By Kimberly Wilmot Voss
An often-overlooked figure from the establishing years of the culinary community in New York City is Jane Nickerson at the New York Times. She was the first food editor at the newspaper, beginning in 1942. Over the years, she introduced James Beard to Associated Press food editor Cecily Brownstone; the two would speak on the phone daily. Those two were often dinner companions along with Nickerson and her future husband. According to Evan Jones’s biography of James Beard, Epicurean Delight, the four “probed New York’s ethnic neighborhoods,” Jones wrote, “titillating their palates and venting their curiosities about origins of recipes.”
It was Brownstone who introduced the New York food community to Irma S. Rombauer, author of the popular cookbook Joy of Cooking. Later, it was Beard who introduced Julia Child to the New York food community. But in another example of food editor marginalization, Nickerson rarely gets any credit in historical culinary stories for influencing the New York food community. Instead, she has been overshadowed by the considerable scholarship about Craig Claiborne, who followed her as food editor in 1957.
Claiborne certainly had a significant impact on food journalism, especially in the area of restaurant reviewing and New York City. But as his predecessor, Nickerson laid the foundation at the New York Times. In 2003, former New York Times food journalist Molly O’Neill credited Nickerson with being one of the first food journalists to apply ethics and news values to her craft. According to O’Neill, news was central to the story lines in the vast majority the Times’ food stories in the Nickerson years.
Nickerson covered restaurants, home cooks and the food of the day. By 1957, Nickerson was ready to leave the Times and join her husband in Florida where they planned to raise their children. That summer, Nickersonlifted a glass of Chassagne-Montrachet at the restaurant “21” and toasted her departure from the newspaper with lunch guests Gourmet magazine editor Eileen Gaden and Gourmet writer Craig Claiborne. Nickerson announced she was leaving September 1—whether her replacement had been hired or not.
Reportedly,she said to Claiborne, “I honestly think the Times didn’t believe me when I said I was leaving. People simply don’t leave the Times. They stay there until they die or are dismissed.” Editors at the newspaper had interviewed many possible replacements for Nickerson, or as she put it, “anybody who can type with one finger and who had ever scrambled an egg.” Initially the editors were more interested in hiring someone with a background in test kitchens rather than the “rarefied atmosphere of a publication like Gourmet,” according to a New York Times memo.
When Nickerson announced that she was leaving the Times, Beard was particularly saddened by what her absence could mean to food coverage in New York. Her popularity was punctuated by the number of farewell parties held in her honor, as Beard wrote in a letter to food writer Helen Evans Brown: “Going to four parties for Jane this week. She leaves next week for Florida, and how we hate to see her go. She has done more for dignified food coverage than anyone. Everyone will miss her keenly, and I more than most, for she was a good friend and a most amusing person always.”
Nickerson and Beard had hoped that Brown would become the second food editor at the New York Times. When the position went to Claiborne, they publicly supported the decision and kept their dissent private. Beard wrote to Brown that he and Nickerson had agreed Brown was the better choice, “But that is in the family and never breathe it.”
Nickerson would go on to raise four children and become the food editor at the Ledger in Lakeland, Florida. Read more about Nickerson and more than 60 other female newspaper food editors who produced culinary news from the 1940s through the 1970s in my book, The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community.