July 23, 2009

I give myself credit for very little in this world, but I will take it for discovering Jonathan Gold before the Pulitzer committee did.

Gold is The L.A. Weekly food writer who received journalism’s highest award—aside from the Rockower, of course—in 2007, the first food writer ever to receive a Pulitzer.

He received the $10,000 prize, wrote the judges,  “ for his zestful, wide ranging restaurant reviews, expressing the delight of an erudite eater.”

But that’s not why he won it. By that description, Calvin Trillin got robbed.  Trillin is not a bit less zestful or wide-ranging, and he was stuffing his face long before Gold gnawed his first pork knuckle. (I’ve met Gold twice—he has made up for lost time). Not only would Trillin qualify by this measure, so does his predecessor, A.J. Liebling. And Gail Greene, and Craig Clairborne.

What sets Gold apart is what I recognized when I wrote what I think is the first article appreciating Gold—who else would spill ink in the pre-Web 2.0 years on a food critic at an alt weekly?

And what set him apart was his ability to draw us together.  Whether Gold knows he’s on a holy mission or not, he’s tapped into food’s holy mission: to bring different people to a common table.  Gold’s reviews knit together this diverse city, gave unity to our diversity, celebrated it, allowed us to taste it.

I thought of all that as I sat down today to read my umpteenth Gold review in today’s LA Weekly—the first and often the last piece I’ll read in that paper each week (I hate to sound prudish, but I always had a problem with a self-described progressive magazine that helped fund itself by running prostitution ads featuring exploited immigrant women.  We’d have a 70 page paper if we took those ads—and many years ago we used to—but it’s just a tawdry way of paying for your high-minded message. That said, I gotta read Gold).

May 27, 1999

Good as Gold

When the editors of Gourmet named Jonathan Gold the magazine’s restaurant critic, an obvious question came to mind: Why don’t they just stick a fork in our hearts? To his fans in Los Angeles, losing Jonathan Gold cannot hurt much less.

Gold has been writing restaurant reviews in Los Angeles for about a decade, first at The Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles magazine. Occasionally he goes national. Food & Wine has carried his reports from the food bazaars of Southeast Asia. Rolling Stone, Details and Spin all run his music criticism. But lately his local fans have become spoiled by turning regularly to Gold’s Counter Intelligence column in the LA Weekly.

Most big-city restaurant critics describe meals you can’t afford at places you can’t get into. Gold can do this too, mercilessly. His recent review of the must-be-seen-at Lucques dressed it down for overcharging. A man who ranks the Green Fish-Ball Curry at Thailand Plaza as one of the city’s ten best meals is unlikely to be wowed by yet another rare whatever-crusted ahi at twenty-two dollars for five ounces. Gold’s passion—his bread and butter—has been reporting on his meals at the hundreds of Shanghainese, Cantonese, Japanese, Indonesian, Pakistani, Isaan, Persian, Arabic, American regional, Korean, Mexican, Peruvian and other micro-ethnic eateries that lurk among the strip malls and boulevards from San Gabriel to Agoura. Places whose addresses include fractions, places where the phone is answered in unrecognizable languages, places unknown even to members of the ethnic group whose food they serve. When a Guatemalan friend wanted a special place to take her sisters for a taste of home, she asked me. I searched the online archives for Gold.

His writing is passionate, concise, and muscular—a cocktail of Tom Wolfe and Elizabeth David. “At first glance,” he writes of the signature dish at the South Indian vegetarian restaurant Daswaprakash in Cerritos, “pessret looks like a working maquette for an Eero Saarinen structure, a beige, lentil-flour pancake with the dull, smooth sheen of a freshly pressed pair of gabardine slacks, as big around as a phonograph record and bent into a kind of ‘50s-curvilinear shape. Thin, crisp edges work to a slight, sour chewiness at the center. The pancake encloses a mixture of green chile and minced raw onion—a sort of elegant counterpoint of slight bitternesses—and the package is spicy—hot as an East L.A. taco.”

Gold fits neatly into a little known but much appreciated type: the Jewish -American food writer. Think about it: A.J. Liebling, Raymond Sokolov, Jane and Michael Stern, Jeffrey Steingarten, Seymour Britchky, Calvin Trillin, L.A.‘s own Merrill Schindler. The Jewish cultural appreciation for the importance of food and eating has no doubt helped launch at least a dozen notable careers, Gold’s included. Stand aghast if you must that these writers happily left behind the food strictures of their faith. Trillin has written odes to barbecued pork, and Gold’s favorite local dish is something called the pork pump. You could be religiously, morally, or dietetically sworn never to go near the stuff, but still be entranced by Gold’s vivid description.

Like most of these fine writers, Gold has chosen a life that rewards him for eating whatever doesn’t eat him first. For those who keep kosher, his Rabelesian approach to the world’s larder has got to be chilling. After all, it hasn’t been that many generations since Gold’s ancestors abhored what he seems to crave.

If that offends you, there is good reason to forgive Gold his appetite, and that has to do with the other lines he crosses. 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?

Read my Gold piece in its native habitat here.


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