Caroline and Ken Bates reminisce about their experiences with Gourmet magazine spanning more than 30 years.

Julia Child cooked for her. So did many of the West's outstanding chefs.

For more than 30 years, Caroline Bates, armed with an unerring palate and a way with words, wrote food reviews for the late, lamented Gourmet magazine.

"I felt total amazement that I was able to do this," says Bates, 78, whose last piece for Gourmet ran in February. The magazine's November issue was its last.

"I had two articles done for December and one for January," says Bates, who moved to Tucson three years ago with her husband, Ken, 85.

Petite and unpretentious, she shatters the stereotype of the snooty restaurant critic.

"When I started going to fancy restaurants, my editor knew I was not a fashion plate. She decided I needed a budget for clothes. I even got my hair done."

Then again, that's just what you might expect from a woman who for decades also roamed the back roads of the world, writing travel pieces while her husband did the photography.

Married in 1954, both she and Ken were working as editors in New York City, she with Family Circle, he with American Builder, when they quit their jobs in 1957 to write an article for Redbook magazine on the country's beaches.

"We had two tents that we joined together, and that's where we set up our typewriters," says Caroline.

On their way back East, they stopped at the Grand Canyon and sent in some copy to Woman's Day magazine.

"The magazine said they'd like to publish it, but did we have any photos? We were writers, not photographers," says Ken. "That told us we needed one writer, one photographer."

Both returned to jobs in New York City, he back to American Builder and she soon to Gourmet.

"I had gone to an employment agency, and the woman there told me I had to wear a hat," says Caroline. "I had never worn a hat. I borrowed a suit and went to the interview, without the hat."

She got the job. Started in 1941, the magazine was by the mid-1940s located in the penthouse of New York's Plaza Hotel. It also was the home of founder and Publisher Earle MacAusland - and his poodles and terriers.

Two other editors shared the office with Caroline, who was soon turning out articles on the history of food. "I even did one on the history of ice. Do you know they cut ice and sent it to India in the holds of ships, covered with burlap and straw?"

Although there was a kitchen on the premises, all three editors tried out recipes at home. "We had a French chef in the kitchen for Mr. MacAusland, but we were warned not to go in there. A year or two before I got there, he had thrown a knife at someone."

Not all the recipes were winners. "I once had to test out 12 herring recipes," says Caroline. "The house was reeking."

Her own cooking skills, she says, came in her mother's kitchen. "She taught me to cook. I had no formal training."

In 1967, both she and Ken left New York City again, this time for Santa Barbara, Calif., where for two years Ken studied photography at the Brooks Institute. Meanwhile, Caroline continued writing for Gourmet.

In 1970, Ken talked Sunset magazine into doing a book on Mexico's Baja California, with Ken taking the photos and both he and Caroline supplying the text.

She also wrote an article on Baja for Gourmet. "They thought Baja was part of California, so they said OK," she says.

For five months, they roamed the still-primitive peninsula in a Jeep with a camper shell that held Ken's photo lab.

That trip would be the springboard to 30 years of travel the couple would undertake while churning out various magazine spreads, mainly for Gourmet.

In 1971, they roamed through Tanzania and Kenya, taking notes and shooting pictures. "I was pregnant," says Caroline. A son, Eliot, was born in 1972.

In 1974, Gourmet asked her to start a monthly review of West Coast restaurants - a gig that would last more than 30 years.

She made reservations under an assumed name, used cash to pay for meals and took notes in the bathroom.

"When I started that column, everything was heavily French. It was not a lot of fun to eat in those restaurants. They were very snobbish."

Later on, both the restaurants and their menus seemed to lighten up. "California definitely led the way in lighter, local fare."

She also discovered ethnic marvels. "I did the first Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco in the 1970s. It was just incredible."

While living in Santa Barbara, the couple were invited to a dinner cooked by celebrity chef Julia Child, who had a home there. "There were six of us, and she did everything," says Ken. "She would come out of the kitchen with this big tray with all the dishes on it."

He also recalls how Child sat under the umbrellas at Costco in Santa Barbara, devouring the discount store's hot dogs. "She was so very unphony," says Caroline. "So many in the food world are phony."

In 2007, her restaurant reviews for Gourmet ended, although she kept writing for the magazine right up to its demise.

"It was really an unconscionable act," says Caroline. "There was no sense of history of this magazine."

That could change, as she toys with the idea of writing a history of Gourmet. "I'm the only one that goes back that far," she says.

And what a tasty dish that should be.

Bonnie Henry's column appears Sundays and Mondays. Reach her at 573-4179 or at bhenry@azstarnet.com or write to P.O Box 26807, Tucson, AZ 85741.

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