Speaking in a new American Journalism Review article on food writing, Gourmet editor in chief Ruth Reichl trashes the L.A. Times food section that she inherited back in the day.
When she became the Los Angeles Times' food editor in 1990, she says the section was "an embarrassment." "It was literally not written in the English language. It was hair-raising the way that thing was put together."
With competing supermarkets taking out enormous advertisements, the section harvested millions of dollars in ad revenue, but the Times' management paid no attention to the copy. The section served as a cash cow, paying the salaries of reporters and editors in other sections of the newspaper. Stock photographs of Campbell's soup cans and other products were the "art," wire service copy filled out the pages and the section's news editor maintained a catalogue of stories organized by length.
"If she had like a three-inch hole, she just looked, it didn't matter what it was," Reichl says. "The first week I was there I said, 'Throw it all away, I don't want one piece of it.' She said, 'You can't, you'll never run this section.' And I said, 'If I have to write the whole section myself I will.' She had stuff that was 15 years old and she thought nothing of just, 'OK, I've got a seven-inch hole, here's something.' "
Reichl took the section in new directions before leaving to be the New York Times restaurant critic (and now editor of Gourmet). LAT editor Shelby Coffey didn't take her defection especially well; during the awkward weeks between her announcement and actual departure, I overheard Coffey stick his head in her office and remark, "Forgotten but not gone..."
At both the LAT and the magazine, Reichl's top deputy was Laurie Ochoa (now the editor of LA Weekly). Jonathan Gold, Ochoa's husband and a Weekly food critic, was one of Reichl's leading writers both places. The AJR story also recounts the creation of Saveur by Angeleno (now New Yorker) Colman Andrews.