If a bright marketing executive invented something like the L.A. Times food section of the 1970s and 1980s, he or she would be heralded as a genius – a fat bundle of supermarket ads leavened with recipes, interactive features and detailed instructions showing readers how to use the new products that the stores were bringing in each week, delivered each Thursday to the million most engaged families in the metropolis. Barbara Hansen explored L.A.'s emerging food communities; Rose Dosti wrote the popular SOS column, Donna Deane ran the recipes through the Times' gleaming test kitchens, and Betsy Balsley ran the parade. You could set your watch by the regularity of the strawberry stories in the springtime and the pumpkin recipes in the fall, but the section made you feel like part of the big, happy family of food, embraced by Von's at one end and Robert Mondavi at the other, a cozy world of dinner parties, interesting cooks and at least one feature, “My Best Recipe,'' that would have torn things up on the web.
Balsley's food section was perhaps a bit too comfortable for me – I admit a certain partiality to the next phase of the section's development, which involved Ruth Reichl, Laurie Ochoa, Charles Perry and me; we may be among the villains in this story – but I admired its solidity, its wide focus, and its devotion to an idealized Los Angeles for which we are all a bit nostalgic: Jack Smith with more eggplant.
We all know what happened next, I think. Supermarket chains merged, merged again, and moved their ads to those circulars you toss in the round file without opening; newspapers thought they could make a few pennies more by stuffing coupons into the Sunday paper than they could by printing them in Food, and suddenly a section thick enough to stop bullets became slender as the first asparagus of spring.
On Saturday, April 10 at 10:30 a.m., Balsley, Dosti, Hansen and Deane will be talking about the old Times food section at an event presented by the Culinary Historians of Southern California, at the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, in the Mark Taper Auditorium. Hear live “Culinary SOS!'' Experience the thrills of “Lets Eat Out!'' Find out why your lasagne recipe doesn't work! Will there be refreshments? You bet!