On Reading Jonathan Gold
By Benjamin Aldes WurgaftNovember 24, 2018
Gold offered weekly reviews of restaurants in the Los Angeles area, but he also represented Los Angeles both to the city’s residents and to the world. His reviews and notes on food may bear the time-stamp of workaday journalism, but they also transcend their time and geography. They constitute a full-fledged chapter of Los Angeles’s literary history, and of the history of food writing. Encomia aside, I owe Gold a personal debt as a reader. His reviews taught me to love Los Angeles, shaking off cinematic and literary visions of the city that had taught me to mistrust the place. Needless to say, L.A. detraction is available for cheap. Mike Davis, in his well-known study City of Quartz (1990), surveys stereotypes of Los Angeles as a city where the mind in particular comes to ruin, a place that celebrates our appetites but not our intellects. Davis lists writers who seem to have been undone by L.A.:
Fused into a single montage image are Fitzgerald reduced to a drunken hack, West rushing to his own apocalypse (thinking it a dinner party), Faulkner rewriting second-rate scripts, Brecht raging against the mutilation of his work, the Hollywood Ten on their way to prison, Didion on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and so on. Los Angeles (and its alter-ego, Hollywood) becomes the literalized Mahagonny: city of seduction and defeat, the antipode to critical intelligence.
The brain becomes the victim of the body’s seduction, even as long episodes of sitting in traffic (perhaps en route to the next binge) wear down the body. Food, one old story went, was not so much appreciated in Los Angeles as consumed like gasoline. In 1971, the architectural historian Reyner Banham, an English celebrant of Los Angeles whose high estimation of the city Mike Davis would criticize, mused on the relationship between movement and food in a city built for the personal car:
The purely functional hamburger, as delivered across the counter of say, the Gipsy Wagon on the UCLA campus, the Surf-boarder at Hermosa Beach or any McDonald’s or Jack-in-the-Box outlet anywhere, is a pretty well-balanced meal that he who runs (surfs, drives, studies) can eat with one hand; not only the ground beef but all the sauce, cheese, shredded lettuce, and other garnishes are firmly gripped between the two halves of the bun.
Los Angeles still has its fast food aficionados, but, as I would learn, food as mere fuel for a city on the go has nothing whatsoever to do with Jonathan Gold’s Los Angeles. The city is full of appreciative eaters for whom restaurants are more exciting destinations than beaches, or cinemas, or parties. L.A.’s chefs are eager to draw on a dizzying array of produce found at farmers’ markets that put those of most other cities to shame. Los Angeles is full of people for whom three hours at a meal is not wasted time. Gold’s affection for taco trucks had less to do with speed or restlessness than with the fact that the truck suits a city defined by its thoroughfares. The taco truck honors the city.
I moved to Los Angeles with my partner in the late spring of 2012. She had taken a new job, the kind that seems promising enough to move a person from the cooler (and for us, happier) climatic conditions of Northern California to what struck me not as beautiful but rather interrogating sunshine. Each ray of light seemed to shout, “Why aren’t you satisfied by your choices?” Unemployed, missing my bicycle rides through the Oakland hills, not to mention my security blanket made of fog, and knowing few people in our new city, I sat at our dining room table and tried to turn my three-year-old doctoral dissertation into a book. I noticed the restaurants, taco trucks, and produce markets (I have good instincts in this area of life, at least), and made the occasional foray, but I stubbornly refused to let their obvious quality change my opinion of our new home. Every once in a while I would pause in my work to hate Los Angeles in unhelpfully vocal ways.
I am not given to epiphanies, so I remember very clearly the day when my loathing for Los Angeles turned to love. I was in the middle of a long bus ride. It was my weekly routine to travel that way down Sunset, from our apartment in Echo Park down to the UCLA library. I was alternating (as is my distractible wont) between two different kinds of reading material, both of which I had picked up in an effort to get to know the city better: several of Gold’s reviews, current to 2012, and Reyner Banham’s classic work of urbanism from 1971, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, the fruit of the years the Englishman spent visiting and studying Los Angeles. Although they were of different vintages, you might say the readings paired well. Gold’s restaurants began to fit into Banham’s map of the city as locations you could reach if you were just willing to see the highways as connections rather than barriers. The bus ride was not too jolt-filled. We had passed from the cold-molasses-like crawl that characterizes Sunset during rush hours to a somewhat smoother flow, as if the molasses had been brought up to room temperature. I had time to think clearly about what Gold’s reviews and Banham’s book share, namely a love for Los Angeles as a place, maintained in full knowledge of the city’s flaws and shortcomings. They appreciate ramen and the Romanesque, respectively, as these elements crop up in places that seem entirely accidental or willful, apart from any considerations of planning.
From that point on, I delighted in a minor form of Gold emulation. Not having a newspaper’s budget to back my eating habits, I mostly ate tacos, ramen, and pho, avoiding $40+ entrees and dishes of pork shoulder designed to feed six and priced accordingly. I found out-of-the-way markets and farm stands to support and inform my cooking. In my mid-30s I followed a track Gold had laid in his 20s, learning to eat in Los Angeles by following Pico (and other streets) and eating every interesting thing I could reasonably afford. I continued to hate the traffic (and the heat), but as millions know in their guts, there is no incompatibility between traffic-hatred and love for Los Angeles.
At first blush, one thing was obvious: Gold’s work recalls Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker essays of the late ’60s and ’70s, in which Trillin described what he called “research,” and what Trillin’s wife Alice called “being a food crazy.” I found this association comforting, having first read Trillin’s essays as a high school student, finding them in collected volumes on my food-loving parents’ shelves and coffee tables. Trillin was ultimately after stories of political or human interest, but he lavished attention on his own appetite for comic purpose, wandering New York and beyond in search of sausage rolls, steamed fish, maybe a pretzel. He devoted an essay to his fantasy of serving as a diplomatic tour guide to Chairman Mao, making sure that the chairman missed no important New York delicacy — all in the name of international relations, of course. Trillin’s essays never betray the reader’s pleasure by wasting time on, say, defining the Platonic form of a pastrami on rye, or offering the correct definition of béchamel. Only later would I learn that Gold had read Trillin with devotion. If we were to trace out a family tree of North American food writers, one that would include James Beard, Helen Brown, M. F. K. Fisher, Craig Claiborne, Ruth Reichl, and so on, Gold would be Trillin’s direct descendent, a generation younger but still animated by Trillin’s revolt against the high-low culinary distinctions according to which French cooking had been enshrined for critics, and the simple pleasures of seeking treats while wandering one’s city never got their due. Gold loved the rebelliousness of punk music, and it’s important to note that modern food writing contained a rebellious spirit of its own. Gold drew water from both wells.
Gold made his most famous statements about taco trucks relatively late in his career, which I feel should have been his mid-career; one of the features of a mortal creative life is that we never know whether or not our current style is, in fact, our “late style.” Earlier, Gold specialized in discovering restaurants that the critics of an earlier generation might have abjured because of a prejudice against vernacular food, which rendered regional Mexican, Korean, or Chinese cuisines as simply ineligible for criticism per se. There is no single quintessential Gold food form, because his tastes were as broad as his knowledge was deep, but many fans know him as a connoisseur of the weird, who refused to turn up his nose at tripe, whose question about hagfish was not, “How do I avoid eating this awful-looking creature whose stress response is to turn water to slime?” but rather, “Does it taste good?”
If Gold was like Trillin insofar as he was on the side of the eaters, he was very unlike him in that he was also, and perhaps more unwaveringly, on the side of the cooks. The outpouring of grief from Los Angeles chefs after July 21 testifies to this. I do not know for sure, but I suspect Gold’s affection for chefs was tied to his own identification with artists, as a writer. Addressing a 2013 UCLA graduating class, Gold told his audience that he came to them as an emissary from “the world of failure,” in which artists (and critics) usually live. He went on: while he was now a “semi-successful writer, a chronicler of Los Angeles,” he still thought of himself as his UCLA undergraduate persona, a recently failed cellist. This might have seemed like false modesty. Gold’s youthful audience might have seen him as an avatar of literary success, bearing his 2007 Pulitzer, the first and still only such prize awarded for food criticism. But this address also hints at how Gold understood his own work. His creative process took time, like the work of any artist. He was famously late for dinner and his reviews infamously late to editors, but his sidetracks through books and films and other forms of living led to inspired observations. He was lucky that a combination of professional success, and the patience of editors and loved ones, gave him time to think and to write as he would, something few writers receive. But I think that we, his readers, were luckier still that Jonathan Gold took his time.
Gold was born in 1960, when, according to Mike Davis, Los Angeles was “the most WASPish of big cities.” If that characterization was true in demographic or cultural terms, everything had changed by the time of Gold’s maturity, and Gold would become a voice of that change, himself benefiting by it both gastronomically and professionally. Gold’s tastes in music, art, and food were not always popular, and his interest in the cello and in classical music could be called downright anachronistic. And yet his career was defined by timeliness, by being on the scene for punk, gangsta rap, and grunge, by drawing connections between Los Angeles’s struggles with diversity before, during, and after the L.A. riots, and by chronicling restaurants that would spring up and die off as waves of immigrant chefs tried to find their footing. Gold was born just five years before the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, one of the most consequential legal turns for restaurant culture in the late 20th-century United States. The Act eliminated a quota system that had favored Western Europeans, and enabled not only more skilled workers from other countries to immigrate, but to bring their families too, creating favorable conditions for businesses like restaurants. The Chinese-American population alone doubled within about 10 years of the Act’s passage, bringing chefs from Hong Kong and Taiwan, along with their regional cuisines. Change came from other sources too. As Gold observed in his essay “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard,” when he was a young writer just out of college, many of the restaurants he encountered up and down Pico Boulevard were the happy result of an influx of immigrants who had fled political instability and war in Latin America. By the time Gold got his Pulitzer, it would have sounded ridiculous to call L.A. “WASPish.”
Gold began his career as a music critic, writing first on the classical music that he had himself studied as a musician, and then on rock and hip-hop, most notably covering the beginnings of gangsta rap and the recording sessions of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. This was more than flexibility on Gold’s part; it was a delight in exploding old ideas about the differences between high and popular genres of music. Gold did exactly the same thing in his writing on food, something I only started to understand when one of his reviews, just for a second, broke the skin of my culinary reverie, annoying me. This was his September 7, 2013, review of Echo Park restaurant Allumette (since closed), where the kitchen of chef Miles Thompson turned out dishes so carefully composed that they appeared to have been plated with tweezers, while bartender Serena Herrick transformed farmers’ market produce into beautiful cocktails with punning names like “Strega Genesis.” Gold’s mind seemed to drift from these delights to Ariza, the taco truck parked across the street, or to Chengdu Taste in Alhambra. “What about those potatoes!” I cried internally, thinking of the way a piping hot plate of fried potatoes made katsuobushi shavings dance as they curled from the heat. “Focus, Gold!” I thought. I was only starting to realize that Gold was looking for joy, and he would go where it took him. He insisted on this freedom.
What makes restaurant criticism difficult is not the basic task of describing a meal or that of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a restaurant, although these have their complexities and there is a vast difference between the way professionals and amateurs do them. What’s hard is that mere description is boring. Much like coverage of a ball game, a description of a meal can run afoul of recursion: the report of a spectacular run to catch a ball exhausts its meaning (and some readers’ patience) in the adjective “spectacular,” and in similar fashion, a food writer must say more about a dish than simply listing the qualities of its ingredients if they want us to keep reading, week after week. This problem in food writing may explain what divides great criticism from a casual online customer review, and also why so much of the best food writing uses food as a jumping-off point from which to discuss family, heritage, personal identity, the complexity and fragility of our collective social life, and so forth. To read an essay by M. F. K. Fisher is to know that a segment of an orange both is and isn’t the actual topic at hand, just as to read A. Bartlett Giamatti on baseball is to see the American immigrant experience traveling with the curve ball. Gold beat the problem of recursion by a different means. He simply learned so much about each dish, cuisine, or chefly community that there was always more for him to say.
I still want to live in Gold’s reviews, which he wrote in a distinctive second-person style. For example, “You might follow a salad of ripe heirloom tomatoes and soft-cooked egg with a sliver of crisp-skinned branzino on a bed of chewy tapioca scented with shellfish stock,” as Gold wrote in his review of Allumette. “You will wonder whether there is a point to an old-fashioned made with lamb-fat-washed bourbon or a pisco sour with pink peppercorns, and you will decide that there might be,” as he wrote in one of his last reviews filed, of a new Middle Eastern restaurant called Bavel. Gold’s “you” never seemed like an invitation for one, prompting me to choose my own culinary adventure, but a group invite, telling us that Los Angeles could be large in the sense of opportunities and small in the sense of neighborliness and access, of commensality. Commensality is one good word for what critics of L.A. think is impossible here. The word literally means “the quality of eating at the same table.” It implies community.
Commensality is a special challenge in a city whose first language is movement; Banham said that he had learned how to drive in Los Angeles in order to “read Los Angeles in the original.” Director Laura Gabbert, in her 2015 documentary film about Gold’s life and work, City of Gold, established a clear parallel between Banham and the food critic: “I’m an L.A. guy, I drive. I am my truck, my truck is me,” Gold says to the camera. The predominant urban form of a Jonathan Gold review is the mini-mall, a Chinese (or Filipino, or Persian, or Japanese) restaurant tucked in the corner, the car potentially driving up to the front door, depending on the neighborhood and how quickly Gold’s readers have responded to his latest review. But cars are unavoidably separate and separating forms of travel. The highways often make L.A. into a city of origins and destinations without opportunities to connect with others en-route. Gold seems to have understood full well that commensality in Los Angeles was both a goal and a challenge. In an elegiac piece written in response to the L.A. Riots when he was a young critic, Gold celebrated neighborliness, meditating on the garlic pounded by his Korean landlords, whose son was tragically shot during the rioting. You could read so much of his later restaurant criticism as an extension of this essay’s closing line, “I wish that they would invite me over to dinner.”
“I want to make Los Angeles smaller,” Gold once said. As his career progressed, Gold deepened everyone’s knowledge of their neighbors, demonstrating that much of the most exciting cooking in Los Angeles took place within local enclaves where chefs cooked for audiences of their peers. But this is something less than ensuring that Angelenos eat together across the lines of geography, ethnicity, and culture. The irony of City of Gold is that it is a portrait not of an L.A. bound together by food across lines of identity, but of distinct “food nations” that intermingle while remaining, for the most part, separate; and whose separateness is actually a great source of strength, in terms of the cooking itself. To produce an array of culinary microclimates — one way to think about L.A. and food — takes the relative isolation of cultures just as much as intermixing. Diversity doesn’t necessarily mean togetherness. Gold’s dream of commensality begins to seem like an ideal he held out for himself and for his readers, rather than an observation of what was actually happening at street level in Los Angeles.
Just as Gold was the gastronomic beneficiary of post-1965 immigration to the United States, he also benefited from the fact that he came to prominence just as the restaurant took on a new centrality as a form of cultural expression in American life. People started to skip the movie and go directly to dinner, the restaurant experience supplying much of the sense of play and personality that we previously expected from light passing through celluloid. As restaurants rose, so did the trend to level value distinctions between different types of cuisines. Thus we enjoy the high-end taco, or a new restaurant in Koreatown that sells slightly polished versions of the stews already available down the block.
When Anthony Bourdain died, Gold wrote, “I cannot imagine how the food world is going to cope with this gaping Bourdain-shaped hole — not at its center but on its fringes, looking exactly like a man throwing rocks at the status quo.” What was true of Bourdain’s career was also true of Gold’s, however: if you begin your writerly life “throwing rocks at the status quo” and find some success, don’t be surprised if a new status quo that centers on rock-throwing emerges, with you canonized as a primal stone-tosser. Over the arc of Gold’s career, “ethnic restaurants” and street food came to enjoy a visibility in Los Angeles dining they had not previously enjoyed, even as that term, “street food,” started to raise questions. What street? Do you mean carts? Elote? Tacos? What about the street is supposed to be delicious? Is this simply about middle-class (or upper-, or wealthy) diners longing for some magical form of culinary transformation imparted by that often-empty black box of a word, “authenticity”? Unclear. When Gold’s outline decorates the wall next to a booth at a very hip, very popular, post-truck L.A. taqueria, we are riding the line between deep appreciation and canonization. In honoring the critic and his legacy, we must be careful not to turn him into an image, part of a dearly loved status quo that must inevitably move on.
When Gold died, I felt a depth of sadness that I worried I had not earned. I had not known the man personally, after all. We had exchanged a few witticisms on Twitter, and Gold wrote me out of the blue, once, to tell me he had read my work. I was floored. I had no reason to think my writing would have crossed Gold’s desk. He was kind, and I was awkward, because Gold’s work had inspired me, and I risked embarrassing him by telling him what his reviews meant to me: “your work has made my life better.” We then corresponded in the months right before he died. His range of reference was wonderful. We joked about the writing of Karl Ove Knausgaard and the sculptures of Joseph Beuys, and right after the passing of the philosopher Stanley Cavell, we talked about the fact that Gold’s daughter had just taken a seminar on Cavell; Gold seemed like a proud father and husband, and this is how I think of him now, open to learning from a world he had helped to create in Los Angeles, but that he never pretended to control.
I left L.A. four years ago, but I continued to read Gold’s restaurant reviews every week, it making no difference that I couldn’t use them as dining advice. I will continue to reread them now. That taqueria in the Arts District I recently visited on a return trip to L.A. that felt a bit like a post-Gold pilgrimage? It belongs to Chef Wes Avila, and it is called Guerrilla Tacos, the same name as Avila’s former truck, one of Gold’s favorite places to eat tacos toward the end of his life, and one of my old favorites too. A framed photograph of Gold stands on a shelf above Avila’s current kitchen, but when I think of Guerrilla and Gold, it is of a guy (I don’t know his name) who used to turn up at the truck in the early evening with a bottle of wine and a few extra glasses. I wish I were there right now to toast the man who helped me love Los Angeles.
Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian. His next book, Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food is forthcoming from the University of California Press in Fall 2019.
Feature image by Michael Kurcfeld.
Banner image by Steve Lyon.
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