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GraceAnn Walden, the brassiest broad in food writing, is gone

GraceAnn Walden. photo: twitter

I found out that GraceAnn Walden had passed away in a text from my friend chef Ryan Scott. According to her obituary, GraceAnn died of a heart attack “due to multiple health issues” at her home in Vallejo on the evening of Friday, May 29. She was 70 years old. The food community was shocked by the news. I was truly saddened, but I can’t say I was surprised. Over several years working closely with GraceAnn at Northside San Francisco magazine, on our joint project The Yummy Letter, and during a 10-day trip together in New York City, I watched her life slowly spiral downward.

In 2009, GraceAnn took a bad fall. One morning, she called to ask if I could come over to help her take a shower; her arm was in a sling, and she feared falling again. It was difficult for GraceAnn to be vulnerable — her public persona was often tough, brassy, and abrasive — but that day I saw GraceAnn’s tender side, usually reserved only for close friends, her goddaughter, and her cherished animals (at the time, five birds, a three-legged stray tomcat, and her Chihuahua mix, Cosmo). While she was recovering, I visited often to take Cosmo for his walks around the mobile home park, and sometimes GraceAnn and I would cook dinner together or check out a new restaurant.

CREATOR OF INSIDE SCOOP

Her close relationships with the world’s greatest chefs were enduring and undeniable, forged throughout 14 years as the original scribe of the Inside Scoop column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Now in its 24th year, the Inside Scoop’s current steward, Paolo Lucchesi, wrote a tribute to GraceAnn crediting her with pioneering “the idea of writing about the restaurant scene, its news cycle and its gossipy underbelly on a regular basis, most notably penning the Inside Scoop column from its inception in 1991 until 2005.” What Lucchesi didn’t mention is that GraceAnn actually created Inside Scoop for another publication, an Emeryville-based magazine called BayFood, in the late 1980s. It became BayFood’s most popular column, and that’s when the Chronicle came calling.

RIFT WITH THE S.F. CHRONICLE

While Lucchesi sang GraceAnn’s praises after her tragic death, the Chronicle never gave her credit during or after her 14-year tenure at the newspaper. Though her public statement was that she retired of her own volition, GraceAnn told me the truth was quite different, but that she wasn’t able to speak publicly about it for legal reasons. The trouble, GraceAnn explained, started when she asked the Chronicle to make her an employee after “freelancing” for more than a decade. At that time, Inside Scoop was the most popular column in the food section and GraceAnn’s cachet on the restaurant scene equaled that of critic Michael Bauer (something Bauer wasn’t happy about). GraceAnn felt she should receive benefits and a pension, but the Chronicle refused to make her full-time staff, offering her part-time status instead. According to GraceAnn, the next two years were hellish, between feuding with Bauer (whom she nicknamed “Anton Ego” after the acerbic food critic in the 2007 Disney-Pixar film, Ratatouille) and seeking what she felt she deserved from the Chronicle: full-time status, benefits, and a pension.

GraceAnn turned to the union, eventually securing benefits and a small pension for retirement, but that retirement came earlier than expected when the Chronicle unceremoniously pushed her out the door in 2006 (during the holidays, no less). That same year, the Internet exploded with Inside Scoop wannabes, from blogs to e-letters to websites, prompting Bauer to opine in a post, “What’s up with all the gossip these days?” The Chronicle loves tooting its own horn, and being a good soldier, Bauer boasted, “When The Chronicle started the Inside Scoop column more than 15 years ago, there were few places to get information about new restaurants and chef changes.” Of course, there was no reference that GraceAnn actually came up with the column at BayFood, not only pioneering the genre but also later inspiring all those web wannabes. Bauer only referenced GraceAnn in one snarky sentence: “Just this week, GraceAnn Walden, who used to write the Inside Scoop for The Chronicle, has taken her act to the suburbs and is doing a Nibbles column for the Contra Costa Times.”

IMMENSELY PROUD WITH A SHORT FUSE

The closer we became, the more I realized how hurt GraceAnn still was by the Chronicle’s betrayal and continued lack of appreciation for her years of loyalty and groundbreaking work. Not that GraceAnn was a saint. Nobody could burn a bridge better, and her immense pride and short fuse often led to embarrassing squabbles with competitors, chefs, and fellow food writers. GraceAnn burned our bridge after I informed her that I could no longer do the Yummy Letter because, along with writing half of it, I was serving as venture capitalist and proofreader while also running Northside and the Marina Times. GraceAnn was furious, shutting down the Yummy Letter and shutting me out of her life. A few weeks later, she started her bi-monthly Yummy Report, but I don’t think it truly fulfilled her. In fact, I don’t believe GraceAnn ever really recovered from losing the Inside Scoop, a job she loved so much and sacrificed so much for — and the Chronicle food section, whether they admit it or not, has never been the same without the inimitable, irrepressible GraceAnn Walden.

GraceAnn leaves behind her beloved little dogs, Bruno Mars and Tinkerbell (adopted after Cosmo’s passing in 2014). They are currently awaiting new forever homes at the Marin Humane Society (marinhumanesociety.org, 415-883-4621).

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