Death hits us in many ways. Some deaths are direct blows to the gut, like being sucked into a vacuum, a visceral feeling of an overwhelming absence. When Anthony Bourdain died, it sent shock waves through the entire food world, with chef after chef exclaiming their shock, grief and heartbreak. Jonathan Gold’s passing is equally tragic, but the effects of his death will continue to be felt for years, as his influence was so thoroughly fundamental to food media — especially in Los Angeles, the city he helped shape and put on the culinary map.
After getting his degree at UCLA, Gold became a proofreader for the LA Weekly. A cellist in his college orchestra, it was his experiences with punk music and hip-hop that shaped him most to become LA Weekly’s music editor in the ‘80s and ‘90s. His reporting in and around the hip-hop scene in LA landed him the nickname “Nervous Cuz” from Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. In 1986, Gold started his first food column, titled “Counter Intelligence,” and began to write about the LA culinary scene to great acclaim. After decades of powerful and incisive journalism, Gold won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, the first one ever given for food writing. Gold’s long and famed career stands as a testament to the power and importance of food writing as cultural criticism, distinct from ethnography and from other arts reporting.
Gold came into food writing not with a desire to remark upon the newest haute cuisine, the richest pate or the most expensive caviar. Instead, Gold strove to find the real Los Angeles, the communities within LA that ate and breathed and lived in circles completely different from the ones that were familiar to himself or to the readers of his columns. His curiosity knew no boundaries — he wrote about topics ranging from Iranian lamb tongue sandwiches and Korean live prawns to Oaxacan crickets and Szechuan lamb skewers. He preferred the eccentric hole-in-the-wall restaurants in areas where communities have traditions or are creating traditions — such as restaurants where Chinese chefs cook American Chinese food for new Chinese immigrants.
Like Los Angeles itself, Gold’s writing is sometimes sprawling and excitedly chaotic, other times sharp and perfectly erudite. He often uses the second person, a technique that invites rather than criticizes, that even at its harshest belies a curious empathy. He conveys that there is more than the taste of the food that makes the space inviting, that there are restaurants where the food is honestly quite bad but that are tender and important in their own ways. Each piece that Gold writes is succinct, and one cannot help but find oneself reading article after article, one by one like bonbons, savoring each one and yet needing to read another.
In a sense, a town like LA needed a writer like Gold. Beneath the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and the younger more affluent folks moving in who perpetuate it, Gold stood firm as someone who recognized difference without needing to see it integrated into a larger whole. He saw the city not as a melting pot, but as a stained-glass window, with each community as one part of the whole picture, yet all distinct and colorful in their own ways, not erasing or conflicting with each other. And these previously undiscussed restaurants in these underrepresented communities succeeded financially thanks to his reviews. Much of the 2015 documentary about Gold’s life, “City of Gold,” portrays the lives of the many chefs and families that he highlighted in his reviews. Bricia Lopez, co-owner of Guelaguetza, credits Gold for highlighting Oaxacan food and its indigenous history, noting the pride she felt as her culture gained recognition.
Gold was a gentle giant. He let the food speak for itself, and despite becoming well-known in his field, he always shared the fame. He championed cultural integrity as well as the inherent blending of cultural migration, saying once that “we are all citizens of the world: strangers, together.” But that shouldn’t stop anyone from asking their neighbor to pass the salt.