Barbara Hansen, a James Beard award winner and one of the first food writers to bring attention to international cuisines in Los Angeles through her work at the LA Times, died Sunday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Hansen was 90 years old and still active, writing on her blog and posting recipes on Instagram up until the end of her life.
Hansen was born in Hollywood on October 30, 1932. She lived in Hancock Park, in the same house she grew up in, for her entire life. After earning a B.A. from Stanford University, she went on to earn a master’s in journalism at UCLA before joining the Los Angeles Herald-Express, where she was relegated to writing in the women’s section.
“Back then women were looked down upon for being journalists,” Hansen said while participating in a 2010 talk titled “The Heyday of the Food Section at the LA Times.” In the mid ’60s, Hansen was recruited by Los Angeles Times food editor Jeanne Voltz to help out with the section. Hansen’s insatiable curiosity predated even the arrival of cilantro in Los Angeles, an ingredient she eventually found in Chinese markets labeled “Chinese parsley.” In the decades that followed, Hansen’s precise, deep reporting documented waves of immigration to Los Angeles: Thais, Armenians, Koreans, Indians, Oaxacans, and Salvadorans, whose cuisines she embraced. In 1969 alone, Hansen wrote about Israeli consulate dinners, soul food, Egyptian cuisine, Colombian food, the regional antojitos of Central America, and Filipino restaurants, to name a few.
Always ahead of the trends, Hansen wrote her first cookbook, California Cooking Style, in 1971. It was the same year 27-year-old cook Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, years before a recognizable California cuisine emerged. This was a full 11 years before Spago, another iconic California restaurant, opened its doors.
In 1974, Hansen started a column called Border Line for the LA Times that highlighted restaurants, recipes, and rising culinary stars in LA’s Mexican communities. Hansen’s love of delicious new flavors led her to explore LA’s varied international cuisines. After California Cooking Style, she wrote a cookbook called Mexican Cookery followed by Taste of Southeast Asia. In 2013 she wrote a Korean restaurant guide for Los Angeles, commissioned by the Korean Food Foundation in Seoul. Hansen even inspired the main protagonist Joan Bergstrom in Kim Fay’s 2022 novel Love & Saffron, a character who discovered herself in 1960s Los Angeles.
Hansen immersed herself in international cuisines as an appreciator, never claiming authority. By 2002, Hansen had made the LA Times food section ground zero for Oaxacan food coverage in America, insightfully recognizing Oaxacan cuisine long before the term Oaxacalifornia entered the vernacular. A mole verde recipe she published that year opened with “This is a tale of two Oaxacas.” In the recipe, she acknowledged Zapotecs in Los Angeles, speaking of their regions and hometowns.
She was also one of the first writers to cover Tijuana’s food scene. Sometime around 2000, I began to explore Baja California, frequenting Tijuana, Ensenada, and the Valle de Guadalupe, but one fateful afternoon visiting my abuela in Stockton, I read “A Surprising Taste of Tijuana,” reprinted in the Stockton Record. Minutes after setting the paper down on the kitchen table I left and drove straight to Tijuana to dine at La Diferencia. I don’t think I would have become a food writer if it weren’t for that article.
A few years later someone gave me Hansen’s phone number. We talked for over an hour about Baja California. Some years later, I returned the favor and arranged a trip with Hansen, chef John Sedlar, and some friends. We did tasting dinners with chef Benito Molina at Manzanilla and chef Javier Plascencia at Villa Saverios, and hit up numerous taco and seafood stands. Hansen joined me on several other trips, including a 2009 trip I led for Tijuana Tourism. On that trip, Barbara outlasted most of the much younger LA food bloggers that were crushed from a grueling, gluttonous tour of 33 restaurants in 48 hours. She took in all the meals, wine, and spirits tastings. Pure curiosity — she didn’t want to miss a thing.
When Hansen left the Times food section in 2006, LA’s food media was just getting started; with blogs becoming launch pads for a generation of food writers and editors. This was a year before Jonathan Gold won his Pulitzer Prize (2007), which turned the spotlight on his coverage of international cuisines.
Outside of local food writers, Hansen’s pioneering work was often overlooked. For many, that sense of wonder and seeking out new foods began with Hansen. Other more famous writers may have amplified those traits, but they all got it from Hansen, an ambassador of everything. “All of us who try to write about food as more than food are the children and grandchildren of Barbara. Even all these decades later, her columns remain better than what most of us in this field can ever hope to achieve,” says LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano.
After she left the LA Times, Hansen continued working as a contributor to LA Weekly’s Squid Ink blog and maintained two blogs: Table Conversation and EatMx. She also frequented events, continued to travel, and even competed in culinary competitions. “Barbara won at least 2-3 baskets from Melissa’s [Produce] a year,” says food writer and confidant Gerry Furth-Sides, editor at LocalFoodEater.
In LA, one of the most diverse dining cities in America, Hansen excelled in documenting its hidden cuisines and newly-arrived cultures with relentless curiosity. She gave under-the-radar cooks a platform that they deserved. Hansen did this from the moment she filed her first food story in 1969 until her death. Even at the age of 90, she was in the process of pitching her next cookbook.
Hansen is survived by her nephew, Eric Daniel Ball (the son of her only sibling Lizbeth Hansen Ball, who is deceased); his wife, Jeanine Michelle Ball; and their sons Matthew Steven Ball and Justin Alexander Ball. She’s also survived by her cousin Anne and her husband David Palmer, and their daughters Alexandra and Mia Palmer; cousin Mary Besozzi, and her daughters Laurie and Katie Besozzi; and cousin Enid Woods.