When Margie Zats wrote her latest book in 2021, she did so as a response to the combination of COVID isolation, Minnesota winters, and most tragically, the death of her son, Jonathan.
“I set about writing short stories in honor of Jonathan,” she said. “And then, for some reason – only God knows – they came out rather humorous.”
Zats’ book, “Stories Savory and Sweet” won first place at the Midwest Independent Publishers Association awards ceremony for humor writing.
“I’ve written six or seven books, and this is the first one that’s been entered in a contest,” said Zats, who turned 89 years old on July 4. “Of course, I dedicated it to Johnny, and I thought maybe God works in strange ways. [My son] he’s smiling down and giggling to himself, ‘look at what happened to mom.’ And from some such sadness it gave people pleasure, and hopefully they smiled.”
Zats started professionally as a chef, and is a graduate of the École de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris. She taught at Byerly’s for 10 years before opening her own business, Margie’s Marvelous Munchies, where she produces pastry gift baskets. She went to school in Paris in the 1970s on a whim.
“I saw an ad in Gourmet magazine. And I said, ‘Wouldn’t they have been neat?’ I didn’t know that I would turn it into a career,” she said. “But I just treated myself to this cooking school and I had to force myself to live on the left bank in Paris for a summer and suffer.”
Despite her success in the kitchen, publishing is in the blood. Her father was a publisher and her brother, Bert Cohen, was the founding publisher of Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine.
“This was part of my genetics, and the conversation in my house was appreciation of words,” she said. “Instead of politics, we talked about being more creative. it was a natural for me to have the solace of something I was familiar with and admired. Although I do love to cook too. I love smiles on people’s faces when they bite in and it’s tasty.”
As if a career in publishing and cooking wasn’t enough, Zats was one of the founders of Groves Academy, a school in St. Louis Park for students who have learning disabilities and attention disorders, as well as a center for literacy instruction, education, and advocacy.
“[The school] is growing and they are helping children. It’s such a mitzvah,” she said. “Most of all, it gives kids self-confidence and self-respect. Because especially with the cyber-bullying, these kids give up on themselves. So the best thing they do is, is give them a sense of self-worth. The school is a phenomenon.”
Even with an unexpected award in tow as she’s starting her 90th trip around the sun, she’s planning another book of stories.
“As long as I can give people pleasure and they can escape reality for a little while, my job is done,” she said. “I’m not out to win some literary honor, I just want to keep my mind challenged. And I don’t like this phrase, ‘oh, I’m too old to learn.’ That’s out the window. You’re never too old. You’ve gotta keep thinking and keep moving the goalposts.”