Cooking and writing it old-school with Eleanor Ostman

Recently I sat down with renowned food journalist Eleanor Ostman, listened to her tales of writing during the final days of old-school newspapers, and connected over our love of rye bread. Ostman wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch when it still published twice daily. "I churned out a hell of a lot of good copy," she told me. In addition to daily food and home economy stories, Ostman's Tested Recipes ran weekly in the St. Paul newspaper from 1968 through 1998, and those thirty years crown Tested Recipes as the longest running personal food column in U.S. history. Some of the best of those columns are available in Ostman's cookbook Always on Sunday (there are a few revisions, try to find the first).

Ostman attended Macalester College's journalism program and upon graduation began writing for the home design section of The Press before being asked to write about food. She was a young wife with not a lot of experience in the kitchen, so she approached cooking the way a journalist approaches an interesting story: with research. Readers were drawn to her honesty and humor, whether she was describing her family's love of a dish or the kitchen disasters that occasionally occurred. "I never considered myself a great writer," rather she ascribed "the old adage 'write like you talk.' Writing is innate. You can be trained but you have to have inner desire and an ability with words."

Everyone and their mother has a blog these days and there are more food blogs out here than there are readers. Very very few of us are journalists. Even fewer of us are paid enough to quit our day jobs. I asked Ostman if she had advice for a younger generation of writers. "I wish them well. In today's newspaper situation it is hard to get established as a writer. You don't have the cradle of a newspaper where you can hone your skills. You have to be determined."

Known publicly as a chocolate junkie, Ostman smiled as our conversation turned to the most popular recipe she ever tested: Arboretum French Silk Pie. Remember that beauty? I made the pie for my family's Thanksgiving celebration. It was like turning back the hands of time, and it was delicious. The recipe below appears in Ostman's Always on Sunday.

Arboretum French Silk Pie

Makes 8 or more servings (a small slice suffices)

Crust:
1/4 cup melted butter
1 cup vanilla wafer crumbs (30 cookies, crushed)
1/2 cup pecans, finely chopped

Filling:
3 squares unsweetened chocolate
1 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 large pasteurized eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla

To make crust: Mix melted butter, vanilla wafer crumbs and pecans. Reserve 1/4 cup. Press remaining mixture into 9-inch pie pan. Place reserved crumbs in another small pan. Bake both pans in 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. Watch carefully so they don't scorch.

To make filling: Melt chocolate. Cool. Cream butter and sugar. Add cooled chocolate. Add eggs to filling, 1 at a time. After each egg is added, beat for 5 minutes with mixer on medium speed. Stir in vanilla. Pour mixture into 9-inch pie shell. Sprinkle with reserved crumbs (a ring of crumbs about 2 inches from edge looks attractive). Freeze pie until ready to serve.

Recipe note: I processed the butter, wafers, and pecans before pressing them into the pie pan and the result was an even crust with hints of nut. Also, I used a "pre-melted" chocolate and appreciated skipping the melt and cool step.

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    Patrice Johnson