For nearly 30 years, the L.A. Times Food Section was a 50-page money-making section. On Saturday, four former staffers gathered at the Mark Taper Forum to discuss their free-spending ("I never knew what my budget was.") reign, which lasted from the late sixties through the late eighties. Like unearthing a time capsule, the stories of reporters Barbara Hansen and Rose Dosti, food editor Betsy Balsley, and test-kitchen overseer Donna Deane reveal how far journalism, the cult of the chef, and food itself have traveled in the last forty years. While today’s razor-thin Food Section was spared critique, Balsley made it clear that all four missed the era when "everything was slow. And it was wonderful." Take a look at what these pioneers had to say.
How Far We’ve Come
Hansen: "[In the sixties] it was still considered shameful to be a woman in journalism."
Dosti: "We had one food editor from the South who never cooked with garlic before, so she just struck it out of recipes."
Dosti: "The Food Section was aimed at the homemaker. We didn’t touch restaurants. Restaurant critics were in the Calendar section, except ethnic restaurants."
Balsley: "We needed chefs. We couldn’t review their restaurants, but we could pick their brains."
Hansen: "There was a time when cilantro wasn’t well-known here…or poblanos, we only had Anaheim chiles…Then influences came from China, Thailand, Mexico, Salvador. It’s due to them that these things became available."
Balsley: "Remember when baby vegetables debuted and everyone undercooked them? The chefs began to bring in Asian ingredients…shitaake mushrooms were the first…And I remember the first kiwis. People really learned a lot."
Hardest Ingredient to Prepare in the Test-Kitchen
Hansen: "Terasi, a shrimp paste. It doesn’t smell, it stinks. People were walking up and down the hall saying, ‘What on Earth?’ The facilities crew thought it was a gas leak."
Balsley: "The Food Section and Calendar kept the paper going. One time, we had a 90-page pre-Thanksgiving section…The morning we got it off the press, someone said, ‘Congratulations! You made us a million dollars today.’ We made a lot of money for the Times and had a lot of fun doing it. The Chandler era was glorious. Nobody told me what to leave out."
Dosti: "It was a time that was most unusual and I never knew what my budget was."
Hansen, whose beat was small, imported restaurants: "I always hated this word "ethnic," as it describes something that is apart. And that’s just not the case. I drove down Third Street to get here and saw three Thai restaurants, one Oaxacan, three Bengali, a trattoria, and bakeries serving Guatemalan, Mexican, and Salvadoran. This is characteristic of our life in L.A."
Dosti: "Chefs were everywhere. Men were beginning to cook. Nutrition was becoming important and it was predicted that in ten years we’d be the most obese nation."
Deane, who came to The Times from the Chicago Tribune in 1980: "I remember we had a recipe with jalapeno peppers…and after slicing them and handling the seeds, I touched my finger to my eye. That was my first lesson in California test kitchens."
The Game Changers
Dosti: "It started in San Francisco with Jeremiah Towers and Alice Waters, stalwarts and the founders of California cuisine. Then there was this diversity of modern chefs from Europe, Asia, and Central America. Michael Roberts was able to fuse all these various ethnic cuisines, like guacamole made with peas…Aantonio Tommasi was not just a chef, but an alchemist…Celestino Drago worked in the best restaurants in Italy. Hans Rockenwagner created another genre with California-German cuisine. Michael McCarty, he was the one who first ordered little baby vegetables and was able to use them."
L.A.’s Breakout Chefs
Balsley: With all due respect to Julia, these young Turks were daring, non-traditional, with European training, and for the most part, interesting people. So what did they do? They approached farmers; Wolf was probably about the first…and farmer’s are not the easiest people to persuade."
Dosti: They came to a place that gave them freedom. People feel liberated in California. Wolfgang Puck wouldn’t be who he is without California. Here people feel free to use boutique cabbage and the best and most exotic mushrooms to create new and exciting recipes."
Going to Color
Deane: "It must have been the mid-to-late eighties when we started shooting in color for the food section. The first thing we prepared was a very pale pink cake…what came out was a blood red cake. It was the most awful thing."
Balsley: "I always thought our photographers weren’t that good at shooting food. And they were too skinny."
Dosti: "If it interests you, do it…If you want to start a blog, if you’re in your mid-life crisis, do it. Food can take you everywhere."