day’s paper. There might as well have been a flashing light and siren going off on the ceiling of our newsroom, or over my desk. At least management noticed the food section that day.
The part about management noticing (for a change) is a joke, of course — though not completely. Looking back, I find it interesting to ponder the progression of food as a newsworthy topic, and how, over time, it has moved from the back pages to the front.
When I started work at the Citizen, recipes, articles about food, and restaurant reviews were pretty much in a pink ghetto, the preserve of what some grizzled old copy editors (or deskers, as we called them) still persisted in calling “the women’s pages.” Some referred to those back pages as being “in the wiener ads.”
Nowadays, gossip about chefs sets social media abuzz; news of new or closing restaurants makes headlines; and a Nigella Lawson “recipe” for mashed avocado can cause a Twitter meltdown. A hip young (male) city editor at the Citizen was so shaken by the news that Art-is-in Bakery was stopping deliveries of its breads to most retail outlets, he put the story on Page 1. (Just to be sure we don’t set off the error siren again, let’s be clear that Art-is-in has since reinstated most of its bread deliveries.)
But you may still be wondering: How did a poisonous mushroom photo get into print anyway?
Here’s how it went: I had handed over the article and correct photo (of non-poisonous mushrooms) to one of those grizzled deskers. Working on the page hours later, he helpfully decided to substitute a “better, clearer” photo of mushrooms that he had found in the newsroom library. If he had turned the physical copy of the photo over, he might have seen clearly the words “death angel” or some such terrifying name on the back. But he didn’t.
For the record, I don’t consider myself entirely blameless either. Years of editing experience later, I now know that such a risky topic was best avoided in the first place and, if I had pursued it, I should have trusted no one, even if it meant double checking the final product late at night.
But the fact that a food article wasn’t treated with serious care and respect by the (mostly) grumpy older men who put the newspaper together should not have surprised me back in the 1980s.
I first came to write for the food section in a rather perverse way. Back at work full-time after having a baby, I leafed through the section and found the lengthy recipes for complicated dishes daunting. “It would be good if we had some quicker recipes for after-work dinners,” I suggested to the editor of the Life sections.
And so, because I didn’t have a clue about how to make dinner in 40 minutes or less, I was given the assignment of telling others how to do so. That was the beginning of a regular series, Deadline Dinners.
It was the era of The Silver Palate Cookbook, blueberry vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes and mad rushes to get the new release of Beaujolais Nouveau in November. Shiitake mushrooms were new on the scene and one writer I was responsible for persisted in spelling them “shiite mushrooms.”
Food interested me then, as it does now, and I tried hard to write about it honestly and with some respect, even if I felt my column sometimes tilted toward yet-another-way-to-cook boneless, skinless chicken breasts, perhaps with blueberry vinegar this time.
But even if you dug deep and tried to describe how food could bring people together, how flavours could complement and surprise, or how a chef ’s work could be an elevated art form, the headline that came back from the desk was inevitably something like: “Veggie Dip Has Zip.”
Those old-school headline writers loved short words like zip, vow, wow and pal — words they never would have used in conversation. We can’t print the words that coloured most of their conversations.
I don’t think any of them were cooks. Often the impression their headlines gave was that they assumed the whole point of cooking was for women to show off — or “wow guests.” If a recipe was simple, the headline might be something like “Easy Dish Gives Mom Break.”
They mostly didn’t take us seriously and we learned not to take ourselves too seriously either. We were nothing if not accommodating.
You never knew until the last minute whether a page in the newspaper, or even a section front, would run in colour or black-and-white; that was dictated by whether anyone bought a colour advertisement and where it was to be placed in the newspaper. So it was soul-crushing to discover an outstanding recipe for, say, raspberry shortcake, make it perfectly, have it photographed in all its glorious, juicy colour, then find out it was going to run as a black-and-white photo. Even when someone came up with a standby article featuring cauliflower-and-black-olive salad, which looked equally unappetizing in colour or blackand-white, I don’t think anyone ever remembered to use it.
The Canadian Press Caps and Spelling guide is an invaluable spelling aid for any reporter, but its editors apparently didn’t consider food a topic worthy of its purview. While the guide carefully spells out everything from Adonai to Zhou Enlai, we were on our own if we wanted to know whether it should be homous, hummous, or hummus. Or how to spell shiitake mushrooms.
One of the few gastronomical words the CP guide does pronounce on is perhaps just as likely to be used in a story about cops as on the food pages; it’s “doughnut never donut except in corporate names,” CP decrees. Why couldn’t CP have also said, “it’s vegetables never veggies.”
The day the food section was published — Wednesdays — seemed sacrosanct for decades until someone decided to switch it to Thursdays. Loyal readers and angry advertisers sure noticed, and the phones lit up. Eventually, most grocery stores switched their ads and flyers to Thursdays, just in time for the food section to be moved back to Wednesdays. Even now, you’ll find the food section in Wednesday’s print edition of the newspaper, but the thick pack of grocery-store flyers in Thursday.
No one would question nowadays that food matters a lot to many people. A recent Citizen editor was positively abuzz when he learned that the former Murray Street Kitchen would be brewing up bone broth for Winterlude and wanted to make sure we’d have the exclusive story. The local CBC Radio station was all over it when news broke that Mellos diner on Dalhousie Street was being forced out of business. Hundreds of people lined up and it made front-page news when a new bubble tea franchise opened on Somerset Street in September.
It makes my head spin to try to think of what some of those tough old deskers would make of it all. I’m sure they couldn’t have imagined an era when cooks and restaurant-goers would studiously photograph their food and post the photos online to show their friends before eating. But I can just imagine the headline. “Net Pics Wow Pals.”
In her 35 years at the Citizen, Laura Robin worked as everything from a medical reporter and editorial writer to a page designer and editor of the Travel and Life sections. She wrote about food for most of that time, and cooked during all of it.
When I started work at the Citizen, recipes, articles about food, and restaurant reviews were pretty much in a pink ghetto.
LAURA ROBIN, former food columnist
Former Ottawa Citizen writer and food columnist Laura Robin says the public has gained a big appetite about food and its preparation.
Sample Deadline Dinners that appeared in the Citizen when Laura Robin wrote her column: From top right, Salmon in Lime-Mint Marinade; Black-Bean Tortellini soup; Mediterranean Fish; and Grilled Chicken Burger.