Yes it’s true: Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold, the only person to win a Pulizer as a food writer, died this past weekend, of pancreatic cancer.
I have a few things to say about Jonathan Gold, before I get to his writing:
1. Maybe you’ve never heard of him, but I was in awe. In 2004, I was too intimidated to interview him for the first edition of Will Write for Food. It was because I started out in food writing as a restaurant critic in the 1980s. I read his collection of reviews, Counter Intelligence, for inspiration and tried to imitate him in my writing.
Years later, I got over myself and interviewed him for a later edition of my book, and then actually got to know him a little bit.
2. He didn’t seem to care if chefs recognized him. The first time we met professionally was in 2005, when I hosted a weekend food writing workshop for UCLA. Despite the fact that several chefs attended, he did not wear a disguise — and he was a distinctive-looking guy. When I did a later food writing class at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, the restaurant critic Tom Seitsema came in a wig, hat and sunglasses.
3. He read my blog on occasion! He once left a comment, which I consider a huge honor. After reading the post “Blogger Blackmail” Surfaces as a Trend, he wrote: “I realize I sound like a broken record here, but I am, as always appalled. Food writers, whether hobbyists, pro bloggers, freelancers, contract writers, or staffers, should never take free anything, not even a bag of chips. The end result is always compromised.”
It sounds quaint now, doesn’t it? He had a full-time job as a food writer on a newspaper. That sounds quaint too, now.
Anyway, I always meant to write about Jonathan Gold’s writing technique.
I’m sad to realize that now is the time. Jonathan drew from music, popular culture, religion, and even politics when he wrote about restaurants. He was never stuffy and could be playful and friendly, even when he was dead serious. As a critic, he was generous to small restaurants and took their cooking seriously. He always did his homework, eating at a place many times or searching his cookbooks to understand the food better. In days where critics reviewed only high-end restaurants, he went low and held them in the same esteem.
Here are a few writing samples to savor:
1. References to both highbrow and lowbrow culture. This first example is highbrow. He’s talking about high-end desserts, and manages to work in a clown, a sculptor and an opera director. In the second, he compares a dessert to overeating. Both are from his review, L.A. Simonized.
“Many of the finest artifacts of American culture in the last decades have come from the collision of formidable technique and trivial obsession. Bill Irwin’s juggling comes to mind, as do Jeff Koons sculptures and Peter Sellers’ setting of ‘Don Giovanni’ outside a Harlem crackhouse.”
“If you are interested in feeling the way you might have after gorging on funnel cake, ice cream and caramel apples at the state fair when you were 13, the Junk Food Sampler may be for you. This isn’t a dessert; it’s a diabetic coma on a plate.”
2. He loved to use “you” and “your,” and he was really good at it. Note the use of second person in the first and second sentences.
“It’s the first place your cousin from Ohio wants to go when she gets into town. You can probably trace the popularity of grain bowls, avocado toast and $13 jam to Sqirl …. The current predilections for the flavors of sorrel, turmeric, burnt bread and ricotta toast didn’t start with Jessica Koslow, but they may as well have. Who waits 90 minutes in line for a bowl of porridge? Still, the moment the braised chickpeas, the grilled cheese with tomato jam, the kale tabbouleh and the sorrel pesto rice hit the makeshift table, you’ve already forgotten what you were so sore about. Life is funny that way.”
3. He launches in. This is a first paragraph. Note that there is no preamble. like the two of you were already in a conversation.
“Maybe you’ve been running off to new restaurants all this week — I hear Xoia is pretty good. I’ve been one of the wretched minions tearing himself out of bed at 6 every morning, brushing his teeth with ale and hauling down to the local bar for another go at the World Cup matches, the dawn bacchanalia of soccer, nationalism and strong beer that leave even strong men and women without the strength to brave 9 p.m. reservations at WP24, especially the evening after the U.S.-Ghana match.” — Guelaguetza
And he studied his subject faithfully. “If a new group of immigrants turned up in Los Angeles County, chances were good that he had already studied the benchmark dishes of their cuisine in one or more of the 3,000 to 5,000 cookbooks he owned,” said Pete Wells in his obit in the New York Times.
4. He could be delightfully conversational. Doesn’t he sound like your friend who wants to take a drive with you? And what about “violently leavened?” I love that. Also “leaping.” That’s lots of action for a restaurant review.
“The best waffles commercially available, I am prepared to state, come from Brown Sugar Kitchen, a small, fragrant breakfast diner on Mandela Parkway in West Oakland. The waffles, Tanya Holland’s cornmeal-enhanced riff on Marion Cunningham’s famous yeasted waffles, are crisp, light and so violently leavened that they threaten to leap from the waffle iron in which they are cooked. If you drive up from Los Angeles about 6 a.m., you can be at Brown Sugar Kitchen by noon. The hour you spend in line on a weekend morning will be the longest hour of your life.”
5. To close, here’s one of his most famous essays. To give you an idea of his obsessiveness, he had 120 meals in restaurants in four months, to come up with his Koreatown top 40.
So RIP Jonathan Gold. I hope that you are enjoying many spectacular meals from around the world, wherever you are now.
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You might also like:
- Still Life with Chicken — an interview with Ira Glass of This American Life, about Gold’s performance art with a live chicken. Yes, seriously!
- A GoFundMe page for his family, and to cover expenses.
(Disclosure: This post includes an affiliate link.)