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StarTribune Columnist Kim Ode Looks Back on Career

Once Kim Ode is fully retired, learning how to paint with watercolors is one of the many projects she has on the docket. But in viewing this original watercolor she has already painted, her skill in writing obviously extends to the other arts as well.

Most people in Minnesota know Kim Ode as the features columnist at the StarTribune. I, however, have been fortunate to know her as a baker and a friend. Many times over the years when I’ve had trouble working on a recipe at the bakery, she would be the first person I called.

Recently she alerted me that her career in journalism was winding down and I thought it was only appropriate that loyal fans get a final glance at the woman who has helped us all become better informed.

1. When did you start at the Strib?

My first day was August 5, 1985 (8/5/85). Make of that what you will. I was hired as a general assignment feature writer for the Variety section. Previous to that, I'd been camping for three months. Previous to that, I'd worked at the Times-Union newspaper in Rochester, New York. My first job was at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where I grew up.

Kim Ode can do it all, including taking a really good selfie in the Star Tribune newsroom.

2.  How long did it take you develop your style?

In some ways, it's always been there. I had the great fortune to early on have a three times a week column at the Argus, traveling around and writing about what we called "ordinary people." The column format gave me more freedom than a straight news format, so I could start writing with more voice than I might have otherwise. Having said that, I think that my style has kept changing, and even in the last two years has taken what (in the fairly stodgy newspaper world) might be called more risks, cracking more jokes in some stories, or writing with less emotional detachment in others. 

3. Did you write a particular story that seemed to launch your career?

Well, my very first journalistic story was for a college publication, writing about the water treatment plant in Sioux Falls. But I made it sing. Honestly, that experience is what made me decide to pursue journalism. I loved the challenge of being able to make a story out of anything. That sounds rather self-absorbed, and I was. It was all about what I could accomplish. Thankfully, I soon learned that I was merely a vehicle for people's stories. But I owed it to them to be the best vehicle I could be.

4.  Were you ever intimidated or star struck by any of the people you interviewed?

Oh yes. When I interviewed Gloria Steinem at her NYC townhouse a few years ago, I had to sit in Central Park for half an hour beforehand, just to slow down my breath. You get one chance, you know, and don’t want to screw it up. I feel intimidated when talking with people who are really accomplishing something of lasting value, changing-the-world stuff, that's often unsung. They're not doing it for publicity, but it's my job to let others know and you want to do it right. You can feel small pretty fast. Oddly enough—and this was a long time ago—I got to interview Marcel Marceau, the famous mime, on the phone. It was so momentous to hear his voice. I was in awe.

5. When did you start writing for the Taste section in addition to your features?

Taste editor Lee Svitak Dean and I got the idea for Baking Central in 2009. The idea was to address what’s been called "the lost generation" of bakers who, because of a changing culture, never really got to be at someone's elbow to learn the basics. The first Baking Central was published in February 2010 and featured cream puffs. Since then, I’ve delved into classics such as sponge cake and baking powder biscuits, but also explored the cronut (croissant-doughnut pastry) phenomenon and mastered arlettes (more commonly known as “elephant ears”) from the Great British Baking Show. I never thought I’d tackle strudel, but I did—and in doing so, reminded myself of my own advice to others: Baking is just a series of steps.

6. Who was your best interview, ever?

Klecko. I'm only half-joking. For "Baking with the St. Paul Bread Club: Recipes, Tips and Stories," you told me about how your famous brick sourdough starter came about, and how you got the name Klecko, all with such honesty, that it was a joy to listen. Jim Brandenburg, the famed National Geographic photographer from Luverne, Minnesota, similarly responded with such soul-baring honesty that it was a privilege to listen.

But truly, my most memorable interview was years ago with a man who grew gladiolas near St. Charles, Minnesota. Carl Fischer was a master hybridizer, but also the most compelling spiritual presence I've encountered. I honestly felt that I was within his aura. I can recall that interview to this day.

7. Is there somebody or something you wanted to feature, but never did?

Hmm, not really. What has amazed me over the years is how rarely you get turned down when you seek an interview. Bob Dylan notwithstanding. Couldn't crack that wall.

8.  Legend has it that you built an impressive oven, tell us about that?

I was thumbing through the catalog of the North House Folk School in Grand Marais when I saw a listing for "How to Build a Wood-Fired Brick Oven." It was as if I'd been punched in the sternum. It was a time when I was looking to do something tangible, physical and all by myself—so unlike working for a newspaper. I crack wise about it being a mid-life crisis, but it kinda was. So I took the class, spent another three months assembling materials and my nerve, then built it in my backyard. It's still a source of joy, and gluten.

9.  What is your favorite bread to bake?

Sourdough. I always make about two dozen loaves when I bake, then give a lot of it away.

10. How will you spend your retirement?

I don’t have a specific plan—which in itself may be a plan. My gardens need tending. My husband and I love to sail on Lake Superior. I'm striving to learn watercolor painting. I want to teach more baking classes. Mostly, I want to not sit down as much. We'll see what happens. 

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