Remembering Jim Fobel
For noted food writer Jim Fobel, cooking was more than a pastime. He made a career of celebrating the art of cooking, winning acclaim for his creativity as a columnist, test kitchen director, and cookbook author. Friend and colleague Hiroko Kiiffner says, “He was really one of the most gifted, passionate cooks. He was more than just a food writer. He was endlessly curious. Cooking and food were at the center of his life and his being. I really believe it kept him going in the final years of his life.” Fobel passed away on June 9th of this year, but left behind a life’s work that stands as a testament to his craft.
Fobel’s approach to food was simple: what we eat should be flavorful, beautiful, and enjoyable to make and share. These were tenets Fobel learned early on in his life. He grew up in Ashtabula, OH, where a number of women in his family served as culinary mentors. His grandmother, mother, and four aunts all cooked regularly, and were eager to spread their enthusiasm for cooking and baking. He chronicles their lives and recipes in Jim Fobel’s Old-Fashioned Baking Book, which was cited as one of the Best Cookbooks of the Year by the James Beard Foundation in 1988. The book explores his family’s recipes that he grew up loving, and is a testament to the powerful ties of family and food. The only photographs are sepia-toned Fobel family portraits. The recipe titles don’t use descriptors like ‘tasty’ or ‘scrumptious.’ Rather, adjectives tell the recipe’s origin story: what matters in this text is who, when, and where this dish was perfected. This leads to recipes like “Aunt Myra’s Butterscotch Pie” and “Mystery Cake of 1932.” The accompanying history is as rich as the flavors. Fobel’s recipes were also artfully designed. Before his career in food writing, he attended California’s Otis Art Institute. After graduating, he founded the Picture Pie Company, where he made edible works of art in pastry form. It was this kind of artistic vision that led him to become such a successful food writer. He became friends with other pioneers in the food space, including MFK Fisher and James Beard. Throughout his career, he worked at Food & Wine Magazine, Decorating & Craft Ideas, and published numerous titles.
In the introduction to Old Fashioned Baking, Fobel explored the deep-rooted connection between food and memory, and why it was so important to him to publish a cookbook that was interwoven with his own family history. He writes, “To re-create the exact taste of that and the many other splendid cakes I remember so vividly has been a great satisfaction to me, and I hope that you will find them equally memorable.” Perhaps the best way to celebrate his life is by cooking one of his recipes. There will be a memorial service held for Jim on November 16th.
Charlotte Dillon is an intern at Lake Isle Press