The Unsung Influence of a Pioneering Food Journalist

Amanda M. Rye

Kimberly Voss, a journalism professor at the University of Central Florida and the author of “The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community,” credits Nickerson with laying the foundation for modern food journalism. “She did a lot of actual reporting, which shouldn’t be shocking but is,” she told me, “because so many early food editors were just taking recipes from food companies and just putting them in the newspaper. Nickerson was looking for recipes on airplanes and in dining cars on railways and in restaurants and people’s homes. She interviewed James Beard in his apartment. She was exploring new foods and technologies and science.”

In 1947, Nickerson broke news of an innovation in the world of hamburgers: the cheeseburger. “At first, the combination of beef with cheese and tomatoes, which sometimes are used, may seem bizarre,” she wrote in The Times. “If you reflect a bit, you’ll understand the combination is sound gastronomically.” Two years later, she introduced Times readers to the concept of “food writers” in an article about a press luncheon aboard the ocean liner Ile de France. She brought green-goddess dressing to The Times, and steak Diane. “These recipes, these stories, Craig Claiborne — they don’t exist without Jane Nickerson,” Voss said.

After Nickerson resigned from The Times to move to Florida with her family, Claiborne was named her replacement. She did not restart her journalism career until 1973, when she was named food editor of The Ledger, in Lakeland, east of Tampa. (The newspaper was then owned by The Times.) That year she also published “Jane Nickerson’s Florida Cookbook.” The book is still in print and offers fascinating insight into her interests and reporting style. “It’s not so much a Florida cookbook as a Nickerson one,” Voss said. “Her name came first.” There are recipes from restaurants and friends, state employees and members of the Seminole Tribe. Nickerson traces the roots of her chopped eggplant salad to a Greek community in Tarpon Springs and attributes her recipe for pickled shrimp to Mary Call Collins, the wife of a former governor of Florida. It’s an idiosyncratic collection. Her recipe for orange-​coconut layer cake is the one that won second prize in the All-Florida Orange Dessert Contest in 1960.

I particularly like her recipe for Florida lime pie, which, like its more famous cousin, the Key lime pie, relies on the sweetened condensed milk that was a godsend for Florida cooks in the days before refrigeration. It’s rich, creamy and tart, baked in a pastry pie shell rather than a graham-cracker one and topped with whipped cream. To me it tastes of Florida sunshine.

Nickerson died in 2000, about a month after Claiborne. His obituary ran on the front page of The Times. Nickerson’s was on the 25th page of the C section. “Her legacy is in her recipes,” Voss told me. “You just have to look for them.”

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