Gerald area resident Barb Ostmann has eaten a 12-course meal in Canton, China — with all but the last dish featuring snake as an ingredient — a bamboo rat in China, fish eyeballs in Taiwan and kangaroo kabobs and mealy grubs in Australia.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch veteran has toured the world to experience and write about food, but she always returns to the rural Franklin County home she and her husband, Wil, own.
Ostmann grew up in Springdale, Ark., an area she now calls “Wal-Mart Central” due to the proximity of Wal-Mart Corporation headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.
She is a graduate of Springdale High School where she received a scholarship to Christian College (now Columbia College) in Columbia, Mo.
The first chartered women’s college in Missouri, Christian College was an all-girls school for the first two years Ostmann attended, but times were changing.
“That was the time period that nearly all girls schools were converted to coed,” she said.
Ostmann had her entire tuition paid at Christian College, and then was accepted into the “J-School,” the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism.
It was during those college years that Ostmann received a Rotary Fellowship and discovered a love for travel that would eventually lead to a career in recipe writing, sampling international cuisine, and writing and editing cookbooks.
“I went to Switzerland and it absolutely changed my life,” she said.
Ostmann had a one-year fellowship, but stayed in Switzerland for another 1 1/2 years.
“I grew up in a small town — we weren’t poor, but we certainly weren’t rich,” she reflected. “Our family vacation consisted of family reunions.
“I had never dreamed I would go overseas,” she added. “I figured this was my one and only trip to Europe.”
Ostmann traveled throughout Europe during her stay, became immersed in the culture and fluent in French.
“I was learning another language, literally to the point of dreaming in it,” she said. “It was a fantastic thing and it left me wanting more. I am so blessed that my job at the Post-Dispatch let me have more.”
Ostmann also speaks basic Spanish and “traveler” German and Italian.
After she returned home, as part of her graduate work she was given a different fellowship, this time to Taiwan.
And it was after returning home from Taiwan, that she graduated in December 1974 and began her career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in January 1975.
Ostmann said she had ambitions to write hard news stories during a time that the American culture was reshaping. She never expected to write about food.
“I was going to be a foreign correspondent,” she said. “It was the late ’60s and early ’70s — women were burning bras and recipes were not the thing.”
But the St. Louis Post-Dispatch job was too good to turn down and she eventually served as the food editor for the paper from 1975 to 1990.
“I was being paid to do things that other people paid to do,” she said. “It was an amazing opportunity and an incredible job.”
During her tenure at the newspaper, Ostmann published hundreds of recipes.
She noted that precision and accuracy are key to sharing, and especially publishing, a recipe.
“If you make a mistake in a recipe, it costs people money,” she said.
Ostmann’s job was more than writing recipes and tasting food. She would get phone calls and inquiries on a wide range of topics.
“There was a connection with readers,” she said. “They felt I was their personal party planner.”
As food editor at the Post-Dispatch, Ostmann was given several opportunities to see the world — a chance she thought she may never have again.
Some of her opportunities came by coincidence.
Ostmann often was confused with Eleanor Ostman, longtime food writer at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and vice versa. Each of the women would get phone calls and mail intended for the other.
The pair took advantage of the confusion and both took part in overseas trips, including a food study in China in 1974.
“It was so much money, but I decided to just go for it,” said Ostmann. “I never regretted it.”
The hotel where she stayed was an old Russian compound converted into a hotel. There were few cars but bicycles filled the streets, she recalled.
The only Western products were Coca-Cola and Kodak film.
“It was a great experience to see a country like that before it was westernized,” said Ostmann.
For that reason, she wants to visit Cuba.
She made a return trip to China in 1986 and more American corporations, including Holiday Inn and Kentucky Fried Chicken, had made their mark.
After the first China trip, Ostmann and Ostman began exploring more countries and their cuisines together.
“First it was one a year, and then two a year,” said Ostmann. “We just ate, cooked and drank our way through every country. Then we wrote about it and got some fantastic stories.
“Now it is called culinary travel,” she added, “but that is what we were always doing.”
Ostmann went to Australia, New Zealand, Bali and Peru. She traveled across Europe through Italy, Sicily, France, Switzerland and Iceland. There also were trips to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
“I earned every one of these pounds,” she jokes.
Ostmann experienced cuisine that some would faint at the sight of, including French-fried scorpions in China, horse kidneys in Italy and emu carpaccio in Australia. Often, she ate simply out of respect for those who served and cooked the meals.
“It would have been terrible to not eat them,” she said.
It was in Canton where she dined on several courses at a restaurant featuring a snake aquarium in the front window. Before the meal, diners saw their meals before they were cooked.
“A snake was slit from top to bottom, the heart was taken out and was still beating,” she said. “That’s what you call fresh dinner.”
Closer to home, Ostmann experienced traditional Acadia French cuisine in Old Mines, near Cadet, Mo.
She explained that the strong French heritage of the area was maintained through isolation. Ostmann experienced food cooked from recipes that had survived from Nova Scotia where the settlers had come from.
While traveling, Ostmann did more than experience local cuisine.
She hiked 100 miles through the Swiss Alps, strolled a segment of the Great Wall in China and rode a bike through the side streets of Beijing.
She has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, explored the souks (markets) of Morocco, hiked the Milford Track in New Zealand and rode the train from Perth to Sydney, Australia.
Ostmann has gone on photo safaris in national parks in South Africa and Kenya, climbed Ayers Rock, or Uluru, in central Australia and snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef. She has visited Macchu Picchu in Peru, witnessed a voodoo ceremony in Brazil, paddled a dugout canoe on the Amazon River in the jungles of Peru and participated in a cremation ceremony in Bali.
In Europe, Ostmann visited Christmas markets in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France and the Czech Republic.
She worked on veterinary service projects in the Dominican Republic with her husband, a former veterinarian.
Ostmann toured the Canadian Rockies by rail, sailed the Alaskan Inside Passage on a small ship, wandered the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, rode an elephant in Thailand and a camel in Kenya.
She also has hiked the canals in Madeira, barged the rivers in France, sampled port in Portugal, attended a bullfight in Spain and marveled at the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy. She has sea-kayaked in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, visited the former penal colonies in Tasmania and followed the path of St. Paul in the Mediterranean.
Ostmann has haggled in the bazaars of Istanbul, stepped amid steam vents on the lava crust below Mount Etna in Sicily, savored the street food in Singapore, joined a parade with the locals in the streets of Oaxaca, Mexico, and gotten sunburned in the Caribbean.
Following her career at the Post-Dispatch, Ostmann worked as a visiting professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
“I knew it was a fantastic job (at the Post-Dispatch) but after that long I was eager to do something else,” she said.
Still living in Franklin County, Ostmann rented an apartment where she stayed during the week and returned to home on weekends.
She had a few stints as a professor at the school, but also wrote some columns for the Post-Dispatch, and was a contributor to the paper’s Travel & Leisure section from 1998-2003.
She also is a longtime contributor to The Missourian, and a number of magazines and newspapers.
While Ostmann was on a trip to Australia she received a phone call from the New York Times asking her to be a syndicated food critic.
“The Times was good for me in that point of my life,” Ostmann said. “It gave me great flexibility.”
Ostmann was a food writer for the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group, which included 25 newspapers in 10 states, from 1993-2005.
Ostmann has written, edited and contributed to a variety of cookbooks beginning in 1979 up to today.
Many publications, including titles such as “Food Writers’ Favorites/Quick & Easy Recipes: Appetizers,” “Food Editors’ Favorite Desserts” and “Food Writers’ Favorites/Quick & Easy Recipes: Pasta & Noodles” that she co-edited with friend Jane Baker.
Of the books that Ostmann and Baker collaborated on, there have been more than 5 million sold.
Ostmann also was the recipe editor of “Breaking Bread With Father Dominic 2” by Father Dominic, of KETC-TV/PBS, in 2000.
In 1997, Ostmann co-authored the “The Recipe Writer’s Handbook” with Baker. The book was a finalist in the Best Food Book category of the 1999 World Food Media Awards.
She said that book probably was the most informational for readers because it helped to standardize recipes.
“When I started, there was nothing,” Ostmann said. “I would have given anything to have help with style.”
Today, Ostmann is working on a book called “Eating Your Way Across Missouri, 101 Must Places to Eat.”
“I love this state and enjoy writing about Missouri,” she said. “It is going to be fun writing this book.”
Ostmann also is an accomplished speaker and food judge. She has received numerous honors and is a member of many organizations.
“I have been amazingly lucky and fortunate,” she said. “I didn’t have a business plan — things just happened and those good things led to other things.”
Ostmann also gives back here, and abroad.
“I try to give back by doing lots of volunteer work for a variety of professional and philanthropic organizations,” she said. “Most of my volunteer work has been for national and international organizations, but locally I am involved in the Missouri Rhine Valley Association, trying to build a brand identity for this part of Missouri Wine Country.”
Ostmann also serves on the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, which is a governor-appointed, state Senate-confirmed position. She is active in the St. Louis Culinary Society and the St. Louis chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier.
After two partial knee replacements and a total hip replacement, Ostmann jokingly calls herself a “poster child for prostheses.”
“I am on the go all the time,” she said. “The key is to do the physical therapy faithfully after the surgery.”
She was ice fishing in Wisconsin just eight weeks post-op and riding horses just three months post-op.
The Ostmanns have lived in Franklin County since 1976 when they moved into their first apartment above Bobbi’s Tavern in Washington.
The couple met in Columbia while Wil was studying to be a veterinarian at the University of Missouri-Columbia. While in school, he worked in a Christian College dining room and met Barb at a mixer on a school tennis court.
Wil operated a vet clinic in Union for several years until he retired in 2001.
The couple also have lived south of Union and in the Jeffriesburg area.
Ostmann collects Nativities from around the world.
Most are handcrafted and made of simple materials, such as yarn, clay or wood, she said.
Ostmann said the items aren’t worth much, but they serve as a reminder at her rural Franklin County home of her unique travels and the various countries she has visited.