WHEN FUNGI FAZED A FOODIE

From mush­room mixup to cui­sine as news­wor­thy, Laura Robin has seen it all.

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE -

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

JULIE OLIVER

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.

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