Twenty-Five Stories

9 How I became a newspaper woman against all odds

Janet Beighle French

I was born into a family of teachers – grandmother, parents, aunts, an uncle, and, eventually, sister, brother-in-law, cousin and her daughter. I understood that I was expected to follow suit, specifically to become a home economics teacher, “so you can get a job,” said my mother.

But in junior high school, in Bellingham, Washington, a friend suggested we both try out for the school newspaper staff. We were accepted. I was named sports editor, then editor. I discovered that writing was a LOT of fun. In high school, I joined the staffs of the newspaper, the annual, and poetry magazine.

College was a given in our family and I mentioned majoring in journalism, perhaps at the University of Washington. “That school is too big,” said my mother, and besides prospects for a journalism job would likely be much dimmer than for teaching. And I should spend my first year at the local teacher’s college to save money. So that’s where I went, and I began to major in textiles, with no clear goal in mind. I did love making artificial textile fiber in chemistry class.

I must have been on the college newspaper staff, but what I remember is writing an alumni newsletter and printing it with a mimeograph machine, in a dim, under-equipped basement office. Then hand-addressing envelopes. The summer after my freshman year, the local Bellingham Herald let me write college news. The always-hatted society editor warned me that journalism was a hungry beast and if l chose it, I would have to “marry” it, and that I should not hope to have a family. Looking back, this all seems immensely improbable.

I was next sent to Washington State College on the frigid border of Washington and Idaho. (The University of Washington, with an excellent journalism department, was deemed “too big” and anyway, I was supposed to study home ec.) I was the only textiles major in the department and spent hours weaving fine placemats with breakable thread (I finished hemming them recently) and pulling threads to create perfect one-inch squares for a staff member’s comparative tests of sheet material. I struggled with pharmaceutical chemistry experiments in place of a required textiles chem course that did not exist. Again, I joined the newspaper staff, walked at night to and from the town newspaper office, which printed the college paper, and learned to proofread lead type upside down and backward.

The next fall, my mother decided I should join a sorority because hers had helped her make the leap from a small-town girlhood. Every sorority deemed me too old. I didn’t care, but mother did. My favorite cousin was attending Oregon State University and would I like to go there? I thought the timing a little late, but I wasn’t busy just then, so I packed the trunk mother and I both took to college and sent it home, though I’m not sure why. I packed a suitcase for immediate needs, called my cousin to reserve me a room, hopped on a train, and headed for Oregon State in Corvallis. Looking back, I can’t believe I did that. I took entrance tests and passed, went through rush and pledged mother’s sorority. I quickly joined the newspaper staff and offered to write a code of conduct and whatever else came along.

Being a slow learner in some ways, I continued majoring in textiles. I remember that a fellow student cut through my underwear during creation of my personal dress form (which, like Mother, I never used), that I made endless bound buttonholes and a wool suit I never wore. Just before graduation, the dean of home economics called me in and asked what kind of job I had in mind. She sighed and said, “You better go talk to the journalism department. Maybe someone there has an idea.”

Someone did. The University of Wisconsin offered four fully-paid assistantships (two for home economists) in “agricultural journalism.” They were to learn to use the new medium of television, teach extension agents in turn, and write home economics newsletters for state-wide distribution. I also wrote an idiotic thesis about most readable font type for television use. I loved a class taught by a real foreign correspondent and overheard him say it was too bad I had majored in home ec.

In Wisconsin, I got to live in an old governor’s mansion with women from around the world, bats in the attic, and a bookcase that moved toward me one night while I typed up an account of the meeting of the combative Madison city council (which had to be turned in before the local paper was distributed in the morning.) My fellow resident scared me silly when she stepped out from behind that bookcase, and said she thought I knew there was a hidden staircase.

A black housemate, getting a doctorate so she could head a home economics department in a black college, invited me to her sister’s home in Washington D.C. for Thanksgiving. Her brother-in-law was a medical doctor, yet her sister-in-law could not shop in department stores and the family and their friends lived in a community of their own making. I was treated warmly and learned a lot. As my friend did very well, I saw her at professional meetings for a few years. When I last tried to locate her, I found her name listed on a governor’s special commission.

Degree in hand, I had a choice between an extension job in Oklahoma (too hot) or churning out small cookbooks at (under-air-conditioned) Better Homes and Gardens in Des Moines, Iowa. At Better Homes, I learned a lot about test kitchens, food styling and photography. (I would choose possible props and haul them to Chicago on the cheap night train, then run around Chicago to borrow others if need be.)

I was dispatched to Texas in a sick colleague’s place to pick up tips on home decorating for the very rich (one homeowner claimed her chandelier once belonged to Marie Antoinette and she had gold­ plated bathroom fixtures and a spotlight on the toilet). I was asked to create patterns for Christmas decorations photographed in California, designed some impractical Christmas packages using dyed egg shells, and protested that an already-printed cookbook cover of a place setting was backward.

In Des Moines, I was under-paid, had two roommates at a time in a one-bedroom apartment walking distance from work, was active at a Methodist church and the YMCA, created – for free – a cookbook for a foreign students group, which taught me the need for in-home observation of cooks. After five years, I could afford either a car down payment or a six-week tour of Europe. I never regretted that trip. One memory: Charles DeGaulle, preceded by uniformed men on prancing horses, helped his wife out of the car at the Opera in Paris; other diplomats did not bother. I returned ready to move on.

~

I picked up the mantle of Plain Dealer food editor in 1963. I succeeded Helen Robertson, a rather towering figure among newspaper food editors. She retired in the middle of a strike. She left behind a test kitchen, very unusual for newspapers then, and a cook and two pregnant food writers wishing to retire. During the strike, The Plain Dealer cast about for replacements, because supermarkets were a new phenomenon. The three largest were locally owned – Pick N Pay, Stop and Shop and Heinen’s Grocery Store. The PD ad department was clamoring for their full-page ads and promised they would be surrounded by “women’s interest material” (food, fashion, furnishing, gardening and society).

The latter four subjects were each served by one reporter, with society editor Mary Strassmeyer being best known. Society matrons had “arrived” when their parties and events were covered by either Mary or Marge Alge of The Press. But the food staff was unusually large – with a food editor, two additional food writers and a test kitchen cook.

Pre-Plain Dealer, while creating small single-subject cookbooks at Meredith Publishing Company (Better Homes & Gardens), I learned the value of a test kitchen and how to prop food photos. I yearned for a real journalism job, a craving kindled from my days as sports editor and then editor of my junior high school newspaper.  When the PD contacted area colleges about its newly empty post, I was recommended.

The PD food staff would be rounded out with home economists and newly minted food writers, Pat Weitzel and Jeanne Bishop, one from the Illuminating Company, one from East Ohio Gas Company. (Pat would eventually marry PD reporter Mike Roberts. Jeanne would marry, move to Detroit, join the food staff of the Detroit Free Press – and be murdered by a psychopath while walking home on a Halloween night.) With the strike over, we joined the rest of the “women’s interest” staff, walled off from the real editorial staff with bookcases. Among female reporters to have desks in the city room were noted reporter Doris O’Donnell and medical writer Josephine Robertson.

The PD food section was greatly assisted by having a test kitchen, rare in newspapers. After the pre­-strike part-time test kitchen cook quickly retired, she was replaced by Latvian refugee Irma Lewis, and later by Vera Beck, an alumna of the PD cafeteria. Vera grew up in the south, on her father’s farm, the only girl with many brothers. She helped her mother feed the large brood and became an expert in southern cooking. Vera once said that her friends loved seeing her picture in PD food photos “because it’s a colored face associated with something good.”

With big food sections, staff and kitchen, we could cover a lot more than recipes – nutrition, food safety and technology, local farming, appliances, consumer issues, restaurant reviews.

Clevelanders and Ohioans COOKED. An Ohio cook was a Pillsbury Bake-Off contestant almost every year. I was a judge one year for a contest in Hawaii sponsored by an aluminum foil manufacturer. A Cleveland guy won. I was a Pillsbury Bake-Off judge once, too, and plumped for a recipe that used flour instead of a (more profitable) mix. That winner turned out to be a rural married student too poor to afford a telephone. Company reps were sent by car to tell her husband she won.

Supermarkets hadn’t quite gotten the hang of their new status and tended to close at 6 p.m., unmindful that many women were now working and very annoyed, full-page ads or no. An early Sunday series featured meat cuts, because each chain created its own cuts with their own names. The new frozen foods, many from Stouffers – which used new rapid freezing plate technology – were often dumped on docks and left there for some time, then stocked in freezers with erratic temperatures. Home canning was very big early on, but gradually declined. One year a shortage of canning lids caused panic.

Early advocates of nutrition labeling were sneered at “because customers will never be able to figure that out” and “what will you consider standard intake?”

Food (and laundry product) safety flared into headlines now and then.

Over the next 25 years, we would note the disappearance of local greenhouse tomatoes and cucumbers and the rise of local specialty farms and farm markets, the explosion of prepared foods in supermarkets, the acceptance of wine from “dare we call for real wine in recipes” to wine columns, the passing popularity of fondue pots (highlighted by Wisconsin cheese promoters serving fondue from a giant pot on Public Square) and the introduction of blenders and smooth-top ranges, the development of nutrition labeling and artificial sweeteners, food recalls, laundry detergent issues (some fatal to infants). Fred Waring demonstrated his blender after shows. One celebrity’s personal chef peeled her grapes.

Ralph Nader objected to a lot. Baby food was a pet peeve. Why weren’t mothers making their own healthy food? We sent a staffer into stores to ask mothers. We printed the printable parts of their replies.

The Johnson White House chef released recipes for the wedding cakes of both Johnson daughters. He failed to downsize either recipe correctly. (Slow learner.) Food sections all over the country gleefully ran photos of batter over-running pans and of fallen layers. We made note and revised before printing.

Hough Catering was the notable Cleveland caterer. One of its annual jobs was catering for attendees when the Metropolitan Opera came to town. My first year on the job, I asked for one of that year’s recipes. Hough was sorry, but it had promised the Press’ formidable Florence LaGanke sole coverage. I pointed out that the PD had a larger circulation – perhaps particularly among its more likely clients. We got a recipe. (Florence continued in her role even as her sight faded, and she had to taxi to work. We became friends and I respected her greatly. Her staff writers were Barbara Bratel and Helen Moise.)

Restaurant reviews began to note whether restrooms were handicapped-accessible. (I once asked a restaurant inspector to take me step-by-step through a restaurant inspection. We went to the PD cafeteria. He cited on the spot an open hole in the pantry floor through which rodents could enter and nibble food – and leaving a scoop with a germy handle on top of the loose ice. Esquire printed a really REALLY over-the-top “gourmet” dinner each year and offered it through selected restaurants. I was invited to attend a local trial run, in hopes of free advertising. Once. Noting that it was probably a clue to what started the Russian Revolution did not get me invited again. Looking back, I should probably have been a little more charitable, at least for the sake of the restaurant.

We got a LOT of reader calls, which eventually led to part-time hires, including Jane Moulton, who became one of the first Ohio wine judges, and Blodwen Fleurdelis, a retired home ec teacher. Phone calls about diet caused us to start Dial A Dietitian columns, eventually written by dietitians, because it made more sense for them to take calls directly rather than relaying their answers. We learned recently, during the centennial of the founding of the American Dietetic Association – in Cleveland – that such columns spread across the country from our first ones.

Our call volume always peaked the day before Thanksgiving. One year, an editor forbade us to take any calls. Not our job. I suggested that was unwise. He insisted. I told the women who took all general calls what to expect – and, if overwhelming, to direct said calls to the editor. Calls went not just to him, but to food advertising and all over the building. He stomped over and reversed himself, rather crankily.

Our ethnic communities were a rich source of recipes and tradition. Eventually. Shortly after I arrived, our publisher declared that ethnic cooks would participate in a PD-sponsored booth at a big Coliseum show. He handed us a batch of handwritten recipes, many skimpy in detail. One cook told us a recipe was “printed in a cookbook” and she provided that version, but “that’s not what I do.” We hurriedly collected, tested and printed workable recipes. At zero hour, we learned actual cooking was forbidden and running water was confined to bathrooms. With the first demos, it was evident that samples, if not exactly promised, were expected. Cooks promptly hid finished dishes. We survived somehow and were later able to publish our first PD cookbook, of those “what I do” ethnic recipes.

An orthodox rabbi went above and beyond to further ethnic education. After I printed a Jewish holiday recipe from a non-orthodox friend, he called to tell me gently that it would not be acceptable for an orthodox cook. Then he asked if I would like to spend every Jewish holiday for a year with his family. It was a warm, wonderful, very Cleveland experience.

“Oriental” food stores evolved into Japanese, Chinese and Korean as new waves of immigrants arrived. Annual church celebrations then and now highlight traditional fare and our restaurants allow you to eat around the world at will. Or you can shop the West Side Market and cook just about anything from anywhere. Cleveland is very special, food-wise.

Space food development led to new innovations; kitchen appliances became more sophisticated, though a kitchen with floor plug-ins that allowed moving appliances on a whim never caught on.

During strikes, a strike kitchen was a nice service, especially in winter. I ran one for several weeks, funded by coins mostly. I found all the food outlets in town. A Cleveland-bred New York cooking school owner (and friend) promoted her new cook book one day on local TV, using a cooked turkey as a prop. She contributed it to the strike kitchen at day’s end. One reporter insisted on food prepared for his special diet. One of the food staff prepared a huge pot of soup and hauled it from her distant suburb.

Along the way it soured. I can’t remember its fate. One reporter worked part-time as a butcher and stocked the freezer with over-age hamburger.

Perhaps that experience led me to take a food-stamp user, armed with a week’s balanced menus from the extension service, to a grocery store, to see how best to stretch a month’s worth of food stamp dollars. Comparing national and store brands and sale items proved akin to taking a college economics course. When she had covered all the meals, she could buy whatever she pleased. She chose fresh produce, which she normally deemed a luxury.

Interestingly, of the food department’s multiple small cookbooks and other publications, the most popular one ever was on substitutions – for times when you don’t have quite the right ingredient on hand. We measured constantly for recipes and collected substitutions along the way. Finally, we published all that information in a small booklet. I think we originally gave it to folks who finished a “course” co-sponsored with the county extension service. We gave the booklets away for some years, on request. A national magazine asked for a copy, because it considered publishing something similar, but decided not to. Years after I retired, a librarian in central Ohio said a library customer had worn out her copy and wanted another. I had one extra. I sent it.

Newspaper food editors attended annual meetings around the country, hosted by their advertising departments and food companies. We were expected to sample products in often-odd recipes in rows of hotel suites during limited hours or in meals with the same product in several dishes. That did not have the intended effect. I also learned, on-site, about cattle ranching in the west, cheeses in Denmark, olives in Spain (where male hosts brought their mistresses and bellied up to the buffet tables before guests), bananas in Guatemala.

After 25 years as food editor, I moved to general features with additional columns on new products and consumer concerns. And new learning. Meyers snowplows are manufactured in Cleveland and require trucks of a certain weight. Rosalynn Carter advised never to co-write a book with one’s husband. Creativity for Kids craft kits were started by two Cleveland mothers who realized that they were concocting such kits for gifts and maybe similar commercial kits would sell. They do.

Cleveland had exactly one person to handle all consumer complaints. The worst one I covered was perpetrated on a poor, ill woman who needed repair of a second-floor balcony on the back of her house. She paid the purported repairer and went upstairs the next day to inspect her new balcony. Luckily, she only opened the door, because she would have stepped into thin air.

I was privileged to be in the right places, at the right time. That newspaper era seems unlikely to come again. Having taken home that quarter century’s worth of food department scrapbooks, I am indexing them – remembering readers who requested copies of articles about relatives, dates unknown. Once indexed, the scrapbooks are to be housed in the archival library at Cleveland State University – souvenirs of a time that is past.

At my retirement party, I said that my job had been like being in college all your life, constantly meeting new, interesting people and recording their experiences. Once in a while I think back to that little mimeographed junior high school paper and all that it triggered.

 

~ You can visit Janet Beighle French’s archive on The Cleveland Memory Project at https://tinyurl.com/JanetFrench).

License

Share This Book