Cooking and Remodeling with Sunset Magazine Through the Years


This is the last of a 3-part series in which @LAHistory explores the history and influence of Sunset Magazine and its Los Angeles office. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Even before the Lanes acquired the magazine in the late 1920s, editors reported on the "lure of the patio" and told readers how to modernize an adobe. In May 1918, the magazine pictured a number of Los Angeles homes with their approximate cost, including a five-room Craftsman-style bungalow called an "architectural archetype of its time and place" for $2300. In 1916, "What is Home Without a Garage?" explained to the new home owner the recent phenomena of a garage, suggesting "we see many auto houses that are really a credit to their owners." Less than fifty years later, the magazine explains the most common type of remodeling is converting a garage into a room. In "Soaring Interior" (July 1963), a Pasadena homeowner has converted a three-car garage into another living room, dining room, party room, entry, and hallway planned as part of an indoor-outdoor complex that includes a swimming pool and contributes "to an atmosphere of carefree living."

While there was no regular home building and remodeling column for Los Angeles readers, articles frequently featured ideas from Los Angeles homes. Like the garden editors in the early days, the building editors highlighted the homes of movie stars. In one article, Humphrey Bogart poses on his outside stairway for an article about the advantages of such stairways.

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Sunset editors wrote about home furnishings and design, including a report on California Design X at the Pasadena Museum of Art (March 1968). Angelenos who attended that exhibit will experience déjà vu at LACMA's Pacific Standard Time exhibition "California Design 1930-1965."

This writer's first assignment was the "Mathematica" exhibit at the California Museum of Science and Industry. A mathematics exhibit didn't seem very exciting and I couldn't imagine how I would be able to write an interesting article about it. What a surprise when I arrived at the entrance to the exhibit and there were light bulbs flashing, plastic balls cascading inside a glass case (forming a bell curve, I learned later), and most intriguing of all, a moebius band going round and around and around. I loved demonstrating the moebius band at cocktail parties after that. As we all now know, that legendary exhibit was designed by Charles and Ray Eames, the first exhibit by the Eames office. The interactive exhibits were one of the most entertaining ways to learn math principles and still fondly remembered by older Angelenos.

Sunset Magazine's seven page report on lessons from the 1961 Bel Air fire
Sunset Magazine's seven page report on lessons from the 1961 Bel Air fire

Occasionally, Sunset went beyond the two-page spread to produce special reports, including "Lessons from the Bel Air Burn" (May 1962). After the horrible destruction of the Bel Air fire in November 1961, a team of writers and photographers descended on Los Angeles as soon as the embers had cooled. They interviewed fire department staff and building experts and photographed the burn area. The seven-page report documented which houses burned and which did not, and advised home owners on how to prepare for future fires. A chart explained how to protect a hillside home as "concrete wall deflects fire draft" and "eaves trap heat."

Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, published in 1946
Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, published in 1946

Sunset reported on the first home by Southern California building designer Cliff May, considered "Father of California Ranch Houses," in 1936 with these comments: "Cliff May...captures the past in structures that please the present. He wants the country places of southern California to wear the careless aristocratic air of the old ranchos, so he builds places like this. They ramble almost to the point of departure, with lines as natural and satisfying as those of the hills. Their material is as old as the hills--adobe." The Lanes developed a close relationship with May, publishing "Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May," in 1946. According to Kevin Starr, "No single Sunset book before or since has had such a profound effect on the architectural environment of the Far West as it was being so rapidly actualized." ("Sunset Magazine," Stanford Libraries) The Lanes later hired May to design their Menlo Park headquarters.

Sunset's book division officially started in 1946, publishing in all of Sunset's categories -- travel, gardening, food and home design. In a history of the book division, Mel Lane explained that the books were created "with nearly all the content coming from magazine articles or created for the books by magazine editors and freelance special-interest writers."

Some Angelenos may still have their Sunset book "Los Angeles: Portrait of an Extraordinary City," published in 1968. Historian W.W. Robinson provided a chronology and a section on place name origins, and bibliophile Lawrence Clark Powell offered a reading list. But this was more than just a picture book; the text is substantive and surely benefited from the expertise of the magazine's editorial staff in Los Angeles. Supervising editor, Paul C. Johnson, brought WPA expertise to the project, having served as an assistant director for WPA's California guide in the 1930s.

Cooking with Sunset

Sunset All-Western Cook Book, published in 1934
Sunset All-Western Cook Book, published in 1934

Sunset's cookbooks also featured content from the Los Angeles staff, beginning with Sunset's cookbook "Kitchen Cabinet." In the early days, there were occasional food articles like one on chayote in 1915, and recipes for fried artichokes and tamale pudding in 1920. But it was under the Lane ownership that Western food and entertaining became a major focus of reporting. One of the magazine's first editors was Genevieve Callahan, food specialist from Better Homes and Gardens who came West with the Lanes. "Sunset was western and I didn't know much about Western things when we arrived." She and her co-editor Lou Richardson "drove up and down the coast... Out of our efforts grew not only the food department but, in 1934, the company's first book: the Sunset All Western Cook Book." (STET, vol 33, no. 9, December 1981)

The magazine's "view of regional foods became even more commanding when [they] invited readers to share their recipes in a monthly spread called Kitchen Cabinet." A recipe for orange-glazed yams from Mrs. M.H. of Los Angeles was included as part of a menu for "A Good Sunday Dinner," and Mrs. C.V. McC of Hollywood contributed her "Bride's Brown Betty" recipe -- just a couple of the countless contributions from Angelenos.

In the 1950s and 1960s, one of Sunset's well-known food consultants was Pasadenan Helen Evans Brown, whose 1952 "West Coast Cook Book" (designed by local book designer Ward Ritchie) offered recipes for Los Angeles Lemon Pie and Paul's Stuffed Abalone (from Paul's Duck Press Restaurant: "His was among the first restaurants to serve Alaska King Crab and he knew his abalone."), among many other L.A.-inspired recipes. For Sunset, she wrote the column "Adventures in Food," which was later published as a Sunset cookbook. She introduced young Sunset food writers to Los Angeles foods with visits to Prebbles and Jurgenson's (which then had fancier foods than San Francisco) and to like-minded chefs, cooks and home entertainers. She also entertained the magazine staff on occasion. As cookbook collectors, she and husband Phillip once owned as many as 5,000, some of which are now in the Huntington Library. Harry Diamond, another Pasadena contributor, illustrated Sunset's Chefs of the West, a monthly section on cooking by men for men. Diamond was born in Los Angeles and studied at Choinard Art Institute.

In the 1960s, the Los Angeles editorial staff was also called upon to complete monthly market reports on the cost and availability of fresh produce at three different kinds of markets -- a chain store, a small market, and a gourmet market. The data was forwarded to the food editors in Menlo Park and compared with reports from other parts of the West to be used as guides for providing precise seasonal usage of produce in recipes and stories.

In 1972, Sunset's assistant food editor Jerry DiVecchio spent the summer in Southern California to research and report on local cooking (which yielded a story on Thanksgiving in the desert, photographed in the summer for publication in November). DiVecchio eventually moved to Los Angeles and became the Southwest editor in 1976.

If Walter Houk brought a Mad Men-esque vibe to the office in the 1960s and early 1970s, Jerry DiVecchio brought a 1970s glamour. The Los Angeles office never before had such a glamorous leader, whose suitors (that she'll let us name) included the great jazz trumpter Don Ellis. In the office, one could bump into Rudi Gernreich (fashion designer known for the monokini) on your way down the hall (they both served on the board of the Bella Lewitsky dance company). Her article on how to obtain tickets to be an Oscars spectator, brought Sunset press tickets to the ceremony itself (a first).

Sunset food editors worked with Lawry's California Center cooks, testing recipes for the magazine
Sunset food editors worked with Lawry's California Center cooks, testing recipes for the magazine

While Sunset Magazine's official test kitchens were in Menlo Park, the local staff tested food in the conference room (one staffer remembered taste-testing 10 loaves of bread spread across the conference table), or in the kitchens of Lawry's California Center. Whether food writers or not, most L.A. editors were food savvy, expanding their knowledge with business lunches held at the Pacific Dining Car, Vickman's or Paul's Duck Press. In the 1960s, Walter Houk was determined to find the best burrito, sampling ones from Burrito King, El Tepayac and El Conquistador, among others. DiVecchio hosted the Los Angeles editorial staff for more research on new food trends at such well-known eateries as Ma Maison and The Windsor, as well as ethnic restaurants all over the city. At such lunches, she became known for her "flying fork," as she sampled tidbits from everyone else's plate. The staff was encouraged to do likewise.

Over the years, DiVecchio consulted and cooked with many of L.A.'s food notables, including the artist Dora de Larios ("a great entertainer") who made Christmas cookies featured in the magazine. De Larios was most recently featured in The Autry's Pacific Standard Time exhibit "Art Along the Hyplen." Another friend and colleague was Wolfgang Puck. Sunset reported his first kitchen on 6th Street with his built-in wok, and DiVecchio later taught cooking classes alongside Puck at Ma Maison.

Not surprisingly, Sunset's food has long featured Mexican cuisine. An article about "Elena's Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes" in 1944 explained that tortillas were the national bread of Mexico. By 1975, readers were well acquainted with tortillas and the editors again were consulting experts: "Where would you go to look for Mexican food ideas? We didn't even leave Los Angeles, which has, after all, two centuries of Spanish and Mexican heritage and almost 1/1/2 million people of Mexican ancestry." This time the experts were home cooks, including Jose Huerta who shared his recipe for Barbacoa, a favorite of his family and a popular entrée on the menu of his Casa Alvarez restaurant in Bell Gardens. A photo of the now-gone Kosher Burrito stand illustrated the article with the caption, "In Los Angeles almost anything goes into a burrito" including pastrami. A few years later (December 1980) Los Angeles editors shared the Palos Verdes Christmas party featuring an astonishing six-foot-long burrito that served 24. In Sunset's recent March 2012 issue, the editors turned to L.A.'s Pulitizer-prize winning food writer, Jonathan Gold, to articulate "Mexican food's moment." Gold widens his lens beyond Los Angeles exploring Mexican food along the coast while also sharing L.A recipes like Chichen Itza's recipe for Yucatan-style panuchos.

Olvera Street: Behind the scenes of photo shoot for Sunset Mexican Cookbook with photographer Glenn Christiansen. Photo by Raymond Bernal.
Olvera Street: Behind the scenes of photo shoot for Sunset Mexican Cookbook with photographer Glenn Christiansen. Photo by Raymond Bernal.

This capsule overview of Sunset's Los Angeles food, home design, garden and travel reporting is a reminder that its pages from the past can offer unexpected glimpses into the city's history. In these brief accounts, we only covered a handful of editors, writers, photographers and stories to answer the question, "Did Sunset Magazine have a Los Angeles editorial office?"

Sunset Magazine not only had an office in Los Angeles but those named in the pages of Sunset Magazine -- on the masthead or in a photo caption -- wove so interestingly through Los Angeles' history. Their stories of meals in the homes of L.A. notables, press trips down to Acapulco, (not to mention Walter Houk's tale of jumping a Palm Springs fence to crash a private California Coastal Commission meeting about the future of Point Mugu) can sound almost mythical to this daughter listening to the stories of her mother and colleagues. Myth (and admittedly, bias) aside, these stories offer yet another prism through which to view multi-faceted Los Angeles.


We are grateful to Sunset colleagues who shared memories about working for the magazine in Los Angeles, especially Walter Houk and Jerry DiVecchio who shared more insights than we had space to include. DiVecchio's latest cookbook is for children, "You've Got Recipes."

We also thank the Huntington Library and Los Angeles County Arboretum for access to their collections of Sunset magazines, between the two offer the most complete in the area.

Top photo: By Richard Fish from photo-shoot for Sunset Magazin

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