Kathleen Purvis

New book finds the tough history of early food writers

Just call me a proud member of “the Jell-O abusing women’s-page ladies.”

In 25 years of writing about food for the Observer, I haven’t run many stories on Jell-O, although I once wrote a short piece on Jell-O wrestling (it was a slow news week).

But “Jell-O abusing women’s-page lady” is my new favorite nickname ever since I picked up a new book, “The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community,” by Kimberly Wilmot Voss (Rowman & Littlefield).

A journalism professor at the University of Central Florida, Voss got interested in the history of newspaper food editors when she was teaching a course on journalism and social media.

She was researching the idea that recipe-request columns, like the one retired Observer food editor Helen Moore wrote for many years, were an early form of social media, a forerunner of the crowdsourcing you find today on Facebook and Twitter.

What Voss found, though, really surprised her: She found the early underpinnings of feminism in the work of newspaper food editors.

She found women who could work for newspapers but couldn’t be members of journalism organizations until 1969. She found women who had to have their desks in the business office in the 1930s because they weren’t allowed in the newsroom.

She also found that food editors provided valuable services. They offered advice for stretching food dollars during the Depression and handling food rationing in World War II. One Philadelphia reporter, Mary Acton Hammond, got sent to England in February 1942 to write about how women were feeding their families.

After the war, women reported on the beginnings of nutrition science and changing food technology. Voss also found food writers who were pioneers at balancing work and family.

Voss was shocked to discover an incident in 1971, when Utah Sen. Frank Moss came to a national conference of food editors for a talk on food safety, but instead denounced the women for taking samples from food companies. He called them “whores of the supermarket industry,” which makes that Jell-O remark sound a lot nicer.

Moss’ charges were followed by a story in the Columbia Journalism Review that denounced food sections as “a happy hunting ground for advertisers,” and accused the women of not pursuing tougher stories. What the story didn’t note: In those days, most stories for the front page were assigned to men.

When I joined the Association of Food Journalists in 1994, there were still original members who made sure younger women heard about those days. After Moss’ speech, AFJ was founded as an ethics organization to set standards and help food writers stay free of industry ties.

Next month at AFJ’s annual meeting, I’m moderating a panel with Kim Voss, and we’ll remind ourselves, once again, that we have come a long way.

Not that long, though: That Jell-O crack? It came from the book “The United States of Arugula,” and it was written by David Kamp – in 2006.