Obituary: Marilyn McDevitt Rubin / Former PG food journalist poured heart into writing

March 3, 1928 - July 6, 2014



Marilyn McDevitt Rubin will be remembered for her lifelong celebration of food and all the joys that surround it.

A food editor with as much flair for adventure as she had for turning a phrase in print, Ms. McDevitt Rubin's columns in The Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covering a span of 26 years combined travel writing, candid meditations on relationships and family, and recipes for everything from plum torte to venison tenderloin. She was named food editor at The Press in 1979.

"There was this relationship with her readers that was so intense, it was wonderful," said Nancy Hanst, a retired freelance writer who worked with her at the Press. "Everybody who read that column thought that they knew Marilyn intimately -- and they did."

A resident of Point Breeze, Miss. McDevitt Rubin died Sunday morning of complications from Alzheimer's disease. She was 86.

"She poured her heart into her column," said Jim Heinrich, a Post-Gazette copy editor who had worked with Ms. McDevitt Rubin for years. "Readers never knew what to expect. Her columns were sometimes wild, even as they were full of heart and humor."

One column described how it felt to be cornered by her ex-husband and his new wife at a wedding, where she quipped that she was forced to listen "to what they wanted to believe about themselves."

Many of her columns sang the praises of the Strip District, where she shopped and dined regularly, and where Mr. Heinrich said she was often greeted with hugs and handshakes from vendors and other shoppers.

She became the talk of the town after writing a scathing Father's Day reflection about her own father, who abandoned her family when she was a child. The column ended by calling for a good, stiff drink -- and providing the recipe.

Especially during her time at the Post-Gazette, Ms. McDevitt Rubin wrote openly about her difficult childhood in Chicago.

Instead of alienating readers, her honesty, combined with her knowledge of food, made her a celebrity within some circles. She was invited to dine privately with many of France's best chefs, and she traveled as far as China to explore local cuisines.

For her readers, Ms. McDevitt Rubin's sensibility for the finer things was only more poignant set against the privations of her early life.

"My father worked as a journalist, and he is certainly the reason why I'm one," Ms. McDevitt Rubin wrote in her 2006 farewell column.

"My mother, my sister and I were the family he left behind to chase a skirt to California. My mother went to work nights in a department store commissary; my sister and I went to an orphanage. That we were all so miserable for so long, earned us the attention of the Fates, and that put a different spin on our lives. It landed us in good times."

Ms. McDevitt Rubin's daughter, Ani Rubin, said it was during the decade she spent in the orphanage -- from age 6 to 16 -- that she developed a love for literature, first as an escape from her own life.

"In losing herself in books, a passion was created for writing," said Ms. Rubin, who added that it was no accident her mother's favorite author was Jane Austen, a novelist who dealt both in the struggles of poor, sometimes orphaned characters, and in "the good life."

Sylvia Sachs, a retired Press book editor, said for Ms. McDevitt Rubin "the good life" was synonymous with good food, fine wine and good company, and that she was also a fan of movies and theater and a rapacious reader.

"She had very exalted tastes, and I mean this the nice way," Ms. Sachs said. "When you had a meal with her, whatever she made was delicate and fine and she appreciated that."

In addition to having graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor of arts in English literature and home economics, Ms. McDevitt Rubin got a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, where she was named the school's outstanding student and went on to a cooking externship at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Her son, Nick Rubinfier, said his mother's love of food made for amazing meals and memorable dinner parties throughout his childhood. But she wasn't one to guilt her children into finishing dinner with the old, "there are starving kids in [insert country]" cliche.

"She would say, 'You eat what you want,' " Mr. Rubinfier said. "The starving people -- it doesn't come from whether you eat that or not. We have enough food to feed the world four times over. It's politics, not your plate."

Mr. Rubinfier said his mother was an intellectual whose activism extended beyond the dinner table. She took him and his sister to Vietnam War protests and took time off from her first food editor job at the Chicago Sun-Times to travel to Mississippi as a volunteer after three civil rights workers -- James Earl Chaney, Michael Goodman and Andrew Shwerner -- were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. (Their story was dramatized in the movie "Mississippi Burning.")

"She was very much against war and fighting," Ms. Rubin said. "She wanted equality for everyone."

In addition to her son and daughter, Ms. McDevitt Rubin is survived by her sister, Joy McDevitt of Chicago.

The family is holding a private memorial gathering. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to charities that support Alzheimer's research and care.

 

RELATED MEDIA: Marilyn McDevitt Rubin's final column, her favorite cookie recipe


Brett Sholtis: bsholtis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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