October 29, 2020

A few years ago, the food editor got out of the newsroom and into the fields.

Lee Svitak Dean, food editor at The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, spent the morning with Phua and Blia Thao at their 13-acre farm in Spring Valley, Wisconsin. As they chopped rhubarb, they talked about their lives.

Phua stoops over a rhubarb plant and breaks off stalks near the ground. She hands them in all their ruby red glory to her husband, Blia, who has pulled a wheelbarrow nearby. He carefully chops off the leaves and stacks the rhubarb like logs, a virtual lumberyard in the bottom of the cart.

Phua reaches for another stalk, then another, before moving down the row. “We keep rhubarb going until October,” she says with a smile that’s almost hidden by her wide-brimmed hat.

Dean, who’s been food editor at The Star Tribune for 26 years and writing about food there for 40, retires next week. I asked her about a favorite memory from her career, which of course is like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. One that Dean mentioned was the Thaos and their farm.

Food stories aren’t just about food. They’re about people, communities, cultures, experiences, business, equity, traditions, change, politics, agriculture, the environment and so much more.

“What always struck me about Lee is she seems very attuned to her community and its needs,” said Hanna Raskin, food editor and chief critic for The (Charleston, South Carolina) Post and Courier.

That’s still true for food editors today, Raskin said. But Dean’s career follows an arc of big changes in local food journalism.

Dean’s retirement follows the departure of Nancy Stohs from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in January, and it marks the end of a golden age of local print food sections, said Kim Voss, a professor and journalism program coordinator at the University of Central Florida and the author of “The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community.”

It was a time that started with the end of “women’s pages,” Voss said. Local newspaper food sections could be dozens of pages long, packed with grocery store ads that subsidized other parts of the paper, Voss said. They contained food photos that were themselves works of art and provided hyperlocal coverage before that was a buzzword.

In the early ’70s, local food editors joined together to form the Association of Food Journalists after a U.S. senator accused them of being “whores of the supermarket.” Together, they created ethical standards for food journalism. Another ending — AFJ will close this year

“I think Lee’s retirement is the end of an era,” Voss said.

During that era, changes include a focus on digital, a shift to covering restaurants more and home cooking less, the rise of celebrity chefs and influencers and, in a lot of cities, the shrinking of the printed food section. 

There are also many more voices than there were in the past, Dean said, including food bloggers and vloggers. And while some of the stories have changed, the best part about the food beat hasn’t — food touches so much of our lives. 

For the most part, it is a topic that makes people happy at the end of the day — learning something new, tasting something great,” she said. “It’s a very welcoming and nice side of the world, and it is so full of interesting people.”

After retirement, Dean has some back-burner projects she’s ready to get to work on. Forty years of food journalism means she’s an even better cook than when she started, her organizational skills are strong, and she knows the value of precision. Whether there are 100 or 101 people in a crowd might not matter too much in a news story, she said, but when it comes to the difference between ¼ of a teaspoon or ⅛ of a teaspoon in a recipe, “it does.”

I asked if Dean had any comfort food recipes she might recommend.

“This recipe has served as comfort food for my family for decades,” she told me in an email. “It was among the first recipes I wrote about as a food writer, and one of the last, included in my goodbye column as I leave The Star Tribune.”

Sesame Pork Roast

Note: The roast is easy to prepare, whether in a slow cooker, in the oven or on top of the stove in a Dutch oven. When made in the slow cooker, the roast doesn’t need to be marinated in advance because the meat marinates during the lengthy cooking time.

  • 2 tbsp. sesame seeds
  • 3 or 4 green onions, sliced (about 1/4 c.)
  • 1/2 c. ketchup
  • 1/4 c. soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp. ground ginger
  • 2 tbsp. molasses (any type)
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 2 tbsp. wine vinegar
  • 4 lb. pork shoulder roast, bone-in or without
  • 3 tbsp. flour for gravy, if desired

Directions

Toast sesame seeds in a dry frying pan over low heat until golden and fragrant. Place seeds in a bowl with the green onions, ketchup, soy sauce, ginger, molasses, salt, curry powder, pepper, 1 cup water and wine vinegar; stir to mix thoroughly. Place meat in a large bowl and pour the marinade over it. Marinate, covered, 2 to 3 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

To prepare in a slow cooker: Place meat and marinade in the slow cooker, cover, and cook on low for 8 to 9 hours or on high for about 3 hours.

To prepare in the oven or on the stovetop: Remove meat from marinade, reserving, and pat meat dry. Brown meat in a Dutch oven or frying pan. To continue in the oven, place meat and marinade in a covered casserole dish and roast at 300 to 325 degrees for 3 hours. (The roast should be falling apart when it’s done.) For the stovetop, place the meat and marinade in the pot and heat until the marinade is boiling. Reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook, turning meat once or twice, for 3 hours. Serve meat with pan juices or make gravy.

To make gravy: Pour pan juices into a 2-cup measure. Skim off fat, returning 2 tablespoons of the fat to the pan. If defatted pan juices do not equal 2 cups, add enough water or chicken broth to reach the 2-cup measure.

Whisk 3 tablespoons flour into the fat in the pan and cook over medium heat on the stovetop until bubbly. Slowly stir in pan juices and cook until gravy thickens, stirring constantly. Put gravy through fine strainer to assure it is lump-free.

Serve meat with egg noodles, potatoes or use for sandwiches.

Sesame Pork Roast is a family favorite of Lee Svitak Dean. (Photo by Dennis Becker, Food styling by Lisa Golden Schroeder)

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists.

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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