A year ago today, a city of stars lost an icon.
As you may have heard, Jonathan Gold was much more than a food critic. In a world where newspapers are struggling and consumers take to the internet for review, I would venture to say that few cities have as emotional a relationship to their local critic as we did.
He was the soul of LA. One of few redeeming things we have. He was a man of substance, someone we were proud to call our own. He crafted a shared identity for one of the most diverse cities in the world. Our North Star.
“Gold wrote not so much in sentences and paragraphs as in litanies: cascades of facts, of visual and tactile sensations, of wild references that ricocheted from the toffee-nosed to the profane. His appreciation for a far-reaching yet staggeringly apt simile was, perhaps, one of the reasons he so deeply loved the athletic lyricism of rap—a Gold review is a complex flow that would do his old friend Dr. Dre proud.”
Jonathan Gold passed away from pancreatic cancer last year. Few knew he was ill. The announcement of his death sent shockwaves through a city that is used to getting shaken up by literal earthquakes. The news came after a tragic blow to the food culture community, just two weeks after the world lost Anthony Bourdain. Two men who helped make sense of the world through food. Who helped connect people and stories and cultures in an intimate and personal way that helped to humanize the world one meal at a time.
Growing up in the suburban Midwest, I was used to hiding my culture. I was used to whitewashing my own heritage, pushing aside “ethnic” foods in a fruitless effort to fit in. Who wants a dumplings for lunch when you can have Lunchables and become invisible? Rather than deal with questions of disgusted curiosity, I chose to ignore the conversation, avoid it.
Over time, American culture changed. Food that I had once hid away, too ashamed to eat, is now popular and widely accepted. But that trend can’t be attributed to the efforts of us immigrants. It comes from people like Mr. Gold and Mr. Bourdain. Men who knew that they had the privilege of a platform, and knew they had the influence that could actually make a difference. And they did. People began to see the world differently. They began to see their city differently. And children of immigrants cautiously stepped out of the shadows in wonder that a white man on TV is eating the food we tried to reject — and enjoying it too.
“After he writes about our restaurant. The people, they’re waiting, before we open. They bring the newspaper. “I want to eat southern Thai food.”
Indeed, it was more than LA that suffered a loss on July 21 last year. The world lost the perspective of a mind who saw and tasted and wrote and shared with such genuine empathy. It takes a certain level of compassion to redefine the role of a food critic. It takes a certain level of stubbornness and admiration to be able to bring taco trucks to a stage normally reserved for white-tablecloth restaurants. A man who fell into food writing by accident and became the one who elevated food writing to a Pulitzer-worthy pursuit.
I wonder if it could have happened anywhere outside of LA, which still in a way embraces a Wild West attitude toward tradition. Perhaps it was a magical combination: a city rich in culture that was so easy to ignore, and a man who paid attention to the everyday details around him. Who listened and learned. Who moved through space in a different way than the rest of us: attentively, respectfully.
LA is best seen at the street level. After all, we spend way too much time seeing the world through our cars. And Mr. Gold knew this. There’s something to be said about a man who uses Pico Boulevard as his case study. Many others might have gone for Sunset or Santa Monica. Wilshire, perhaps, but certainly not Pico.
In the 2015 documentary “City of Gold,” scenes are cut together with footage of Mr. Gold driving through the city with a level of comfort and patience that few can afford in the traffic-ridden streets.
“I am my truck. My truck is me,” he said, explaining as Angelenos do, which freeway he got off and the streets he uses to detour.
In his truck, he invites us on this journey. He takes us to places he ins’t supposed to go to…as a food critic. He eats food made by people who weren’t supposed to cook for him…a food critic. These were mom-and-pop shops that cooked for their communities in order to support their families. They weren’t thinking about what their food meant for culture or identity. They simply made what they knew, as best they can. They never expected to be seen by the public the way established restaurants with renowned chefs do. They never sought the glory of a rating or a review.
I will check my uppity food-person proclivities at the door. I will see it as a conduit between past and present, as a part of the city as vital as many others. And I probably still won’t like the tacos, but that is beside the point — and that was Jonathan’s point. Sometimes restaurants are just the physical incarnation of the story of a city.
The cultural role of a critic is to consecrate: to create value for things through association and dissociation. As cultural gatekeepers, a critic has the power to elevate an entire form simply by seeing it as capable of value, worthy of criticism.
But Jonathan Gold upheld the SPJ code of ethics in a way that is remarkable for a critic.
Provide context. Give voice to the voiceless. Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.
Through his words, he gave these cuisines value. He wrote with context, understanding that not one set of criteria can be used to evaluate everything. So he did his due diligence. He researched about different cultures, different culinary traditions, different ingredients. He celebrated the diversity of the city, but also recognized the broken parts. He did so in a way that could never come through in a Yelp review.
He had a way of making the foreign approachable. Making it feel familiar. Making it feel like it should be in your life, making you take a long hard look at yourself and your biases. But he did so in a friendly way, an inspiring way that makes you look at the city you call home differently. He didn’t assume you have background knowledge, just like he never assumed he had enough knowledge himself. He went out of his way to gather the context he needed to tell a story he knew was not his to tell. But in his telling, he gave them a stage, changing the lives of the people cooking, of the people eating.
Today, no one endeavors to succeed his role in the hearts of Angelenos. But in a way, all of us carry the torch of his legacy. Some see the world with rose-colored glasses. Los Angeles, through his eyes, is golden. And I hope we can all learn to see and love a place the way he did.