Twenty-five years of food and other important things

Don was fond of saying his “big mouth” often had gotten him into trouble. (Meaning strong, critical opinions expressed without reservation.) As his wife, I could hardly disagree, although the examples provided were different than mine. He would mention how he made a remark critical about the planning of a regional meeting for one of the organizations he was part of and ended up chairing the planning committee the next year. Or how his opening his first restaurant—the Kitchen Table, in 1977—came about because he mouthed off to his real estate partner about the quality of applicants to rent a space in the Third Street mall and was told, “Well, if you are so darn smart why don’t you do it yourself?” So he did. While I will leave my examples for another occasion (or not,) one time we both agree his mouth got him into a really delightful dilemma was when he told Mary Kinnunen, the founder of Marquette Monthly, that her first attempt at food criticism was lame at best.1410_food_chef_don_curto
The year was 1989, and Don was out of the restaurant business (we agreed for good, but that is another story.) and with his background in food and an even longer history in journalism, Mary cast down the gauntlet. In July, 1989 the first Food and Other Important Things column appeared—a favorable review of Attitudes, a gourmet food shop on North Third Street. The topic was mostly food, in one way or another, in those early years. Many were straight forward reviews of restaurants, markets or food products, although occasionally there were “best of” articles used first for fast food hamburgers (we found Beef-a-Roo, in those days, to be superior to all the big national chains), pasties (Lawry’s won in a blind taste test of judges recruited by Mary and Don) and pizza (again by a panel of judges) which voted Portside best, again over national chains.
Early on, Don added some travel pieces, with the first appearing in September of that year, chronicling an August trip we took around Lake Superior. Other pieces in those first years were on traveling to Washington, D.C., which had been Don’s home for some years (B.P. as he would say, meaning Before Pat), Seattle and the Northwest and Arizona. Many articles focused on places closer to home, such as Grand Marais and Sault Ste. Marie—both sides of the river—the Keweenaw, which always has been our second home, even before our move there just three years ago and probably my favorite “closer to home travel,” the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, which he wrote about several times.
Although there was an occasional recipe as part of early columns it was not actually until December 1990 when he devoted a whole article to Christmas dinner recipes and found people loved it. Of course, this was before the Internet made even opening a cookbook rather quaint, although even recently people commented they still liked a recipe now and again.
When a recipe column was in the planning, every recipe had to be tested several times to get the ingredients and procedures absolutely accurate. Don would say you had to know cooking—or baking, as the case may be—in order to really read a recipe, and he could pick out recipe flaws quickly. Before a recipe could appear in this column, it had to both “read” well and cook or bake well. This could mean doing the recipe several times, and since there always was a deadline to consider, would mean eating the same thing several days in a row. It was this that led me to contribute my first article to the column in September 1991, titled “Brioche Again?”, about the experience of being the chief taster for Don’s testing. As I remember, I got very little sympathy.1410_food_pat_and_don
From the beginning, Don enjoyed all aspects of the column—planning the topic, researching the material (especially if it meant eating out, traveling or testing recipes), and most of the time, even the actual writing. However, he loved even more hearing from readers, both by mail and in person. He was a communicator who liked writing, but really liked people reading his writing.
Although he would not start writing the more personal history pieces until the last ten years, people always felt they knew him, and he was often recognized wherever we were in the Upper Peninsula, and sometimes beyond. He was approachable. There was a connection between him and many readers, based on respect and—bear with me, I know it sounds corny—love. He was a critic for sure, but his criticism was never ill-spirited or intended to hurt. He hated snobbishness, whether in food or life, and never talked down to readers, preferring to engage them in his adventures whether culinary, travel or his past escapades.
Sophisticated, traveled, and educated—while he was all of these, he still was a Yooper. Actually, he hated the term, but since it is now officially in the dictionary I will use it, and if his English major sensibilities are offended, so be it.) Born in Calumet in 1923 and raised in Marquette through high school, he knew the Upper Peninsula’s people, history and mores, good, bad, beautiful and ugly.
He wrote much about the two biggest influences on his development of food taste—his Italian-American father from Calumet, Charlie Curto, and his French-Canadian grandmother, Ida Beaudette Tobin, from Champion. He wrote about how each considered food more than just nutrition but also art, and took care with whatever ingredients they had. Several times, he wrote about his father’s prize-winning tomatoes, writing in the July, 1996 piece, “We ate them whole, sun-warmed with a little salt, or cut thick, on top of a big slice of Bermuda onion on buttered fresh whole wheat bread from the Marquette Baking Company.” He described his grandmother, whom he called “Buddy,” who cooked in her Third Street kitchen in a man’s bowler hat, and who made the best roasted chicken by layering thick cut bacon over it—a custom he still followed when roasting a chicken in his last kitchen in our Calumet farmhouse (though he never wore the bowler hat.)

There also were columns that did not deal at all with food. Don always said he titled the column the way he did because he knew that, sooner or later, he would want to write about other things. One of those was the lack of liquid oxygen available in the Upper Peninsula, which he took on after it was recommended for him by a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic in 2000. When he found out it was not available here, he took this on as a cause, using his journalistic skills to research the topic and advocating in print for the medical system to do what was needed to make this a choice for U.P. residents. Don always had been proud of the health services in his hometown, and was pleased when this also meant this form of oxygen was available, and liked to believe he was part of this happening.
Of course, there was criticism of the critic. These mostly took the turn of respectful differences of opinion—even courteous debate at times. But there are those who feel any criticism is wrong, especially in a small town, and only reviews of laud should be allowed. Only once—and this was in the beginning years—did a restaurant owner behave badly, with several drunken and rather scary phone calls. And for every time when someone deemed Don too harsh, there would be another when he was chastised for being too lenient, letting an establishment or product off too easy. One reader was incensed when he gave the then new Red Lobster a welcoming review in 1993, seeming to believe that to praise a national chain was to diminish in some way the local establishments.
Don shrugged off most such reproach gracefully, except for a few unsigned rants over the years, which he thought the work of “cowards”—and to be a coward was a very high insult from him. A few times there were comments that someone wished Don would stick to food, as his progressive politics were not to everyone’s liking. He had a particularly impish grin he would use in dismissing those remarks.
All criticism of Marquette restaurants stopped after Don went back into the business himself in February 1994 with the opening of the New York Deli and Italian Place. He did not feel it fair to criticize, when his own business could be perceived as competition. Travel pieces continued, both to U.P. designations and beyond, especially once we started traveling to Italy in 1993, and there were more recipe columns, commentaries—sometimes on food and sometimes not—and personal history, again, sometimes focused on food, but not always.
His first Good News Award (annual awards presented by judicatory heads of the United Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Presbyterian Churches, which Don received seven times) was for a piece titled “My First President,” about his reaction when we visited the memorial for Franklin Roosevelt, who Don credited with saving America, in Washington. His last, awarded just a few weeks before he died, was for a whimsical piece that spun a story, partly true, partly imagined, about a picture he took of two alcoholics in Chicago when he himself was still new in recovery from alcoholism in 1983. Perhaps the column many will remember was in March of 2012, when he wrote about losing his first wife and four children in a house fire in Wilmington (Delaware) in 1966, in a piece called “When the Dream Becomes a Nightmare.”
Once Don started to write about his illness, he began to receive more notes and letters from people who felt close to him from his writing, and sent lovely messages of encouragement, thanking him for his writing and for being an important part of their lives for so long. These meant much to him, and to me, and—along with ongoing support from publisher Pat Ryan-O’Day—were a big part of why he kept writing through the three years of hospice care. The column always had been important to him, but in the last few years it became a critical part of his identity. While he always had many friends and we have a loving family, this column was his last connection to the bigger world. There were many times he would finish a piece and tell me it was his last. I always would shake my head and say, “No, Don, I think you still have something more to say—and besides, your readers would be so disappointed if they picked up the MM and your column was not there.” And to all of you for whom this was true, please know he loved you all. In the end that is the only important thing. Thank you.
— Pat Tikkanen
Author’s note: Don Curto, the founder and writer of this column for twenty-five years, died on June 21, 2014 at his home near Calumet, Michigan. On October 18 at 11:00 a.m. there will be a committal service for Don at Park Cemetery in Marquette, with Deacon Art Stancher officiating. Following, from noon to 2:00 p.m., there will be a soup and bread lunch at the Federated Women’s Clubhouse, on the corner of Ridge and Front streets, for an opportunity to visit with family and friends and share memories.
Following the lunch, there will be an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, the organization Don credited with saving his life for forty-one years.

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