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LA Times’ Russ Parsons on when he realized food writing wasn’t just recipes

Outgoing LA Times food writer Russ Parsons at his
Outgoing LA Times food writer Russ Parsons at his "home away from home," Grand Central Market in downtown LA. His last day at the paper is the day before Thanksgiving.
John Rabe

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Here's something shocking from my interview with Russ Parsons, the Los Angeles Times food writer who is leaving the paper after 26 years:

"One of the turning points of my life was when Ruth Reichl hired me to be her deputy at the Times. And at that point, Jonathan Gold was writing Counter Intelligence, Ruth was writing the restaurant reviews, we had Charlie Perry ... we had a huge staff. We needed a huge staff because, typically, the Food section was 70 to 80 pages every week, and during the holiday season we would publish two sections a week and sometimes those would be hundred-page sections."

Russ remembers being told that one of their sections brought in $1 million in advertising sales.

The coverage of food at the L.A. Times is still stronger than at many newspapers — and Gold has returned — but it's a shadow of its former self. Here's how Russ announced his departure from the paper in an e-mail to friends and colleagues:

"As you have probably heard, these are tough times for the newspaper business. And as you may have heard, the Los Angeles Times recently offered an amazingly generous* buyout package. Well, I’m taking it. I have had an extraordinarily wonderful 26-year run at the Times, in large part thanks to you all. ... But for everyone there comes a time when they should move on. I’m beyond excited to figure out what my next chapter will be. And [my wife] Kathy and I are extremely fortunate in that I have the freedom to choose almost anything. Perhaps ironically, my last day at the Times will be Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving."

Russ, author of "How to Pick a Peach" and "How to Read a French Fry,"  has many more years of writing left, and he promises to keep Off-Ramp up to date on the next chapter.

The early chapters of his journalism life included being a sports reporter and a music writer. He started cooking in the 1970s, "but it was never something that I thought about writing. To me at that point, recipes seemed like a very limiting way to write. I wasn't aware then of being able to write contextually about food, which is the thing that's been the most rewarding part of my career. I love teaching people to cook, but I really love writing about the world of food."

But then he profiled a cooking teacher in New Mexico, then he took a class, and learned he liked "fancy" food - "as opposed to grilling chicken." Then for  a year or so, he says he cooked and worked, gratis, in friends' restaurants, and then pitched to his boss the idea of being a food writer. 

We're glad he did.

The most rewarding part of his time at the Times? The fact that across the region, people are spending this Thanksgiving eating food Parsons had a hand in helping them cook.

Listen for much more of our interview at Grand Central Market by clicking the arrow on the audio player. And to see a video of Russ talking about his very first meeting with Julia Child, check out our Facebook page!

(*A year's salary and benefits for veterans like Russ.)