Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A Heart (and Stomach) of Gold

L.A. is in mourning. Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times (and the first food writer ever to receive this honor), has just passed away. Not long ago, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It’s a cruel disease, painful and unstoppable. Gold heard the bad news a mere three weeks ago. Now, at the age of 56, he is gone.

Not many critics inspire movies. When they appear as characters, they are usually snobs and snots, though sometimes they’re redeemed by the final fadeout. I’m thinking particularly of the stuffy food critic, Anton Ego, voiced to a fare-thee-well by Peter O’Toole, in Pixar’s animated Ratatouille. Ego’s over-educated palate leads him to sniff at haute cuisine that is less than perfection. But one of the film’s key twists comes when Ego is served a simple eggplant dish that reminds him of his mother’s long-ago kitchen. Suddenly he’s a boy again, savoring the flavors of home.

Jonathan Gold, though a discerning gourmand, was far from being a snob. He could appreciate lavish top-drawer cooking, but he gave his heart to the mom-and-pop eateries of ethnic Los Angeles. In fact, he’s been credited with inventing a whole new style of food reviewing, one that involved ferreting out those neighborhood cafes, strip mall bistros, and food trucks that bring to the hungry public the joys of authentic cuisine from SoCal’s many cultures. Roaming the L.A. basin in his gas-guzzling old green truck, he was a welcome presence wherever he went. Small-time restaurateurs loved him, and he loved them back. What he possessed more than anything was an appreciation for the ways in which food—cooking it, eating it—brings communities together.

Gold was a big man, with long, scraggly, greying locks. His larger-than-life presence made him a natural on a movie screen. The only other real-life critic I can think of who starred in his own movie was Roger Ebert, whose man-of-the-people approach to film criticism (along with his heroic acceptance of his own mortality) led to a 2014 documentary, Life Itself. Ebert’s populist inclinations are probably what made movie fans identify with him so passionately that a film was warranted. Likewise Gold was the star of City of Gold (2015), a cheerful tribute to an oversized sprite who is seen happily roaming the streets of his native city in search of his next unexpectedly great meal. Though City of Gold features on-camera appearances by some giants of the food world, all of them praising of Gold’s dedication to his craft, the soul of the film is his interplay with the foreign-born chefs whose native flavors he samples with such gusto.

In the course of City of Gold, we’re also introduced to the wife and kids who lovingly support his food obsessions. From everything I’ve heard, their loss is immeasurable. This morning I was treated to a KPCC-FM interview with Gold’s brother, Mark, who teaches environmental science at UCLA. Clearly the household in which Gold grew up was a place of intense enthusiasms of all kinds. Mark described how he once was treated by Jonathan to a foodie jaunt back to their parents’ birthplace, Chicago. In the name of journalism, they sought out and sampled the homey restaurants their parents had once loved, and also spent a glorious afternoon at Wrigley Field, cheering on the Cubs. In Mark’s words, the trip was an adult version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

I’m also both cheered and saddened by Mark’s memory of Jonathan’s final days, when friends and family saluted him with pastrami sandwiches from Langer’s Deli. Alas, he couldn’t join in. 

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