Big Men

Beautiful and talented Dana Goodyear has a portrait of favorite living food writer Jonathan Gold in this week’s New Yorker.  You know you’ve arrived when they write a profile of you in The Jewish Journal.  I mean, The New Yorker.

Yes, I’ve made a subspecialty for 10 years now of telling the world what a remarkable service Gold does for food, for culture, for LA. Here’s what I wrote in 1999:

You could map the area of the average restaurant reviewer’s travels, and it would pretty much overlap with Visa’s preferred zip codes. Los Angeles is a city segregated by lack of good public transportation, by massive freeway systems, by staggering home prices, by race. We don’t live in one another’s neighborhoods. We don’t, usually, eat in one another’s restaurants. Gold drives across these boundaries like Il Postino peddling his bicycle from village cottage to hilltop villa. His reviews draw us Angelenos near in a way that a thousand flowery mayoral speeches on tolerance and diversity cannot. Anyone who’s heard Korean pop knows that music is not really the international language. A tour among the grasshopper vendors at a Bangkok market will convince you that food isn’t either. So what is? Appetite. We are all hungry for something, The Farm Dogs memorably sing, and why not take them literally. I wouldn’t eat the “particularly stinky fermented-shrimp sambal” at Sudi Mampir on a bet, but Gold seems to thrive on the stuff. And he describes the glee the Indonesian proprietors express when their loyal customers, longing for a taste of home, feel better after eating it.

We may not understand what our neighbors eat, but we understand their devotion to their grandmothers’ recipes, to the familiar smells, to a finally perfect slice of something eaten a thousand times before, as something very human. Without Gold, a little of the stitching has gone out of the LA fabric. Score one for the Forces That Pull Us Asunder. In the building where I work, the easiest way for me to start a conversation with the Phillipino consular officials, the Korean bankers, the Latino journalists, the black lawyers, is to ask them about the food I know they are hungry for. Without Gold, how will I know?

Goodyear writes a marvelous description of Gold—the woman began her career as a poet, after all. Though I’ve never met Jonathan Gold, I’ve seen him, and she writes what I saw: heavy set, shlumpy (my word, not hers), bright red hair longish and thinning—my meory is that if the cartoon shop guy in the Simpsons and Mario Batali had a son….

The piece made me think of that specialized class of heavyweight Jewish gourmand writers/personalities.  I mean, very heavyweight. Jeffrey Steingarten, Andrew Zimmern—the host of that show on The Travel Channel—and the grandaddy in a trough of his own, A. J. Liebling.  Liebling,  the son of Jewish immigrants,  became the finest food and sport writer of his time, spending most of his career at The New Yorker.  He died in 1963 at the age of 59, having lived a life of wonderful excess.

I admire these men, but I’m incapable of emulating them.  For one, I’m too vain.  And I love food too much to have to blame it for killing me.  I don’t have their talent for eating or for writing, but I look forward to every word they write and bite they take.