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Food Editor Seeks Perfect Recipe for Readers

When Jeanne McManus cooks, she tries to please 800,000 people.

The food editor of the Washington Post, McManus, her staff and a bevy of volunteers try out each recipe the paper prints.

"I'm amazed at the number of people who don't realize that we test each and every recipe we print."

The "test kitchen" McManus says, is "in my house, and in the houses of all of the members of the staff and other volunteers at the newspaper. In the office all we have is a 15 year old microwave and a toaster oven."

Working with an assistant editor and a copy/layout editor, art director and four reporters, McManus faces the challenge of producing interesting stories that have a "certain rhythm" to address the seasons and holidays of the year, yet still presenting diverse trends and ideas.

THE HARDEST PART, McManus said, is not becoming enslaved to those traditions and rhythms, to reflect them without becoming dull or repetitive. While recognizing a holiday, no story is done out of a sense of duty. Every week her criteria is to present a variety of recipes, and part of her job is judging how many readers will be tempted and challenged by the recipes selected.

"We like to emphasize that we're journalists first, cooks second. No recipe goes into the paper that hasn't been altered however minutely in some way."

Born and raised in the Washington, D.C. Jeanne graduated from Trinity College (Washington, D.C.) with a major in English, the cornerstone of her career.  Immediately after college she began her editing career as a technical editor for the American Psychological Association. Feeling the need for a change and adventure, she took two years off to become a ski bum, bartender, and waitress, she said. She then dug in and began her career as a freelance writer and editor.

As the third child in a family of four, she learned to love good food and cooking from her mother, who is a great cook and who prepared a delicious and fresh meal every night, served promptly at 6 p.m.

But food was far from her first stop in journalism.

Joining the Washington Post in l979, McManus's first assignment was makeup editor for the news desk, then assistant editor for editorial pages, senior editor of the magazine, then the Style section. She became deputy sports editor, and for the past three years, food editor.

BUT THE JUMP FROM SPORTS to food isn't as difficult as it might sound, McManus said, because in both cases, the focus is on the reader.

"An editor's job is, first and foremost to be a reader, to make stories interesting and accessible to the majority of the readers, regardless of your background or your own special interests," McManus said. "You start with the first sentence, making sure you understand everything; then you go from there, always making sure you think about stories or angles of stories that have not been thought about before.  You have to know your field and be an expert, all the while keeping one leg outside [the field] to include and draw in new people."

SOME PEOPLE ARE COOKING LESS because they are busy, not because they don't want to cook, McManus said. Many readers did not have a "cooking parent" and learning to cook was not part of their lives.  The pace of life prevents them from cooking. Many do what they have to do to put food on the table.