The Politics of the Plate

The Politics of the Plate

Photo by Richard Howard

Photo by Richard Howard

Achievement awards—and the hand-in-hand prospect of discussing one’s career in front of an Alumnae Hall-sized crowd of students—have a way of making a person reflective. As Marian Fox Burros ’54 started preparing her remarks, looking back over her career as a food writer and how it came about, a long-forgotten memory tumbled into her mind: trick or treating at the age of 8, draped in a long black velvet coat with a white fur collar that tied at the neck. “I was told to tell anyone who asked that I was a suffragette,” Burros says. Her mother, a League of Women Voters member, had dreamed up the costume.

Burros says her mother was widowed by that time, an old-fashioned woman, “like Downton Abbey but at a much lower level.” She cooked well and from scratch, which had an obvious impact on Burros as food writer and cookbook author. Less obvious to Burros—at least until the memory returned to her on June 7, 2016—was the effect of her mother’s political interests.

That night in early June, Burros listened on her car radio as Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69 addressed a crowd of supporters under the glass ceiling of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was the night Clinton learned she had the votes to clinch the Democratic nomination. As soon as Burros arrived home, she sat down at her computer to write a few emails to friends. For perhaps the first time, she told them, she understood where her interest in politics came from. She had never before connected the dots between her relationship to politics, a pioneering angle in her writing about food, and her mother’s influence.

Burros reported on the politics of food, health, nutrition, agriculture, and food safety for the New York Times for 27 years. From 1974 to 1981, she was food editor at the Washington Post. She published a whole shelf’s worth of books about food and cooking over the years—13 of them, actually, a tidy baker’s dozen. She wrote the first, Elegant but Easy, a collection of recipes and a guide to entertaining, with Lois Liebeskind Levine ’52 in 1960. They cranked out 500 copies on a mimeograph machine, collated them on Lois’s bed, and sold them to bookstores and through Wellesley clubs. “One thing led to another, and after awhile someone wanted to publish it,” Burros says. “That was the beginning of our cookbook career.”

It also helped launch Burros’s newspaper career, initially as a food writer at a couple of local Maryland newspapers. That led to a position as the food editor of the Washington Daily News. The so-called women’s pages in those days shared recipes and helped readers navigate the new items appearing on grocery store shelves. Burros, who inherited a love of cooking from her mother, had a gift for converting complicated recipes into something more approachable for the home cook.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps at the Washington Star, where she edited the food section from 1968 to 1974, Burros started writing increasingly about food safety and how federal decisions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the FDA, for example, affected the ingredients that Americans were plating up for dinner each night. “In some instances, it took the newspapers a certain amount of time to even accept the idea of these stories,” she says. “When I would say that food is political, over and over again people would say, ‘What’s political about food?’ Most people didn’t understand it that way.”

Through her consistent and careful reporting over the decades, Burros encouraged us to see it that way.  She covered decades of White House food initiatives, from the Reagan administration’s proposal to classify ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches to First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to combat childhood obesity. Burros also pulled back the curtain to reveal the politics in play in food safety regulations, animal welfare, industrial agricultural practices, product labeling, and federal lunch programs. In the early years of her newspaper career, she was likely the first writer to cover Red Dye No. 2; later on, she helped reveal the connection between antibiotic overuse in farm animals and antibiotic resistance in humans. And every time the pendulum of diet trends swung—low sugar, low fat, high protein, high fat, low carb, and so on—Burros would investigate the latest claims, arming readers with facts.

“I saw so many things over a period of time that made me think that all was not right in the world of food,” she says. “There was a lot of fraud, a lot of cover ups, and I wanted people to have all the facts so they could make informed decisions.”

In so doing, Burros often wrote for the national desks at the Post and the Times, liberating food stories (and their writers) from the domestic confines of the food section. Nancy Harmon Jenkins ’59, a fellow writer and prolific author, overlapped with Burros at the Times, as did Margot Slade ’74, who was an editor. “Marian’s sense that food was a political issue was very important,” Jenkins says. “The importance of it wasn’t always clear to the powers that be, but since the editor of the food section was also a Wellesley woman, there was a certain sense of the rightness of this approach. And as Marian went on and gained a reputation for that kind of tough reporting, it became easier.”

Jenkins says Burros was known to be “rigorously honest and straightforward in her opinion,” and one to deliver the truth, “although people often don’t like to hear the truth, especially from a woman.”

Take fishmongers, for example. In 2005, Burros investigated the mislabeling of wild salmon in New York City fish markets. She and Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, “the best fish restaurant in New York City and maybe the world,” according to Burros, drove all over the creation to visit the city’s major fish counters. She purchased samples of wild salmon from each and had them tested for levels of natural and artificial pigments to determine whether the fish had truly been wild caught. Beyond significant price difference at the fish counter, farmed salmon is known to contain higher levels of PCBs and other contaminants, and American consumers were coming to understand the environmental hazards of fish farming.

Of those tested, only one sample was accurately labeled wild. When Burros shared her findings with the fishmongers, “Some of them yelled at me, then the word got out through the wholesale market,” she says. “I got a few threatening phone calls about being cut off at the knees and that kind of thing.” For consumers, though, the report represented a watershed moment.

Particularly since she still enjoys the company of her kneecaps, Burros says this kind of work brought a certain pleasure. Although the Times repeated this story in 2015, and essentially found the same thing. “Nothing has changed. That’s a little frustrating,” Burros says. “But along the way, I do think more people have become savvy about buying food in general. Look at what’s going on right now: There is enormous interest in natural, organic, grass fed meat—all the things you would hope your food supply would start with,” she says.

If the rise in informed consumers marks one measure of her work, the number of other journalists tackling these subjects today is another. The food industry is only growing more complicated, and small armies of writers have stepped up to tackle the complexities. Louisa Kasdon ’72 is a writer who founded the organization Let’s Talk About Food “to engage people of all ages in the conversation about food.” She says Burros “opened up a world for me.”

Kasdon came to know Elegant but Easy in the 1970s, as a young married woman who learned to cook through the pages of the slim volume. “As I got to know her books, I got to know her work in DC, and at the Times—and the idea that anyone was at the New York Times and writing about food like that was mind-blowing to me,” Kasdon says. “Marian was right up there with the Rombauers of The Joy of Cooking and James Beard. She started writing about food when it was understood as this little thing that housewives did, and for 50 years she kept a career that grew and grew. And look what it begat.”

By now, it’s clear to us that good food is everything. Far beyond just the homemaker’s domain, food means family, it reflects seasons and supports tradition, nutrition, community, culture, business, and economy. The food we consume is central to human history. Or, as Kasdon puts it, “It’s just not cool to not care about food now.”

Quite specifically, Burros’s career also begat a surprisingly loyal legion of plum torte enthusiasts. Lois Levine contributed the original recipe for a simple but delectable dessert, Fruit Torte, to the 1960 version of Elegant but Easy. In September 1982, Burros ran an eight-ingredient, four-step plum version in the Times. Every time plum season rolled around again, readers clamored for it. The paper reprinted it annually until 1989, when “the editors determined that enough was enough,” according to the Times. That year it ran under the headline, “Once More (Sigh), The Plum Torte.” Burros urged readers to cut it out and laminate the recipe, once and for all. “This could really be the last year the recipe is reprinted,” she warned. “Really!”

The plum torte remains the most requested recipe in the paper’s archive and its most published. When Amanda Hesser—food writer, Times food editor, and co-founder and CEO of Food52—polled readers for suggestions for the The Essential New York Times Cookbook, 247 people wrote in support of the torte. Like the best of recipes, this one is simple, a seasonal tradition, versatile, and a crowd pleaser. As much as Burros has added to our understanding about food, her work reminds us that what matters most is the private, everyday experience of breaking bread with family or friends, maybe even over a torte. “The recipe has become a national classic,” says Jenkins, “and Wellesley has reason to be very proud of her.”

Awards and Achievements

• 1973 Emmy Award for consumer reporting on WRC-TV
• Three-time winner of the AAUW Mass Media Award for consumer reporting and nutrition education
• 1985 member of Who’s Who in American Food
• 1988 citation from the National Press Club for food safety coverage
• Three-time winner of the Vesta Award
• 1999 James Beard Foundation Award, Newspaper Feature Writing with Recipes
• 2000 Penney-Missouri Award
• 2000 Consumer Federation of America’s Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award
• National Press Club Award for healthy consumer reporting

Jennifer McFarland Flint is writer in Concord, Mass. A former associate editor at Wellesley magazine and organic farm hand, she is a forever lover of food.

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