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Iowa's Radio Homemakers: Interview with Chuck Offenburger, Part 1

posted on March 1, 2010 at 4:18 PM

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The "Iowa Boy" Chuck Offenburger has studied and written about Iowa rural life for decades. His personal experiences growing up in the Shenandoah, Iowa area, and knowing Evelyn Birkby, are told in this interview. The interview was recorded on June 29, 2009 at his home near Jefferson, Iowa.

Debra Herbold: Tell me about Mr. Archie and how he told Evelyn Birkby to always include a recipe in her newspaper column.

Chuck Offenburger: Well, Evelyn had quite a following by the time I started my newspaper career in 1961. I was 13 years old and I was the sports writer but, in the summers especially, I would shoot pictures and do news and Evelyn was well-established by then but she did not shoot pictures then and her annual Christmas holiday column would read like a Christmas card from the Birkby's and so every year we would run a picture of the family. One of us from the paper would have to run over to Sidney, where they lived, 15 miles west of Shenandoah to shoot that picture. I think that's how I first met her. I had read her column before and, of course, my mother was a great fan of hers. So, Evelyn and I have been friends ever since and that's over 45 years ago but she's changed a lot in that time. She's become much more well-known and a regional, if not national, writer. Her impact on audiences today as she nears 90 years old is probably bigger than it's ever been before in her life, which is amazing to think about that.

Debra Herbold: Describe the era when Evelyn first starting radio homemaking.

Chuck Offenburger: Well, it started for her in the late 1940s. I think maybe in 1949 is when she started her newspaper column and within a year or two she was on radio. It was an era when the farms were really small and there were a lot of people living in the countryside. Many of them did not have telephones. Most of them by that time had radios. No one had television. So, even though there were a lot of people out there, many more than you find today in rural Iowa, there was a loneliness factor because you just didn't spend a lot of time traveling from farm to farm to farm. And so Willard Archie, the publisher of the old evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, had this idea to start up a column that would be kind of a lifestyle column of that rural life. And he wanted a woman to write it because he needed somebody that would be interested and good at cooking because he thought there should be a recipe in it every week. Evelyn told me years later that his instructions to her were to write friendly because there are so many lonely people out there who need a warm voice and also to include the recipe at the end of the column every week because if they don't read anything else, they'll read a recipe. And so she stuck with that her whole life and in the course of doing that, she became a really good story teller.

Debra Herbold: Describe Evelyn's Up A Country Lane book.

Chuck Offenburger: Her recipe in writing the column was to always tell a good story often about some individual person or some place that she'd been and then she would always follow up with a recipe from that person or from that place, maybe a restaurant, something unique that they were known for. Her books have largely been the same thing. I mean she has included people stories or place stories in her books- much like her columns. She always includes recipes and they become a great source for regional food recipes, and you know, regional food and the stories that go with them. And I think that's been the popularity of them.

Debra Herbold: So it's not just Iowa, it's regional?

Chuck Offenburger: Well, yes, they do for sure. In the 1990s, she had done a collection of her columns for the University of Iowa Press. They were picking them up and they were going to run them as the Up a Country Lane Cookbook and "Up a Country Lane" was the name of her newspaper column for all those years. So, they were going to do this book and right about that same time there were two food writers and broadcasters on the national level, Jane and Michael Stern, and they've done the Roadfood book and they're on National Public Radio every week with commentary on different restaurants around the country on a show called The Splendid Table. Well, the Sterns were already pretty well-known and established nationally and they called around to publishers, regional publishers, and said we're interested in finding some local cookbooks, the local foods, you know, and regional foods. Do you have any books recently that would meet that description? Holly Carver at the University of Iowa Press, the director over there, said, well we've got one coming out and she was sending them the page proofs for the Up a Country Lane Cookbook and she also sent them to me because she knew I knew Evelyn, and so she sent them to me. I was writing for the Des Moines Register and I was busy so I, of course, didn't look at them. But my wife Carla, who's a voracious reader and a real student of cooking and loves that kind of stuff, read the page proofs and said Evelyn has a major hit here!

And soon enough the Sterns were all over it too. They came to Sidney, Evelyn's home town, and spent three or four days there interviewing Evelyn. Going up to Penn Drug with her and having green rivers and other fountain drinks and soda, ice cream sodas, and just loving the whole lifestyle in Sidney and Evelyn's role in it. They wrote a 15-page profile of Evelyn. I believe it was in 1991 in the New Yorker Magazine which of course has a huge following nationally and internationally. The impact of that was just extraordinary. Within about three years every major network television broadcast had been to Sidney to do a follow-up profile. It was the combination of an interesting story of an older person who was kind of being discovered, a very literate and worldly thinker who had traveled a great deal, and also who was some what of a specialist in food which everyone connects with. And so it was great story that the national media really connected with.

Interestingly, you may remember that 1996 was Iowa's Sesquicentennial and the state put together kind of an Iowa showcase and took it to the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in Washington D.C. which is on the national mall every Fourth of July. They have different topics every year that they focus on. So, one of the topics that summer was Iowa at 150 years. Carla and I were both out there. I was covering it for the Register. Carla had a girls basketball team that she took out there and they put on girls basketball expeditions, both 6 on 6 and 5 on 5. Evelyn was there as a radio homemaker and columnist and telling food stories and lifestyles stories, and she was a huge hit there. But I'll never forget there was also a feature on the American South and of course on the Smithsonian. So, this Washington Post reporter, feature writer, Paul Fredrickson meanders out there on the national mall and he's just going to do a preview story or story on the Folk Life Festival for people and post readers. There were hundreds of people out there and he connects with Evelyn Birkby and I remember he came over and asked me about her because, you know, rats in the press hang out together. So, he comes over and asks me a little bit about her and I told him a little bit and he goes over and sits down with Evelyn at a picnic table. They must have talked for 90 minutes, maybe 2 hours, a lively conversation. I wasn't there but I watched a little bit. The next day's Post came out and there is a picture of Evelyn almost life-sized picture of Evelyn with this feature story about her. It was a huge profile of this icon from Iowa who was somewhat of an expert in the Mid-western lifestyle and regional food and had this media experience as a radio homemaker. It was just a wonderful story to cement her appeal, you know, on the national scene.

Debra Herbold: How do you think Evelyn Birkby inspires Iowans?

Chuck Offenburger: Well, it's probably changed a little bit through the decades that she'd been involved. In the early years, in the 50s and into the 60s, she was connecting people who had no connection. I mean she was helping ease that loneliness factor on the farm. She was bringing some cultural programming and some cultural insights to homemakers on the farm. She talked about, you know, the things that are going on that they might not have access to, like new kinds of cooking styles and all of that and things she'd learn at the state fair. So, it was an informational thing for her that was also so personal. Remember Willard Archie had told her to write friendly, so it was like having a chat with a neighbor - both in the newspaper and on the air.

Then in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, it starts changing a little bit because the media connection makes town life/country life blend a little bit here. You had much of the same access if you lived on a farm to news and weather and trends that you did is if you lived in a town. In that era Evelyn also did a lot of things. She would travel other places and write about them, and it was kind of like a travel log somewhat, about the places she would go. She would interpret our own life around us, maybe even ways we hadn't thought of, as readers and listeners here. She could pick out someone who could make a really good bun. And you know while I might sit down at dinner and eat that bun and think god that's a good bun, Evelyn could write 18 inches about it and she'd have thousands of people wanting to make that bun.

And so she could pick out those unique little aspects of our lives that really are rich parts of our culture that they're so close to us we can't even recognize and she'd write about them and you know of course it's great to have that now. It's kind of like cultural history of our area and then in the 90s and on into the new century. You know she's done more books and she has traveled a great deal for a person her age and it's keeping her really sharp. I mean it's kept her on top of changes in lifestyle and ways of thinking. It's kept her young and of course her family has always been a huge part of her broadcasting and her column writing and so you know she has introduced the boys as little kids and went through 4-H and Scouting with them. Then as they've grown up and they've all become successful she still has brought their stories alive in her column and on the air. So, there's been that very personal connection too.

One thing that happened before I was paying attention very early in her column writing years and broadcasting years was she lost her daughter. Her daughter I think was about 5 years old when she had a strange heart ailment, kind of a fever, her daughter Dulcie, and she passed away. It was her first child and you can imagine what a crushing blow that had to be to Evelyn and her husband Robert, but they somehow got through it and I've always thought as I've back on her life that having that column and having that broadcast was probably a lifeline for Evelyn right at that point, and when her listeners and her readers went through that with her it created a bond that is strong beyond most what journalists can every achieve.

So, people especially in the area of Southwest Iowa but beyond have lived a lot of life with Evelyn Birkby in her columns and on her shows and that's part of the big connection.

Debra Herbold: As a famous Iowa writer yourself, is it common to share your personal life?

Chuck Offenburger: Well, if you're going to be a columnist or a commentator on radio or television who's going to be on regularly and try to become part of your audiences life you better be willing to share about yourself personally because people are curious. I mean they want to know and it's part of being honest with your audience too about, you know, what these are things that shape me and you ought to know that when you're reading my stuff because it helps what frames, you know, what stories I'm going to tell you and how I'm going to tell them. People were pretty accepting of that. In fact, they appreciate all different kinds of views they just want to know who's telling it to them, you know?

Debra Herbold: What qualities make up a good radio homemaker?

Chuck Offenburger: Well, you would have to have some authority and if you're going to talk about homemaking you better know a little bit about cooking. I don't know the truth about Evelyn, I'm not sure she's a great cook, but she knows great cooks who have great recipes and Evelyn has been able to use those recipes. I mean, she can make you up a fine lunch or dessert and if you don't believe me ask Robert Birkby. But you know -- so you've got to know what you're talk-- your subject matter at least a little bit or know people who do know it and that's a key.

And then -- but far more important than that is being engaging personally and be decent story tellers so that you can capture people's attention and, you know, lay out the story there in an appealing way, anticipate their questions, and answer them, and then also be able to laugh at yourself. You know we all have things in our personal lives and professional lives and when stuff happens tell the audience about it and laugh about it, and she's done all of that very, very well. But the one thing about Evelyn that should never be forgotten and I remember her most recent book was about chasing down her, I can't remember the relationship, relative in her family who came from Scotland. So, these are deep roots in her family, the Corrie family, which is her maiden name and she went over to Great Britain and went to Scotland and did lots and lots of research and interviewing on that and when I read that book and, it seems I may have written a cover blurb on it, it is so well reported. Evelyn even in her 80s is one sharp cookie as a reporter, and it's essential. You know you've got to have the facts and so she knew how to dig them up.

Debra Herbold: How do you think radio homemakers influenced rural culture in Iowa?

Chuck Offenburger: Well, the radio homemakers were -- they found a way in the media to connect with lots and lots of people. Everybody had radio in the early 50s and mid 50s. There wasn't much television around then. They could do a couple of things. They could connect the audience. They could make it seem like an on-air community so that you were part of something, and it was one of the homemakers, I can't even remember which one it was, used the term neighboring on the air, you know, and that was really the case. It was like you would conduct this friendly chat like someone dropped into your kitchen for coffee and you'd sit there and tell these stories and so that was one role they filled, a very social role even though it was over the air waves, and eventually on television broadcasts. They sort of went into that same era, went into that same style of show on television for a time too, but then the other role they would do is they would take, I mean, it was an informational role. It was bringing people information about new resources that were available to help your lifestyle whether it was something to do with cooking or spices or, you know, clothes making -- places to find more information. I mean, that's what they kind of presented and so it was a real service to the listeners.

Tags: history interviews Iowa radio rural