Sitting in a Prairie-style chair at the kitchen table of his Bolton Hill row home, Rob Kasper reminisces about the round, claw-foot table of his childhood. “Some of the strongest memories I have are of sitting at that kitchen table,” says Kasper, who wrote for The Baltimore Sun for 34 years. “I have the strong belief that the kitchen table is the center of life from which all good ideas come—from the theory of light, to who is going to win the pennant, to how to make a good gravy.” Indeed, the kitchen table might also explain why a boy from the small town of St. Joseph, MO, would pursue the field of journalism.
For Kasper, that lesson was learned over his mother’s simple meals of home-cooked spaghetti and meatballs and weekly Friday-night family fish dinners. (“The exotic dish was halibut,” he says, laughing.) “When the din had lessened and the kids had been fed, my parents would talk about what was in the newspaper,” recalls Kasper, who is one of four boys. “They loved the letters to the editor, and they would laugh and talk about that. I think that what happened at the kitchen table is probably, in part, what pushed me into journalism. Two of my favorite writers, Russell Baker and Garrison Keillor, started at the kitchen table.”
And while his future as a writer was formed during those table-sitting sessions in Missouri, it was in Chicago (while earning his master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism) that Kasper became a foodie. “Chicago is a great eating town,” he says. “My wife, Judy, and I tried Mexican food and real Italian food—not the sea of red stuff—and I had a great curiosity about food.”
Kasper wrote his first food-related piece about the search for the perfect pastrami sandwich—found at Attman’s, he reported—in 1980 for The Sun. A year later, when he proposed writing a food column, “not necessarily from the perspective of someone standing over a stove but someone who enjoys food and finding it,” the top brass was skeptical. “They said no one would read it unless they cook,” he recalls with a smile. “So I said, ‘Let me write it, in addition to everything else.’”
And though he laughs about the occasional editorial mishaps that still “haunt” him (a headline he did not write about crab soup ran incorrectly as crap soup in the Sunday editions), Kasper found his voice writing about food. By the time he threw in the kitchen towel on the column in 2010, his “The Happy Eater” column had garnered two National Headliner Awards and multiple coveted nods from the National Association of Food Journalists for being among the best in American and Canadian newspapers. “It’s good for the ego,” he says, “and it made the editors feel smart because it was their idea.”
These days, Kasper can be found fussing over his heirloom tomatoes in season, grilling pizza or brisket on his Weber grill, and attending book signings around town for his latest venture, Baltimore Beer: A Satisfying History of Charm City Brewing, a book sparked by a story he wrote on the end of National Premium (the behemoth of beer brewing once based in Baltimore) in 1996 for The Sun. “It was the end of this once-regal beer that was regarded as one of the finest beers in America,” explains Kasper, who helped to found Baltimore Beer Week, a multi-day promotion featuring several days of brew-centric events at local establishments. “I started digging through clips and calling people to try to put together the history of brewing in Baltimore, and I realized there was not really one well-written definitive book. I decided I wanted to write one.” (After leaving The Sun, he finally found time to finish the book last year.)
As for eating, Kasper has taken matters into his own hands, as well. After years of writing about other people’s preparations, the avid cook is happiest behind his own hot stove. “I like eating at home,” he says. “The ingredients are good, and I know the cook.”
One recipe he prepares is a hearty dish for beer and bratwurst, inspired by a fact he learned while researching his book. “What I really was surprised at was the depth of the ‘Germanness’ of Baltimore,” says Kasper. “Brats and beer seem to me to capture the historic flavor of the German-based foundation of the city’s now-thriving brewing scene, or, in short, brats and beer, very old and new Baltimore.”