LA Times Food Writers Reminisce About “Golden Era”

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Los Angeles Times Roses at Central Library


If you recently picked up a Zell-era Los Angeles Times, it’s probably hard to imagine that the Food section once ran 90 pages long. However, that was the case under editor Betsy Balsley prior to Thanksgiving one year, and on a regular basis, she helped to churn out “a cookbook a week.” This was just one of the stories that surfaced on April 10, when the Culinary Historians of Southern California presented Betsy Balsley, Donna Deane, Rose Dosti and Barbara Hansen for a discussion of “The Heyday of the Food Section at the Los Angeles Times.”

The ladies of the Times collectively accumulated over 100 years of experience with the section. Rose Dosti had the longest tenure, arriving on staff in 1964, exiting in 1992 and continuing to write the Culinary S.O.S. column for another 9 years. Barbara Hansen arrived in the ’70s and wrote about international cuisines until 2006. Donna Deane arrived from the Chicago Tribune in 1980 to run the test kitchen, retiring in 2008. Ringleader Betsy Balsley ran the section from 1973 – 1991. She presided over the section, and drove the discussion at the Central Library‘s Mark Taper Auditorium.

Food Writers Los Angeles
Rose Dosti and Betsy Balsley

Dosti said that when she arrived in L.A., “it was a sleepy little town that developed into a culinary epicenter.” The California dining scene exploded in the’70s. “It all started in San Francisco with Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters,” said Dosti. “They were stalwarts of California cuisine. In L.A., we drew on Europe and Latin America.”

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, L.A. fed off the arrival of chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Celestino Drago. Michael McCarty and Antonio Tommasi, who “was not just a chef, he was an alchemist.” She later credited Hans Rockenwagner and the L’Orangerie crew. As Balsley said, “They were daring, they were nontraditionalists, they had European training, and they were interesting people.”

These innovative chefs also started approaching farmers with custom requests, which had never been done before. This gave rise to things like baby vegetables, which were popular in Europe, but hadn’t been explored Stateside yet. The crowd learned that the first L.A. farmers market debuted in Gardena in 1979, and the now legendary Santa Monica farmers market debuted in 1982.

Food Writers Los Angeles
Donna Deane and Barbara Hansen

Barbara Hansen developed a column called Border Line in the ’70s, followed the arrival of Thai food in Los Angeles, to name just one cuisine. She doesn’t like the term “ethnic cuisine,” since it “sounds like something apart.” She also described her excitement at discovering ingredients like cilantro and Poblano peppers, which proliferated in L.A. due to immigration.

Balsley discussed some logistical aspects that most writers no doubt take for granted these days. Typewriters, carbon paper and black-and-white photos were a part of everyday life at the Times when she first arrived. She insisted, “Everything was slow, but it was wonderful.” The LA Times transitioned to color photography in 1984 or 1985, and Food was one of the first sections to receive the upgrade. “They did everything in a big way in those days,” said Balsley. “It was the Chandler era, and it was the golden era.” To prove her point, she said that in her 18 years as food editor, she never knew what her budget was, since the section had so much autonomy.

The Food section has evolved quite a bit over the years, not only in depth, but also in breadth. In the ’70s and ’80s, the section targeted the home cook. Restaurants were considered entertainment and confined to the Calendar section. Also, in the Food section, the only people who were allowed to advertise were supermarkets or food manufacturers.

After the panel discussion, speakers and guests transitioned to the courtyard, where “roses” were made from dyed pages of the Los Angeles Times. Volunteers served dishes that were made using recipes that appeared in the LA Times Food section, including Quiche, Seafood Salad with Avocado Hollandaise Dressing and Zucchini Bread.

Zucchini Bread
Printed recipes were available next to the dishes. Here’s the recipe for Zucchini Bread, which was a talking point during the panel discussion.

Zucchini Bread

Ingredients:

5 eggs
1 cup + 2 tablespoons oil
1½ teaspoons grated lemon peel
¾ teaspoon orange extract
½ teaspoon vanilla
2¼ cups sugar
3 cups grated zucchini
3¾ cups flour
1¼ teaspoons salt
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ginger
1½ teaspoons baking soda
2¼ teaspoons baking powder
½ cup chopped nuts

Directions:

Grease and flour three 8 x 4 inch pans. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C).
Sift flour, salt, baking powder, soda and cinnamon together in a bowl.

Beat eggs, oil, lemon peel, orange and vanilla extracts and sugar together in a large bowl. Add sifted ingredients to the creamed mixture and beat well. Stir in zucchini and nuts until well combined. Pour batter into prepared pans.

Bake for 40 to 60 minutes, or until tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan on rack for 20 minutes. Remove bread from pan, and completely cool.

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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oops. just commenting so i can get notified of any replies!

Thanks for sharing your LA Times memories. Please comment again.

wow, i wish i could have attended too! thanks for sharing this description of the event. as a kid in LA in the 80s/early 90s, and the food section was my favorite newspaper section to read. i didn’t realize how lucky i was to grow up reading that particular food section, with those particular writers (i remember all those names — and also ruth reichl and jonathan gold, my two favorite restaurant reviewers ever). it instilled in me a lifelong love of cooking and appreciation of food. my first cooking forays were recipes from the LA times food section. and it gave me SUCH an education in both. oh how i miss the LA times food section of those days!

one thing i remember they used to do which i miss dearly is the LA home cook of the year contest — in which readers would submit a number of home cooking recipes and be evaluated by the food section staff, who would pick a number of winners and runners-up, whose bios and best recipes would be printed in a special (again, verrry long) food section. oh, how i would salivate reading the recipes created by those home cooks! they were like nothing else, since home cooking really is a completely different beast from restaurant cooking.

anyway, thank you again for allowing me this little stroll down (food) memory lane.

[…] (including Chasen’s Chili—or a close approximation—which serves 8-10) we turn to Rose Dosti in an article from the archives of the Los Angeles Times. Click anywhere on the blue letters to […]

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I am very excited to be a member of this organization.

I was part of he reception committee, and I never thought in a gazillion years, that the LA Times paper roses that I created would be such a great hit. This was a wonderful event.

I have had this zucchini bread recipe for several years, and it has never failed me. Talking to the guests and seeing them enjoy the entire reception was unbelievable.

I want to thank the LA Times Food section ladies for thier paraticipation and inspiration to this event. Denise Curry

Thanks so much for a terrific review of the program, Josh! If it’s okay with you, I’d like to link this page to the culinaryhistoriansofsoutherncalifornia.org website. Next month Anne Willan will speak on, “Old Recipes in the Kitchen” — MUCH older recipes than any from the L.A. Times! It will be another great program, and, as always, programs are free and open to the public the 2nd Sat of the month, 10:30AM, Central Library. Thanks, -Nancy Zaslavsky

Very cool. Wish I could have attended. What a great experience that must have been, to learn just how food writing has progressed (and arguably regressed with all the recessional cutbacks).

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