A Thereness Beneath the Thereness: A Jonathan Gold Reading List

Jonathan Gold poses for a portrait during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

For the past four decades, Jonathan Gold tirelessly catalogued the ebb and flow of cuisine in Los Angeles, and in the process, became known as the “food writing poet” of the city. That poet, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past month, died last week at the age of 57. In his New York Times obituary Ruth Reichl, who published Gold in Gourmet magazine, said of the writer-critic,

Before Tony Bourdain, before reality TV and ‘Parts Unknown’ and people really being into ethnic food in a serious way, it was Jonathan who got it, completely. He really got that food was a gateway into the people, and that food could really define a community. He was really writing about the people more than the food.

According to David Chang, no one knew more about Korean cuisine than Gold, and the critic, whose career began as a music journalist, became the foremost expert on the various regions of the world. Some opine his speciality was Mexican and Central American cooking, having eaten at every pupuseria, taco stand, and restaurant along the 15.5 mile stretch of Pico Boulevard. But really, Gold’s expertise wasn’t limited by borders.

What made Gold a cultural jewel wasn’t just his breath of knowledge, his writing, or his palate — it was that his columns were harbingers of authenticity. Gold didn’t patronize establishments that lacked for cultural importance; the moment a Gold-penned review dropped (in either LA Weekly, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2007, or the Los Angeles Times), the restaurant’s notoriety and importance was elevated, and often introduced people to a style of cooking or a cuisine of which they’d previously been unaware. Gold’s 2004 review of Meals by Genet was a primer on doro wat and Ethiopian food, and elevated the public consciousness of the deliciousness that existed within the Los Angeles neighborhood’s Little Ethiopia:

An Ethiopian friend, Elias, told me that his mother warned him never to eat doro wot anywhere but at home, and he said that it was one of the best pieces of advice anybody had ever given him…When you taste [Genet] Agonafer’s doro wot, you will want to throw rocks at other people’s doro wot. When Agonafer comes out of the kitchen dressed in whites as immaculate as a surgeon’s, she is modest, allowing only that the stew takes her two days to prepare, but if you made doro wot like that, you could afford to be modest about it too.

In the days since Gold’s passing, I rewatched the 2015 documentary, “City of Gold,” in which the director Laura Gabbart shadowed Gold as he traversed the city in his dark grey Dodge RAM truck. What was fascinating wasn’t just the love Gold had for what he termed “traditional” food (he rejected the term ‘ethnic’ or ‘global’) but his fondness for Los Angeles, a metropolis often unjustly mocked or maligned but one that is pocketed with vibrant communities. His writings created a cultural commentary on the city itself and the modern life of its citizens. According to Gold, “The idea of celebrating the glorious mosaic of the city on somebody else’s dime was just completely fun and completely exactly what I wanted to do. I kept feeling as if I was getting away with something…There really is a thereness beneath the thereness.”

As Helen Rosner detailed in her New Yorker tribute to Gold, what made him such a complex and also utterly beloved person — and why dozens of buildings throughout Los Angeles will glow to honor the critic — is two-fold:

Gold often spoke of his hope that his writing would motivate Angelenos to step outside the comfort of their enclaves and get to know their neighbors … Unlike the experience of watching a movie or reading a book, and more even than that of viewing live performances like theatre and dance, the experience of eating in a restaurant exists in a state of flux, shifting from hour to hour and from bite to bite. Gold was often just as interested in the existence of a restaurant itself—Why this neighborhood? Why these operating hours? Why these prices?—as he was in the details of its menu.

Below is a reading list of both Gold’s writings but also features that underscore his importance within food writing but also criticism in general.

1. The Scavenger (Dana Goodyear, New Yorker, 2009)

Dana Goodyear’s New Yorker profile of Gold following his Pulitzer Prize win, in which the critic was introduced to those residing outside of the 213 or 310 area code, revealing not only his love for spicy foods (he used to regularly imbibe hot sauce as a child), but also his fear of scrambled eggs.

2. Claws and Effect (Jonathan Gold, LA Weekly, 2006)

This is one of Gold’s columns that helped win him the Pulitzer, and a prime example of his genius as a critic. His pronouncement of the house-special crab at Macau Street is a deep-dive into the dish (a lightly battered and heavily spiced fried crab) and the interwoven history of cooking in Macau, a city influenced by both western and eastern culinary traditions. In City of Gold, he explained how he would report on a dish or cuisine he was not particularly familiar with, often going to a restaurant multiple times (his record was 17 visits). As a reader, “Claws and Effect” showcases that doggedness to not just critique but investigate.

3. N.W.A: A Hard Act to Follow (Jonathan Gold, LA Weekly, 1989)

Gold began his career as a music reporter, and his 1989 cover story of N.W.A — before the in-fighting and subsequent break-up — is both an examination of hip-hop and rap’s influence on pop culture as well as the dynamics of the group. Gold doesn’t parrot cliches about N.W.A or gangsta rap; instead, he highlights why the group was so groundbreaking: “N.W.A’s canny self-identification as a ruthless Compton street gang, though, is close enough to blur the knife’s edge between streetwise fantasy and funky cold experience.”

4. Kogi Rolls Into L.A. (Jonathan Gold, LA Weekly, 2009)

Roy Choi is arguably one of the nation’s most well-known and celebrated chefs, but in 2009, when Gold published his review of Choi’s Korean taco truck Kogi BBQ, the then-(largely) unknown chef was in the midst of experimenting with a now-singular cuisine that is now a worldwide influence. As Choi recounts in City of Gold, the critic immediately understood what Choi was attempting to accomplish, and titled his review — “Korean Taco Justice League” — as such, conveying Choi’s melding of two of the world’s great cuisines.

5. The Gateway and the Gatekeeper (Danny Chau, The Ringer, 2018)

Part of Gold’s brilliance lay in how he connected with each reader; his use of the perspective of the second-person immediately established a bond and introduced cuisines and dishes to what he believed might be a skeptical audience. In that way, Gold was a friend first, a confidante second, and lastly an expert and critic, and Chau explains how that perspective was revolutionary from a critical standpoint.

6. Critic Jonathan Gold on LA Restaurants, Anonymity, and Corporate Chains (Hillary Dixler Canavan, Eater, 2014)

In 2015, Gold publicly revealed himself, shedding the mask of anonymity that the majority of food critics still adhere to, and in this interview, a full year before he published a triptych of himself in the Los Angeles Times, he explained his reasoning behind the decision: “There’s some key ways of looking at this: One, restaurant critics have never been anonymous, right? Never. The people who think they’re anonymous are just kidding themselves, because when a restaurant has that kind of financial involvement in knowing who one of their customers is, they’re going to know.”

7. Jonathan Gold’s Timeless, Tireless Criticism (Adam Platt, Grub Street, 2018)

It’s easy to forget that Gold didn’t just possess a discerning palate — he was a phenomenal writer, capable of teasing out descriptions of tastes and sensations in tight prose. Platt, who is New York Magazine‘s dining critic, expounds on the difficulty as a food writer of describing a dish just so in a limited space, and describes the first time he met Gold over a lunch of hand-rolled pasta with a luxurious cream sauce.