Food & Drink

Words to Eat By

This story originally ran Feb. 18, 1998.

Go to the annual barbecue championship in Tryon and there she is. A tiny woman with her years on her face, picking steadily through plates of ribs and chicken at the judges' table.

Go to a gathering of top-name chefs anywhere in the South and there she is again. Walking slowly, listening closely. Writing it all down.

Almost 60 years of journalism, nearly 40 as a food editor. Ten years as food editor of Woman's Day. Nine books out and a new one due next year.

Meet Jeanne Voltz. The best-known food expert you've probably never heard of.

“Jeanne has really not been recognized for her contributions,” says Terry Ford, the Ripley, Tenn., newspaper editor who was a charter member of Julia Child's American Institute of Food and Wine.

“She's an extraordinary person. Her career goes bicoastal. Her impact with her books and her knowledge is vast. She is very gifted, very crafted. When you read something Jeanne Voltz writes, you can say it was 100 percent thoroughly researched. She's an inspiration.”

Says Voltz, on her staying power: “I'm afraid to lose the job.”

Life in wartime

“I was going to be a foreign correspondent. You see how far I got.”

Pretty far, actually. It just wasn't by the path she started out on. In her small house in the woods of Pittsboro's Fearrington Village, the walls around the dining room table tell part of the story. Framed menus from Provence, France, from Germany, from London's Dorchester Hotel during the wedding of Charles and Di. The wine list from Les Caves du George V. A program for "Friends of Food and Wine present An Evening With Paul Bocuse.”

Beyond the table, in the kitchen, every square inch holds something. A food mill. A box of canning jars. Copper mixing bowls on the walls. A chafing dish on a shelf. Not cluttered, really. Just busy.

She'll be 78 this year, but Voltz laughs at the notion that she is retired.

“No, now I can work seven days a week. 'Course, I can take seven days off now, too.”

There's one thing you should know about Voltz, right off. She's quiet, in her own way. Down to earth, even. But if you ask for an opinion - and sometimes if you don't - you're going to hear one.

Ford calls her humble. "But in that humbleness, she can pack quite a wallop when she wants to."

Take food editors. She was one, at the Miami Herald in the '50s, at the Los Angeles Times in the '60s, at Woman's Day well up into the '80s. And what does she say about them?

“I've known a lot of food editors who can't cook. I'm appalled at the food people who don't cook at all. I'd go stark raving mad if I didn't cook.”

When it comes to opinions, you could say it's in the blood. Born on her grandfather's farm in Alabama and raised in a small town where her father was a school principal and superintendent, Jeanne Appleton knew exactly where her food came from. She watched the milking, the gardening, the hog-killing, the sausage-making.

While her mother wasn't a gifted cook, she says, her father was “a great taster,” with the eater's equivalent of perfect pitch.

“He was the most disciplined man I ever met. He would not touch a peach until July Fourth because they were no good before then. He thought it was a waste of his calories and his mouth to eat a peach out of season.

“Both my mother and my father were experimental eaters. They would try anything. We had avocados in the middle of Alabama when I was 10 or 11 years old.”

Still, when she headed off to college, she didn't have any designs on a life in food. She majored in political science and history, then jumped into the newspaper business, first in Birmingham and then at the Mobile Press Register at the beginning of World War II.

“Somebody said I was lucky. All the able-bodied men were going off to war.”

For a young reporter, it was the best of all worlds. Mobile's shipyard was roaring with new boats for the Navy, its port was teeming with sailors shipping out. Oh, and one more thing: "There was great seafood. I still loved to eat."

Don't think it was all a good time, though. Voltz tears up remembering the night of the Normandy invasion.

“I lost so many friends. . . . I did a lot of casualty stories. Vietnam was terrible, but in a different way. Korea was terrible, but in a different way.” World War II touched everyone, she says.

Florida flavor

In Mobile, Voltz had married a newspaper editor, Luther Voltz. When the war was over, he decided to return to his first newspaper, The Miami Herald. The Voltzes and their two children moved to Florida.

"Miami is different than anyplace in the world, " Voltz says. "It is now and it was then."

Voltz was planning to be a stay-at-home mother. But after a minor health problem, her doctor suggested that lifting and chasing two small children might be too hard. So she went back to work, first at the Hialeah Home News, then at the Herald, where she ran the city desk from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day. Eventually, she moved to what was then called "women's news." But she wasn't sure what she wanted to do.

"I didn't want to do clubs. And I certainly didn't want to do society and fashion."

In "Knights of the Fourth Estate, " a 1974 history of The Miami Herald, author Nixon Smiley describes the young reporter Jeanne Voltz in the postwar years:

"Gals got to do some derring-do assignments heretofore reserved for males. In 1951, reporter Jeanne Voltz, mother of two children, learned to fly a plane in one day and soloed after seven-and-one-half hours of continuous instruction. Mrs. Voltz, who worked in the woman's department, could have done an outstanding job for the city desk, but, being a gourmet cook, preferred to write about food."

That's not exactly how Voltz remembers it. She says Lee Hills, the managing editor, called her in and told her to cover food.

"I said, I don't know how.' He said, You'll learn.'

"They had decided food was big news. They had figured out women were the ones who decided what to subscribe to."

But after being shoved into food, Voltz discovered she liked it.

"You know, the '50s were very interesting in food. It was when we had all this flaming! Husbands came home from the war. They'd tasted curries, they'd tasted French food. They weren't meat and potatoes anymore."

Voltz made herself into an expert on Florida cooking and eventually wrote two books on it.

But after 15 years, she and Luther decided it was time to go. Their children were grown, and they had learned that when a couple work at the same company, they aren't always both financially rewarded.

Her timing was right, once again. In Los Angeles, the Times had decided that food was news, too. The food editor's position was being moved out of the advertising department - pretty common in those days - and into the newsroom. Voltz got the job.

"A lot of exciting consumer and nutrition stuff was going on at UCLA and USC." For 12 years, she covered the first studies on cholesterol and the beginnings of the nutrition and vegetarian movements.

When Woman's Day called, she resisted for three months. Luther was close to retirement, so it was a good time to leave. But she feared a magazine's ties to advertisers. She didn't want to leave newspapers.

"Then somebody said, Just think - you have a million and a half readers here. At a magazine, think what you'll have.' "

So she went. And became a Manhattanite. Walking home every night past the Chagalls at Lincoln Center. Testing barbecue recipes on the terrace of her West Side apartment.

"One time Harper Lee came to my house for dinner." Mutual friends had asked her to entertain the famously shy author of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

"I've forgotten why, but I had turnip greens. She said, Where'd you get these greens?' I said at the green market in my neighborhood. She said, I better move over to the West Side.' "

Voltz stepped down as food editor in 1983, but stayed on for several years, working on book projects. But by 1986, she was ready to go. "I was getting tired of stepping off the curb into slush up to my ankles."

Luther had died and she had remarried. But her second husband didn't want to go to Florida, where she still owns a house. So she settled on Pittsboro.

"I still have many friends (in Florida). But this is a better place for me. I have friends here. But not people who expect me to be instantly available."

These days, she lives alone in Pittsboro. But she travels constantly. It's an easy drive to the Raleigh airport and she can be at La Guardia Airport in New York in an hour and 10 minutes.

"I spend too much time in airports, " she admits.

Southern flavor

The trouble with knowing a lot about a subject is everybody has something for you to do.

Take this new American Southern Food Institute. As she tells it, several years ago at the annual "Salute to Southern Chefs" in Charleston, Terry Ford plucked her sleeve.

"He said, You've got to get a Southern food society going.' I said, Me?' He said, You've got the time.' "

She never intended to take on Southern food as her life's work, she says. But when asked why the world needs an American Southern Food Institute, she tells this story:

Fifteen years ago, she was at a chicken contest in Jackson, Miss., with a passel of other food editors. At a luncheon, the Jackson Junior League provided the food: Quail preserved from hunts all year. Freshly shelled black-eyed peas. Biscuits with fig preserves. Voltz listened to the reaction from her fellow food writers.

"They didn't know what the black-eyed peas were. They didn't care. They didn't know what a quail was. They didn't know what hot biscuits were. . . . All I could hear was that silly Southern cooking. Everything they cook is sweet.'

"Those people did not understand what they were eating. I was horrified. There are great cooks in Jackson. And I thought, somebody has to explain Southern cooking to this bunch of Guggens."

So here is Jeanne Voltz in Pittsboro, getting ready, once again, to explain Southern cooking. Just like she has explained Florida cooking, and nutrition, and barbecue.

It's not like she has the time, of course. On a recent morning at her house, she was settling in after a book-signing in Florida, testing beaten biscuit recipes and finishing a manuscript for a book on country ham.

After all this time and all these recipes, how does she stay so interested in food?

She chuckles at the question.

"I 'spose I just get hungry. I really get very bored with the same thing."

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis