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  • Writer's picture Jana

A Remarkable Pioneer and Beloved Friend, Gone way too Soon.

By some people's standards, 90 years old is considered to be a long and full life. But not by my standards, nor do I suspect, by Barbara's, my dear friend who passed away last week. She was supposed to live another ten years and then perhaps another ten after that. Even then, it might have felt far too soon to let her go. We had many more lunches and dinners to linger over. We had so many conversations yet to finish. I wasn't expecting her time to come so soon and I certainly wasn't ready to let her go.

Yet, on Sunday, January 29, that is exactly what happened.

Last Friday, Barbara and I were supposed to have lunch at one of my mom's favorite restaurants, Le Petit Greek (near Barbara's house), on Larchmont. We planned this outing at our previous lunch together (also on Larchmont), in mid-October, when we had a co-celebration of our birthdays. Barbara had even chosen what she was going to order from the menu at our upcoming Greek lunch, which was the Traditional Sandwich (sliced lamb and ground beef with tzatziki, onions, and tomatoes, served with a heap of French Fries on the side). Barbara was a fiend for French Fries!

When I texted her last Wednesday evening to confirm our plans for Friday, I didn't receive a response. Although it struck me as odd, as Barbara was one of those fastidious people who texts you back immediately (I love those people). I tried to dismiss the pang of worry I felt at her uncharacteristic behavior. Perhaps she went to bed early? Or, maybe she's upset with me because I suggested we might meet on Larchmont rather than my picking her up, as I usually do? I went to bed that night and tried to push away the concern I was feeling, figuring I would hear from her in the morning.

By Thursday, mid-morning, there was still no response to my text, so I sent another short text asking her if she had received my text from the night before. Again, nothing. Try as I might, I could not quell the uneasy feeling I had in my gut.

I'm not sure what possessed me to do what I did next, because it is all a bit of a blur now, but I decided to get on Google to see if I could find anything out. Barbara is a well-known, award-winning food writer, so if anything were wrong, perhaps there might be something posted online about her, was my reasoning, at the time. Then again, if something were really wrong, wouldn't someone would have reached out to me to let me know? My brain was a jumble of thoughts and my worry began to escalate.

I got online and typed her name in. The first thing that popped up was an incredible article about her life, which I started to scroll through before fully reading the title. There were lovely photos of her and interesting details, some of which I had not previously known. I realized I would have to return and read it another time since I was on a clear mission. For now, I had to concentrate on the task at hand, which was getting to the bottom of why she hadn't returned my texts. Before I switched tabs I went back up to the top of the article and re-read the title, "Barbara Hansen, Legendary Chronicler and Champion of LA’s Diverse Cuisines, Has Died" I sat frozen as I read the words. I couldn't breathe. Surely there had to be a mistake. We were to have lunch the next day. She had already chosen what she was having to eat. She had never and would never stand me up.

As I tried to process what I had just read, a state of panic descended upon me and tears began to stream down my cheeks. Not knowing what else to do, I started to Google the names of other friends (and family) of hers that I might be able to reach, to clear things up. I knew of people I could reach out to but did not have their direct contact information (and as it turns out, they did not have mine either). I was terrified and had to get to someone immediately to clear this up. I continued to type information furiously into Google until I got two reliable phone numbers of people I was sure would know what was going on. One was Donna, who had been the test kitchen director when I worked at The Los Angeles Times, nearly 27 years ago. The other was Barbara's second cousin, Anne, who lives in Malibu. Once I finally reached them, both confirmed my worst nightmare. Barbara had died the Sunday before. This is why my texts had gone unanswered. It was true. She was gone and the worst part was just like with my mother, I didn't have the chance to say goodbye. I was utterly heartbroken.

The next day, I attended her Celebration of Life luncheon at the San Antonio Winery (one of her favorite places). It was hosted by her nephew, Eric, and was absolutely lovely. I wish she could have been there to enjoy the delicious food and flowing wine; and to visit with all her friends who were in attendance. As I sat at the luncheon, I couldn't help but take note of the irony that her memorial (of sorts) was being held on the very same day and time we were supposed to have met, just Barbara and I, to have Greek food on Larchmont.

Barbara was one of the most humble people I have ever met, yet at the same time, she was larger than life. She was not only one of the dearest, most loyal, and caring friends anyone could ask for, but also one of the smartest and most accomplished people I know. She attended Stanford in 1950, when women were, no doubt, scarce on that campus. She then went on to get a master's degree in Journalism from UCLA, again quite rare in those days. She became an incredibly successful journalist which at the time was a male-dominated field, winning a much-coveted James Beard Award. Not only did she break down barriers for women in her chosen field, but also single-handedly introduced countless Southern Californians to a variety of international cuisines (namely Mexican, Indian, and Korean), thanks in part to her insatiable curiosity about other cultures complemented by her brilliant writing for the Los Angeles Times, as well as her own cookbooks. She was a pioneer, in every sense of the word.

To me, however, Barbara was so much more than that. She was like a second mother to me, being very close in age to my mother. She stood in for my mom at some critical times in my life when my mother couldn't be there, most notably after my mom passed away. She gave sage advice and imparted wisdom in a way that my mother, at times, could not, if for no other reason than she was not my mother. I looked up to Barbara because of her age and the wisdom she had gathered in those years I knew that she cared deeply for me, like a daughter, and always had my best interests at heart. She loved me deeply and I, her.

Barbara was a beacon of light, positivity, and spirituality. I could go to her with the simplest or most complex concern and she would always have just the right thing to say. I always felt better after I talked things over with her. When she would email or text me, I would have an overwhelming desire to print out whatever profound words she had written and put them up on my wall so that I could refer to them, again and again.

I was so blessed to have met and known Barbara. From the moment I met her, I loved her. We became instant friends from practically our first conversion, which most likely lasted at least five hours since we could never tear ourselves apart once we got talking.

Before I had children, Jimmy (my pug) and I spent so many evenings at Barbara's cozy home in Hancock Park, where she would prepare us a delicious meal, open a fantastic bottle of wine (she was not only an expert on food, but on wine as well), and we would linger well after midnight discussing every imaginable subject. I could share anything with her. And she shared what she felt comfortable sharing with me as well, despite being the most private person I have ever met. I felt honored when she shared a deeply personal detail of her life with me, knowing how rare that was for her.

Barbara was a lover of animals, which was fitting, given her gentle and empathic nature. She adored all animals, but especially cats. Depsite usally only having one cat at a time, she was the ultimate Cat Lady. During the years I knew her she was never without a furball companion. There was Squeak, then Mr. Lucky, then Miss Lily and finally Emma. She loved them all equally and all lived the life of royalty in her home.

Barbara was the greatest champion of my blog. I don't think she ever missed a post. She would often text me after she read a post. She would always pay me, what I considered to be a completely undeserved and over-the-top compliment. As difficult as it was for me to accept her compliments, I knew, at some level, that they had to be true because she was authentic to her core. Barbara was incapable of telling a falsehood, nor putting on a pretense of any sort. So if she sang my praises as a writer, which she was so kind to do on countless occasions, well then, it had to be true. And there could be a no greater compliment than one coming from her. So I would often read and re-read what she wrote to me, just trying to take in and relish her praise.

This post will be the first of the 320 I have written that will not be read by her. Once I post this, I will not be receiving a text or an email, complimenting me on a particular passage I wrote or a favorite photo she admired. Instead, there will be deafening silence.

What will I ever do without her? I am only beginning to try to figure that out.

Please take a few minutes to read this lovely article about Barbara's incredible life:

I have included a few of my favorite "vintage" photos of Barbara and me with other mutual friends at an assortment of holidays and celebratory gatherings because Barbara was always in attendance!

Barbara and I at The Los Angeles Times test kitchen.

Barbara at my mom's home celebrating Christmas with my family and friends.

Barbara, Rose Dosti (of the revered Culinary SOS column), Donna Deane (test kitchen director), me, and my pug Jimmy, enjoying festive dinners at Barbara's home.

Barbara, who was also an accomplished photographer, took this photo of Jimmy, my beloved pug, and me while at a dinner at her home.

Barbara and I celebrating Christmas Eve at our close family friend's home, the Siegel's, in Los Feliz, where our family celebrated every year, from the time I was a child. Barbara too, soon became a fixtue at their home for the holidays.

Barbara, my mother, and I celebrating my birthday together at Spago.

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