TDS 29 Carol Marlow McGarvey: The Inside Story of Feature Writing and Food Judging

Carol Marlow McGarvey

Carol Marlow McGarvey

This week on #thedeliciousstory, we take a trip back to more robust times in the newspaper industry when The Des Moines Register was considered one of the leading (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) papers of the land. Carol Marlow McGarvey has been at the Register in recent decades and remembers those times well—and the transition to where we are today.

It all began for her with a part-time job in circulation. She was incognito and a kid at the time, but listen in as Carol describes the details of her secret life, which was ultimately the impetus to becoming a journalist. There is more where that came from, too, because Carol is a natural storyteller, gifted at highlighting the right details and unfolding a plot. Listen in and enjoy as we reminisce about the exciting days of Carol’s employment with a busy newspaper as well as other engaging tales she tells, such as judging multiple entries of gingerbread at the Iowa State Fair and her riff on THE meal that has gone missing by today’s generation.

As a kid, I remember feeling in awe on the handful of occasions I entered the R ‘n T building located on Locust in downtown Des Moines (think school tours in the 1970s). There was the huge globe turning on its axis in the lobby where people rushed in and out on vital news business, and then the open spaces of office where staff worked at big boxy computers. The most notable part of the tour was visiting the printing press at work in the bowels of the building.

It still is a marvel to me how much has changed with the Des Moines Register, once a powerful and prominent newspaper. In the past, it was a publication noteworthy for its political cartoons, statewide, national and international coverage, and the winner of 16 Pulitzer prizes. Like other papers across the country, however, it has shrunk in circulation and diminished in weight.  

News in the Register was so thoroughly covered for years that there were two staffs of writers for both the morning paper and the evening Tribune. I’m sure, like many others, I viewed the people who worked there as the stuff of legends—our version of the Woodward and Bernstein types but in Des Moines. Carol recounts wonderful details of her days working at The Register from her vantage as a features writer.


Carol and I became friends by way of a writer’s group where I learned that she’s served for years as a judge of various food contests at the Iowa State Fair. Her turn at tasting cake submissions is a personal favorite and is an anecdote which is both charming and cringeworthy. You’ll want to hear Carol’s other stories of contests she’s judged over the years, and you’ll even capture a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes world of these events from both the entrants’ and the judges’ perspectives.

The idea that we can discern the “best” of something in a category is remarkable to me. I’m in favor of a good glazed donut but can’t imagine being able to pick the best in a lineup of many. That someone who can taste the nuances of a subset of a pastry is a true skill of which Carol has put in years of effort to perfect. And then there’s the trust that is necessary from both the contestants and judges. Carol explains this with a cinnamon roll story you’ll never forget.


Given Carol’s description of Sunday meals and her memories of them, it is hard to argue with the value of this once-prized day of the week when families generally set aside time to slow down and relax together. Traditional meals served most often at lunch included roast, chicken, starches and vegetables, which often came from the family’s garden.

We live in times when multi-tasking our moments is preferred, but in doing so we seem to have lost our awareness of individual moments altogether. You can almost feel the breath go in slowly and then release as Carol provides the scenery of a Sunday meal with her family, and Sundays in general as a time of renewal back when we made time to just be.


Writers are always writing, and there is work to be done if you have the talent and are willing to stay in the field of journalism, in particular, which has changed dramatically for professionals in the business. After Carol moved on from the Register, she earned work over at Meredith Publishing, where she has showcased her talents in many of the publications there and is currently working for Welcome Home Magazine, and writing about some of the beautiful homes of our community. 

We finish up our conversation in this interview by talking about writing. As I struggle through clunky sentences, I remain an admirer of how Carol brings such a natural voice to her work that makes her articles a true pleasure to read. She shares insights that bring down the stress on how to write well by shifting the focus from self, which is always a great suggestion. Storytelling, even in the written word, should be natural and when done right leaves a lasting impression.

Alexandra and Sherry, 2016

Alexandra and Sherry, 2016

Sherry is the founder of Storied Gifts a personal publishing service of family and company histories. She and her team help clients curate and craft their stories into books. When not writing or interviewing, Sherry spends loads of time with her grandchildren and lives in Des Moines, Iowa.


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