For the 59th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke to Kim Voss about the significance of food history and the story behind New York Times food writer Jane Nickerson and her food section from 1942-1957.
Voss is a professor in the Nicholson School of Communication and Media at the University of Central Florida. She is the author of “A Food Journalism Pioneer: The Story behind the First New York Times Food Writer Jane Nickerson and Her Food Section, 1942-1957” in the forthcoming September issue of Journalism History.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Kim Voss: A good cook was a big deal. There’s been a saying that women’s names used to be — should appear properly in the newspaper three times: when she was born, when she was married, and when she died. And I would argue there’s a fourth time that was appropriate for many women, and that’s when her recipe appeared in the newspaper.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Show transcripts are available at journalism-history.org/podcast.
Despite its enormous popularity with the public, food journalism hasn’t historically received the same level of respect from newsrooms or from researchers, but it’s a fascinating history that has impacted millions of people, and was one of the few areas for women journalists at newspapers for decades. By 1950, there were nearly 600 newspaper food editors across the country, and their work made a significant difference. In this episode Kim Voss, a University of Central Florida journalism professor, tells us about Jane Nickerson, the New York Times food editor in the 1940s and 1950s, and why her name matters just as much as Julia Child and James Beard. We also take a look more broadly at food journalism in general and why it matters.
Kim, welcome to the show. How did you become interested in doing research about food journalism?
Kim Voss: I’ve always been interested in soft news, or what’s often known as –
fashion, food, family, and furnishings, and these things were often considered fluff, as if they didn’t matter, but clearly they do matter. Right? Because they impact our everyday lives: what we eat, what we wear, the people we live with, where we live. Uh, these things seem incredibly important, and I know they were important to readers even if journalism historians didn’t always focus on these topics, and that’s what led me to food journalism.
Teri Finneman: Tell us why food journalism is an important component of journalism history.
Kim Voss: Sure. Food journalism has been part of newspapers for going back to the 1880s. These were things — some of the first newspapers in the country had recipes in some of their first issues. Um, and so these things of course mattered at a time when we didn’t have the internet or TV or social media. To learn how to cook was, of course, important both from a standpoint of just feeding yourself –
but also from a stance of showing off. A good cook was a big deal. There’s been a saying that women’s names used to be — should appear properly in the newspaper three times: when she was born, when she was married, and when she died. And I would argue there’s a fourth time that was appropriate for many women, and that’s when her recipe appeared in the newspaper because it did matter. A good cook was something to be proud of. It was one of the few chances that many women went into the public sphere. It was about cooking, and often that was connected back through newspapers.
Teri Finneman: Give us some background on women’s pages and newspaper food editors in the mid-1900s.
Kim Voss: Almost every newspaper in the country had a women’s page, from big metro papers to smaller weekly papers. It was really a chance both for advertisers to connect with the readers, but also for a chance for women to work in journalism.
They couldn’t work anywhere else. Women in journalism at that point in time, really from the early 1900s on, couldn’t work in, say, sports or editorial or other hard news, and that really continued up until World War II. World War II changed a lot where women could suddenly do different things. They could cover, in many communities, everything for the first time. And then after World War II, women went back to the women’s pages and, because of that, the women’s pages after World War II changed significantly. Suddenly they had more news hooks than they may have had in the past because they had seen different things. This four Fs I mentioned earlier changed. They were more nuanced. They had more questions being asked. They wanted to know more from their readers. And so the women’s pages really changed significantly after World War II. And at that point in time, they really changed –
the significance of what women’s news suddenly became.
Teri Finneman: Today we’re talking about a specific article you wrote about Jane Nickerson, a pioneering food journalist who began her job at the New York Times as food editor during World War II. What interested you about her?
Kim Voss: I had looked at several food editors before Jane Nickerson. The Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and these were women that were doing significant things that didn’t seem to fit what journalism history had told me before about the women’s pages or food editors. For a long time, the idea of women’s pages were considered to be insignificant, and as I dug into it no one explained why. You would just read in an article or in a textbook that the women’s pages were unimportant. They had fluff they weren’t inclusive, they didn’t have real news in these sections, they didn’t follow basic news values.
But no one really examined it, and so once I looked into it, I found the opposite. It was no different than any of the other part of the newspaper. In fact, the women’s pages early on compared themselves to the sports sections. In fact, there were times both editors would go in together to ask for a raise. That’s the kind of parallel that they had. But somehow sports became more significant as the years went on, where the women’s pages went away and were unimportant. So as I looked at the food sections, I was amazed to learn how exactly like the rest of the newspaper the food sections as part of the women’s pages were. When I came upon Jane Nickerson, I was shocked because a lot of journalism history is based on the New York Times, really considered a national newspaper. What was it that was different about her that she wasn’t part of journalism history? And, in fact, at first I wondered if there was something that was different about her section. Maybe she didn’t –
adhere to journalism standards. Did she violate ethical standards? Was it somehow lesser than anything else? And that’s really what led me to her and really asking what I felt were some pretty big questions about why she’d been left out of journalism history and the New York Times history.
Teri Finneman: Your research notes there were 675 stories about food during Nickerson’s tenure at the New York Times in the 1940s, and 646 of them had a news hook. What do you mean by that?
Kim Voss: Well, that was actually based on research by Molly O’Neill, who was a New York Times food writer that came up in the 1980s and ’90. In fact, she died last year. That was based on the New York Times index, and so that was kind of the coding that the New York Times would have used. In the sections and the stories I looked at by Jane, it was, as I mentioned earlier, the same kind of news that you would think of. It was something that was new. It was something –
that was impacting the whole community, whether it was rationing food, or food prices as well as prominence. She interviewed some of the top chefs in her city, and it’s worth noting in 1949 there were more than 2,000 restaurants in New York City. [Laughs] Um, so that was a lot of chefs, and that was well more than any other city in the country.
Teri Finneman: You note that the public began showing an increased interest in new dishes after the war, in part as soldiers returned with heightened interest in more exotic foods. You hear so much about the impact of the World War II generation, but not broadly about their impact on food. Tell us more about what that impact was.
Kim Voss: Well, part of the story of the, the change in American food diets in the 1950s and the 1960s was in part because of the soldiers who came back from the war. They had tried new foods –
in Europe and Asia, and they wanted their wives, largely their wives, [laughs] uh, sometimes their mothers, to make these foods for them. And so suddenly you had a real interest in dishes and then ultimately cookbooks that taught these recipes and, you know, how do you make these dishes, and how do they fit based on, say, an American supermarket to find some of these ingredients. The other things that were significant, really, was also international travel that happened after World War II. So suddenly you had people that could travel, try these things. In addition, airlines like Pan Am, suddenly had dishes on their flights that were quite exotic to a typical American palate, and so there was a real change in being experimental for home cooks as well as food companies that were willing to provide those ingredients.
Teri Finneman: We’ll be right back with Kim Voss –
discussing food journalism after a quick word about a new podcast that our listeners might be interested in. History might be written by the winners, but in the race for the White House American politics is often shaped by the long shots, the losing candidates who never had a chance, but changed the course of history. Eight episodes, eight primary losers. Like the first woman to run for president in ’72, 1872, or the labor leader who inspired Bernie Sanders and won a million votes while in prison, and the Republican populist who first called for a border wall, and might be more responsible for Donald Trump than any other politician. You have to look back to know where we’re going. Long Shots, available wherever you listen to podcasts.
We’re back now with Kim Voss. You looked for themes in food coverage in the New York Times from 1942 to 1957.
What else did you find?
Kim Voss: What I found was a real difference from what I thought I would find. There was a lot of criticism of food editors, and of course they were almost all female at that point in time, that they were very influenced by food companies, and it definitely wasn’t true when you looked at what they were actually writing about. They rarely used the name of food companies, which has been a criticism for a long time. You also found when there were, say, PR companies or marketers that tried to influence them, they would definitely speak back about it. So for example, there was a food editors meeting where a ketchup company thought it would be a great idea that home cooks would put ketchup on their apple pie.
Teri Finneman: Oh, wow. [Laughs]
Kim Voss: [Laughs] Um, and instead of simply using that as a story, the food editors wrote about the fact that made no sense. So they, they didn’t simply write what –
food companies, marketers, PR folks wanted them to. They would critique it and say that didn’t make sense. And going back to Jane Nickerson, some folks have said that Jane Nickerson was very influenced by Craig Claiborne, who became the famous food editor after her, and that wasn’t true either. Craig, who had been trained in France in his cooking, came back to the US and when Jane interviewed him, she included in the story his techniques wouldn’t make sense for an average American home cook. And there was no way she was being manipulated. She was being honest. She was being a reporter. And a lot of what she and the other food editors did was really explain what was different about what food companies or PR folks wanted them to do versus what they really could do. In fact, many of the food editors mentioned they were so hyperlocal – our term now, not their term – was that you would have home cooks, um –
listening to radio programs or reading magazines about how to cook, but they couldn’t do it themselves so they would call their local food editor from their newspaper.
Teri Finneman: Yeah. So let’s dig into that a little bit more. I thought it was really interesting that in your article you wrote “included at the end of her columns was a phone number so readers could call Nickerson with questions.” You know, when you think about it, it, it is helpful when you’re trying new recipes to be able to actually talk to somebody. Do you have any idea like how unusual that was or wasn’t for her to actually do that, to take these calls?
Kim Voss: I don’t know if she took all the calls herself, but it was very typical nationwide at metro newspapers to have a phone number at the end, and part of it was, you know, asking about techniques, like you mentioned. How do you do this? How do you do that? But it was also a way of just gathering information. In fact, most metro newspapers had at least one or two people on staff who would take phone calls asking for recipes.
In other words, you could call and say, “How do I make this kind of chocolate chip cookie,” and someone would print it out for you and send it to you in the mail.
Teri Finneman: Oh, wow.
Kim Voss: Yeah, it was a big part of the service of food sections and women’s pages. And, you know right now we can of course Google something, right, or look in all sorts of different ways of finding recipes, but there was a point in time that it wasn’t that easy. In fact, almost all newspapers had what they called a recipe exchange column, which I think is early social media in that you could ask, “Hey, I went to this city. I tried this dish. I don’t know how to do it. Does anyone else know?” And the food editor would ask other people in the community to contact. And so it really became a back-and-forth conversation often between readers and their editor, and sometimes just between readers.
Teri Finneman: Another really interesting little nugget in your article is that –
Nickerson concluded that “while there was no official American meal, steak came close.” I just love these little colorful, interesting facts that you have in your article and could see a whole social media debate today about what the official –
Kim Voss: [Laughs]
Teri Finneman: – American meal should be. Um, but give us a little bit of background of how this came up.
Kim Voss: Well, it, it really was a question in the 1950s. During the Cold War, what made you an American? And so we have kind of right after World War II this idea of exotic foods, and as the 1950s went on it was almost the opposite of that. You didn’t want to be too different. You wanted to make what your neighbors were making. And so things like making a steak and a potato, that defined you as an American because you weren’t making dishes from other places that somehow would make you less of a true American. Um, but it was also a time where food companies and grocery stores were getting together to decide what –
American dishes were overall. So for example, at one food meeting in Chicago, the question came up from the South, oh, we’ve got this German chocolate cake. It’s the newest thing. And pretty much every food editor said, “Oh, yeah, no, we’ve always been making that. That’s a thing now.” And so [laughs] it really was trying to fit in. It was trying to be what, you know, that what was happening in Milwaukee was happening in Dallas, it was happening in Miami. There was a real question about what made you an American if suddenly you were making the same kind of dishes that you would make abroad.
Teri Finneman: Another little gem in your research is in 1947 she wrote about the increasing popularity of white bread sold in the grocery stores. What did she have to say about that, and why did it matter?
Kim Voss: The making of bread is pretty significant in food history and in journalism food history. If you look –
from the ’40s and the ’50s into the ’60s and ’70s, people liked to make bread when they were unsure. Bread was very comforting. In fact, we see that today. Right? Soon, soon as the pandemic started and there was home cooking again, everyone, including celebrities, wanted to show off their bread.
Teri Finneman: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true.
Kim Voss: You know?
Teri Finneman: It’s interesting to see that correlation, how long that white bread has played such a big role. You’re right.
Kim Voss: [Laughs] And it, and it comes and goes I’d say about every decade or so. Uh, making your own food goes in and out of vogue. And, and part of that was, of course, convenience, and part of that was, balancing out convenience. So working mothers, for example, they couldn’t make bread during the week necessarily, but they would make it on the weekends. And so it was a way of showing that you were still kind of paying attention to your family, that still mattered. And this idea of making bread, of course, means you’re self-sufficient, and that’s happened –
during times when the economy is bad. Maybe I can’t go to the store to buy bread, but if I can make it myself I’m gonna be okay. And so bread goes in and out of vogue throughout the food sections over the decades, as well as bacon. That was the two things that always went in and out of vogue.
Teri Finneman: Bacon? Really?
Kim Voss: Yeah. The popularity of bacon and the making of your bread. And, and again I think we see that today, right, that being able to do some of these kinds of things that comfort you still matter, and the idea that cooking for yourself has now become a question that we see in the media pretty consistently over the last couple months during the pandemic, and that was a question that really mattered, more so say in the late ’60s and ’70s when all of a sudden people didn’t have necessarily a grandma or mother around to help them cook.
Teri Finneman: What did Nickerson do after she left the New York Times in 1957?
Kim Voss: That’s something I think is so important in talking about Jane Nickerson.
So Jane by 1957 was a very big deal at the New York Times. This was a woman who was, again, the first food editor that we know of at the New York Times. She often went to work seven days a week. She was a woman who went to restaurants to review. She interviewed lots of folks. She talked about new products. And that’s something that sometimes doesn’t get enough credit, I think, because new products seem like advertising, but these new products I think could be paralleled to technology. When we get a new iPhone released and we want to talk about the benefits of that iPhone, we don’t just say it’s a phone. Right? We identify what it is. And so sometimes editors like Jane were criticized by giving a company name, but that’s how consumers would know what it is they might be looking for. So Jane –
was a big deal. She discovered Craig Claiborne. She discovered James Beard. She was someone who could put her name in your section and you were somebody. And so by 1957 she was married with two children, and she decided that she wanted to resign from the New York Times, which was a big deal. There were parties all over New York to recognize her. And people couldn’t believe she was doing it because she was always such a career woman, but she decided at this point with two young children, her husband had been relocated to Florida, that she was gonna leave. And a lot of folks mentioned that she retired in 1957, and she didn’t. She resigned. By 1972 she had a total of four children in Lakeland, Florida. She wrote a cookbook that became a big deal, and she became the food editor for ten different newspapers in Florida for a chain that was owned by the New York Times.
Teri Finneman: Oh, okay. That’s a big job. [Laughs]
Kim Voss: Yeah. It’s, it was a, yes, it was a huge job, and again she had four young children, a divorced woman, and she was in a place that she wasn’t familiar with, and the things that she wrote and she did were historical, were economical, were social in nature. The kinds of things that she did would stand up to anyone else’s news of that era. One of my favorite things was that 1972 she wrote a cookbook that was called Jane Nickerson’s Florida Cookbook. Not the Florida Cookbook by Jane Nickerson, but her name was above it. This was something that she did that was significantly important. And she then worked, you know, for several more decades in food journalism. She never retired. She resigned, and she started kind of a second life after she raised her children.
Teri Finneman: You know, it’s kind of interesting to think about this. Um –
I mean we all know working in journalism history that there are some names that rise to the top and become household names, and others that, unfortunately, nobody ever hears of. I mean Julia Child, right, everybody knows her.
Kim Voss: Right. [Laughs]
Teri Finneman: But why don’t, why don’t we know Jane Nickerson? So talk about overall, to sum up, what would you say is her significance to journalism history and why this woman’s name needs to, to rise above.
Kim Voss: Well, I’d say it was a couple of things. First of all, when she left in 1957 she was replaced by Craig Claiborne, and it’s worth noting that he didn’t know how to write journalism when he got there. So she was replaced by somebody that really didn’t know how to do his job, and this has been documented in the personal papers at the New York Times, in letters back and forth. And so here she was replaced by someone that didn’t know his job, but Craig Claiborne was a great, great PR person. He could promote himself. And as much as he would promote himself –
Jane Nickerson was modest and humble. I spoke to her daughter, and her daughter said that her mother never spoke of what she had done. So you, here you had kind of a showcase guy. [Laughs] And you had Jane, who did her work, did what she was supposed to do, and just kept doing it. You know, she didn’t take the time to promote herself, and I think there’s history in that if you look back at several male journalists that took the time to promote themselves and women that just did their jobs. And I think that’s been a challenge. I’ve often said that Jane Nickerson discovered James Beard and Craig Claiborne, and she would be mortified if she knew how much they’ve overshadowed her over the years, because without her they may have never become what they did. And I think that’s the challenge for many women in journalism. It’s easy to overlook them –
because maybe they were modest or humble because they didn’t promote themselves enough, and then particularly if they leave for key years to have children they suddenly get forgotten. But if for no other reason that Jane was the first, not once but twice, in her work both in Florida and in New York City, but if you look at the work she did, it, it really was news. But if you look back at what many historians have said, there was no real news in the women’s pages. There clearly was.
Teri Finneman: You’re also the author of the book The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community. Tell us about your book.
Kim Voss: So The Food Section came about because I kept looking at these women that were supposed to be insignificant, unimportant. They didn’t talk about news, but every single one was amazing. They were not what, you know, the typical historical tale would have told you. Um, and so I wrote about 150 food editors –
that were female and two that were male. And, again, this was from the ’40s to the mid-’70s. And each one of them represented their cities, their communities, made such a difference, it meant everything to their readers who wrote letters to them in huge numbers. Sometimes it was the only place in a rural community that you would talk to somebody every day. They would call in to the food sections. You know, it, it mattered so much, and it definitely told me that food history and journalism history wasn’t recognizing what these women were doing. After the book came out, I had lots of folks that contacted me about Jane Nickerson. They had even more stories to tell. I thought she was amazing to begin with. But after my book I heard from folks that, you know, told me things that were kind of shocking based on history, and one of them was about Craig Claiborne who wrote a –
a very famous cookbook The New York Times Food Cookbook. Well, it turned out that nearly a third, if not more, of the recipes that were in his cookbook actually were printed in the New York Times under Jane Nickerson.
Teri Finneman: Oh!
Kim Voss: So it was just a very obvious way that she had been overshadowed that I hadn’t looked at before, and I feel like this happens way too often that women are overshadowed. I think newspapers are kind of ashamed of the women’s pages. I’ve never seen a newspaper’s history that claimed that they were important, even though they were. When Jane worked for the New York Times, she had to be on a separate floor. She couldn’t be around the male newsroom.
Teri Finneman: Wow.
Kim Voss: And that was true in every newspaper I looked at. In fact, even tiny papers where they didn’t have a separate floor to put the women, they would take bookshelves and stack them up so they didn’t have to look –
at the women in the newsroom.
Teri Finneman: Oh, my gosh.
Kim Voss: And that was at every newspaper that I looked at women’s pages and food sections. In fact, one of Jane Nickerson’s best friends was the food editor, Cecily Brownstone, at the Associated Press in New York City. They didn’t want her in the newsroom so much they built her a test kitchen in her own home.
Teri Finneman: Wow.
Kim Voss: So this, you know, it, it was not a small thing. It was not a unique thing. That’s how the women’s pages worked back then, and I think that’s part of why journalism history doesn’t represent them well. I think a lot of newspapers are embarrassed because women quite literally were not allowed in the newsroom.
Teri Finneman: Our final question of the show is always why does journalism history matter?
Kim Voss: Journalism history gives context. Journalism history gives a foundation to understand what’s going on today. As I mentioned earlier, the foundation of what food means –
during the pandemic, lots of people that never cooked before suddenly had to cook. Um, the making of bread suddenly became significant, which comes and goes over time. The idea of the four Fs, soft news matters. We’ve seen people for the first time talk about using home ec because they were sewing masks. These were things that haven’t been talked about in, in quite a few decades because the idea that home ec was unimportant that we don’t sew our own clothes anymore ’cause we can order online, right, or go to a grocery store. But the four Fs of our society are significantly important, and I think that the more journalism history is inclusive, so it’s not just about the big name editor or the editorial page editor or the sports editor, that if we include the soft news, the featured news, it, it’s more inclusive of both –
journalists over time, but also our readership. If you look back at readership, it’s not the front page that always mattered. It was the people, and what the women’s page did was include people. The food sections, every newspaper I looked at included home cooks. This was their moment to shine. They mattered in the food section as much as a fancy chef. They mattered as much as the big names, you know, the Julia Child and James Beard. They mattered, and I think that was so important to the community. The food section recognized the women of their communities.
Teri Finneman: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.
Kim Voss: Thank you.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow.
Good night, and good luck.