Laurin Stamm retires as Post food editor|’She always made it interesting’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Laurin Stamm built a career as a food writer by following an editor’s order decades ago: The paper needs a food column. Write it.

The one assignment led to half a century of recipes — and so much more.

“Charlie Faulk made me do it,” recalled Stamm, referring to the longtime Vicksburg Evening Post managing editor and executive editor who worked with Stamm for many years. “I told him, ‘I don’t do food!’ But he said we needed it.”

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Stamm retires from the newspaper this month after nearly 60 years on staff, the majority as food writer and editor.

Her weekly columns — “Food for Thought,” officially named in the early 1960s; “From the Kitchen of the Cypress House,” which ran from December 1977 through 2000; and the more recent Wednesday food sections — have been a favorite over the years with the Post’s readers, said publisher Louis P. “Pat” Cashman III.

“You could put our food section up against those of much larger papers,” Cashman said, announcing Stamm’s retirement at a Dec. 15 company gathering. “Laurin’s column has been one of the most popular features all-around.”

One strength has been its ties to the life of the community. Stamm has showcased local cooks in their own kitchens as well as church events, religious observances, school fund-raisers and other local activities, with food the common thread. “She always made it interesting,” Cashman said.

As word of her retirement has leaked, Stamm, 76, has received calls from dismayed readers saying, “You just can’t go.” But even though she “never, ever thought of quitting” during her many years at the Post, she agrees the time has now come to start slowing down.

“She’s been a loyal and dedicated worker,” Cashman said. “She made sure (her column) was out every week, and never took time off without making sure it was taken care of. Her attitude was always that the food section is important and it will be done.”

Stamm said she once told her husband that if she died on a Monday, he couldn’t hold the funeral until Wednesday because she had to come in Tuesday and get the food section out.

Born Sidney McLaurin Fields in 1933, she graduated at the top of her class from Carr Central High School in 1951. She’d been a cheerleader, member of the girls’ basketball team, tennis player and swimmer, teaching Red Cross swimming lessons from the age of 15.

“I’ve always been that way, always busy,” she said. “That’s my way — when I do things I like to do them right.”

She was also on the staff of “The Tattler,” Carr Central’s student newspaper, and its editor her senior year. The paper was printed at the Evening Post’s Crawford Street office, where she caught the attention of Faulk and Cashman’s grandfather, then-publisher Louis Cashman Sr.

After high school, Faulk brought her on staff as a summer intern. She wrote obituaries and other general copy, and returned each summer as she went through college, attending Mississippi State College for Women (now Mississippi State University for Women) for a time before graduating from the University of Mississippi with a degree in English and signing on fulltime at the Post.

Along with vivid memories of the old Post building — wooden steps so worn they were like stepping into a hole, she said, and old Underwood typewriters with the metal rings around each key — she also recalls some early assignments.

Once she was sent to cover a murder trial, where former Judge Robert B. Anderson, concerned about her innocence, would not allow her in the courtroom. Sheriff Owen Ring, always looking out for her, rigged a method for Stamm to hide in a ventilation duct overlooking the courtroom so she could get the story.

In November 1955, Louis Cashman Sr. sent her to Memphis to spend three days with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

“He was a circus buff and would liked to have gone himself,” Stamm said. Her job was not simply interviewing, but actually helping behind the scenes and traveling with the performers as they rode the train to Vicksburg via Greenville. Stamm spent one night in a sleeping car shared with the women trapeze artists.

Photographs of Stamm taken with famed “Weary Willie” sad clown Emmett Kelly as well as other circus acts appeared in the Nov. 4 newspaper, including a front-page, top-of-the-fold photo of the young reporter sitting on the trunk of an elephant.

Two attempts were needed to get the shot, she said. During the first, as the elephant lifted her in its trunk she failed to hold on and fell over backward, hanging by her knees. Her circus guide, a man named Ted Sato, told her it was the first time he’d seen an elephant’s trunk used as a trapeze.

“In my entire career that was probably the most exciting time I ever had,” Stamm said. “It was such a thrill to travel with them and be a part of what went on under the big top.”

In 1957, she moved to Virginia with good friend Sally Wailes, and worked on the staff of the Roanoke World News.

“The city editor there was fierce, but I did a big assignment for him and he ended up praising me for it,” she said.

After eight months there, the women were ready to come home, and within about three weeks of her return, Jack Stamm, Laurin’s high school sweetheart, had convinced her to marry him. Their first child, Carter, was born the following year, closely followed by daughters Story, in 1959, and Lauri, in 1961.

Faulk’s pivotal assignment came during these years.

Stamm’s early “Food for Thought” columns centered on the cooking and recipes of average Vicksburg-area residents, reflecting the personality not just of the cooks but Stamm’s as well. In one, for example, Stamm followed up on a previous column about a local couple’s Chinese food cooking with one providing their hot mustard recipe. Readers had asked about it and she took the time to authenticate it, finding another young cooking couple in the bargain.

Sometimes after hearing from readers, she’d include a “P.S.” at the end of a subsequent column to answer a question, clarify a recipe or just add some humor. “I used to have so much fun doing those things,” Stamm said. “I got to where I liked to write those P.S.’s.”

Son Craig was born in 1965 and the baby, Maggie, in 1969. With five growing and busy kids in the house, Stamm had a captive crew for testing recipes as well as a ready supply of column ideas.

“She featured every group I was in, growing up,” said Stamm’s daughter, Lauri Collins, now a Jackson resident. “My favorite story was the one she did when I was a member of a play group.” Collins, about 3 at the time, is shown in the photo with other little girls around a laminate-top kitchen table making sugar cookies.

Older daughter Story Ebersole, owner of Vicksburg’s Storycook Favorities catering, said her mother’s career definitely influenced her own. “I always loved to cook, so Mama just let me. I cooked from an early age, and she was there to teach me and give me recipes.”

Stamm once ran a column proving that teenage boys could be taught to cook, and in addition to Chinese, tried Italian, Jewish, Lebanese and even wild game, once publishing recipes for armadillo and baked doves.

“We were introduced to food from every kind of ethnic group,” Collins said. “I loved that about her column.”

Even for the family’s many weekend trips to swim meets as the children grew, Stamm prepared all the food ahead of time, took it with them and heated it up in motel rooms on a rice-cooker like appliance. “I never ate out until I was 18 years old,” Collins said.

And the kids were required to at least try the foods that Stamm was testing, no arguments allowed. How did she do it? “She’s bossy,” Peggy Van Cleve, Stamm’s college roommate and one of her oldest friends, said affectionately. Van Cleve and Stamm have remained friends, often traveling together with their husbands. “We’ve always gotten along well because she tells me what to do and I do it,” Van Cleve laughed.

Later columns have featured everything from brewing beer to tailgate grilling at the Mississippi State “Left Field Lounge.” The first column of the millenium — laid out before anyone knew if 1999 would successfully turn over to 2000 — featured comfort foods. Trips to other cities, such as Philadelphia, have also been used to feature local foods and customs.

While Vicksburg’s newspaper has passed through three generations of publishers, a front-page focus shifting from mostly world and national news with a few black-and-white photographs to the Internet age with mostly local news and color, digital photos, Stamm’s contribution has been a constant.

“The paper has held an important place in her heart as well,” Pat Cashman said. “It will probably be hard for her to walk away and she’ll probably feel like there is something missing for a while. It’ll be a transition for both of us.”

Stamm expects, however, not to change, but to stay busy and do things right.

“I still have a lot to do,” Stamm said. “I may write a cookbook with Story. She does so many things different than I do and I think it would be fun.”


Contact Pamela Hitchins at