“To me, life is a merry-go-round,” broadcaster Ruth Fremes wrote in the introduction to her 1978 book The Canadian Woman’s Almanac, “plenty of ups and downs but several chances to catch the brass ring. Sometimes I win, sometimes I have to be content with the consolation prize.”
Readers must have been surprised by that bit of wisdom coming from Ms. Fremes, who passed away in West Palm Beach, Fla., on March 2 after a brief illness. She was 84.
After all, when she wrote the book she was the popular host of a new national morning TV show, What’s Cooking. She and fellow broadcaster Jack McGaw had recently won an ACTRA Award for a special report on CTV’s news magazine Inquiry, about the overuse of pesticides in agriculture, a continuation of her work as a well-regarded consumer-affairs reporter for CBC Radio. Her earlier book, Nutriscore, about the poorly understood fundamentals of nutrition, which she had co-written with the biochemist Zak Sabry, was a bestseller in both Canada and the United States.
But those who read carefully might have recognized that the Almanac itself was a bit of a consolation prize, an attempt by Ms. Fremes – an ardent advocate of home cooking over commercially prepared foods – to turn life’s lemons into lemonade.
Filled with bracing financial, legal, medical and relationship advice for Canadian women finding their way amid the social upheaval of the late 1970s, it was a practical life manual built upon hard-won experience as Ms. Fremes blazed a path out of a crumbling marriage and toward fame, influence and a series of surprising reinventions.
“My mailbag shows me times are changing,” wrote Ms. Fremes, though she did not need letters to tell her about the state of the world.
Ruth Goldberg was born in Toronto on Jan 19, 1930, to Frank, a travelling salesman, and his wife Bessie. When she was 1½ years old, her three-year-old brother had a tricycle mishap that led to an infection; in the days before penicillin, the illness proved fatal. Navigating between her parents’ traditional expectations and her own aspirations, Ms. Fremes took a degree in home economics at the University of Toronto and married Alan Fremes, a local stockbroker. By the age of 22, she was a homemaker with twin girls, Susan and Marji.
But in 1961, the couple divorced and Ms. Fremes found work in advertising, helping to make recipe segments that aired on CFTO, the new flagship station of CTV. She was canny: “All they saw was her hands,” Dr. Sabry recalls. “So, before the show, she would put her arms up so the blood would flow out and her veins would not show.”
The experience led to a job with CBC Radio, where Ms. Fremes became a regular presence on the daily current affairs show Trans-Canada Matinee. “She was a natural, because she had an effervescent personality,” recalls Lynn MacIntosh, a producer there. “She also did her homework.”
In 1963, Ms. Fremes married Robert Shirriff, a Bay Street lawyer, and moved to Toronto’s tony Rosedale neighbourhood. They had two boys, Adam and Jason, but she kept working. On assignment for CBC, she interviewed Dr. Sabry, who was then leading a study in the nutritional health of Canadians. In 1973, the two formed a company, Nutritional Communications Systems, beginning a partnership dedicated to spreading the word about proper nutrition.
There was a subtle but insistent feminism to Ms. Fremes’s public persona. In a 1975 interview with The Globe, she declared that nutrition was not just a mother’s job: “Both husband and wife should be interested in food and cooking – it’s a responsibility they both have to their family.”
Affable and articulate on a wide range of subjects, Ms. Fremes quickly mastered television, too. Norm Perry hosted his own afternoon show in the 1960s and early 70s on CTV. “If ever there was a shortage of guests, I always said: ‘Let’s get Ruth,’” Mr. Perry recalls. “She didn’t need that much notice, and she would always come up with something to talk about.”
On one such show, “the guest preceding her was there to talk about some new format of exercise where you don’t have to really work that hard – you’d control your breath or something and you’d lose weight,” Mr. Perry says. “And she said, ‘Nonsense!’ And proceeded to lecture this other person on the proper way to exercise, but doing it in a way that made him laugh – and then had us all doing exercise, on the air.”
In 1978, after her marriage to Mr. Shirriff ended and the Almanac hit bookstores, CTV made Ms. Fremes the star of her own show, What’s Cooking, where she introduced new cuisines to home cooks and reassured viewers they need not be perfect.
“If I plug in the mixer and it doesn’t start, or the bottom falls out of a pot, we don’t edit it out,” she told The Globe. Her message and style resonated: The show received 700 letters within the first 10 days.
“Ruth was a nutritionist; she wasn’t like a chef,” said food writer Bonnie Stern, who was a frequent guest on Ms. Fremes’s show. “She was very focused on good food, and she was very focused on people eating more healthfully. She was really one of the original people to do this kind of thing.”
“There were shows like Julia Child’s, and there were shows like The Galloping Gourmet, but there weren’t shows that focused on nutrition.”
Ms. Stern added: “There was something she really zeroed in on, and I caught from her as well: the importance of home cooking, and what a gift it is to feed your family and not buy into the large companies who are trying to lead you away from cooking.”
The show’s straight-talking appeal was reflected in the Almanac, a handbook with everything that Canadian women would need to know about managing their own affairs. There were chapters about childbirth and raising children, life as a single woman, getting the most out of one’s later years, and financial and investment advice. There was hard talk, too: listings of crisis centres across the country, a discussion of abortion, how to deal with drug and alcohol addiction, and the law’s protections of women (or lack thereof). In a pre-Facebook era, Ms. Fremes helped disconnected women plug into a community.
And as the popularity of What’s Cooking increased, so did its budget, affording Ms. Fremes the ability to travel the world, meeting chefs and bringing them and their recipes back to her viewers. She flew frequently to Rome, where Dr. Sabry was then based with the United Nations, and their relationship blossomed.
In 1984, after he secured a tenured position with the University of California at Berkeley, the two were married by Justice Rosalie Abella in her chambers. (The ceremony – she a Jew, he a secular Muslim – was intimate and non-denominational.) Ms. Fremes continued to make What’s Cooking for another four years and served as an occasional co-host of Canada AM with Mr. Perry. In 1988, she joined Dr. Sabry in Berkeley and left the spotlight.
Still, she was not yet done with her reinventions. She began consulting for the Kaiser Family Foundation, which specialized in health-policy issues. In 1990, she helped form Project LEAN (Low-fat Eating for America Now), a coalition of food writers, cookbook authors and chefs, including Wolfgang Puck and Martin Yan, the cookbook authors Marion Cunningham and Abby Mandel, and food writers to help develop recipes for restaurants and home cooks that were both tasty and healthful.
She also pursued a lifelong dream. In the 1950s, the University of Toronto had turned down her application for graduate school in social work. She applied at UC Berkeley and, in the early 1990s, received a master’s degree in psychology.
In her early 60s, Ms. Fremes finally had a bat mitzvah, too.
But she was never able to practise as a psychologist. Shortly after completing her required 3,000 hours as an intern, she was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder Sjogren’s syndrome, limiting her mobility. Still, there was more lemonade to be made: In 2003, she and her doctor, Nancy Carteron, wrote a patient-friendly book about the disorder, called A Body Out of Balance.
In the spring of 2011, Ms. Fremes suffered a stroke that rendered her unable to speak. She was just starting to master typing when she passed away after a brief bout of pneumonia.
“That it would be that kind of a stroke – that was the irony,” Dr. Sabry says. “Her mind was there, her expression was there, her memory was there, but the muscles that formed the words could not work.”
He added: “She was one person who had a lot to say.”
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