Jonathan Gold: What We Eat in L.A. We Become

Jonathan Gold has come out. It's purely professional, though. As if anyone could have mistaken the man's stature (and breadth) as the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, Gold lifted last week the veil that was supposed to concealed him from the chefs and restaurateurs he reviewed.

Gold's outing came in his own words in the Times and, later, in a documentary film that played at the Sundance festival to a standing ovation and admiring reviews for Laura Gabbert, the film's director. The Times called "City of Gold" a film that "takes viewers on a cinematic journey with Gold as he scours the city and its anonymous strip malls for undiscovered gems, looking for what he calls 'a thereness beneath the thereness.'"

Or as Gold himself said, speaking of sitting down to a bowl of Vietnamese pho, "A good bowl of pho has a sense of place to it."

When I met with Jonathan Gold in October for one of the Conversation programs at Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach, the subject was "place" in its widest meaning. For Gold, the "thereness" he seeks in a meal in Los Angeles answers the criticism, attributed to many cynics over the decades, that if you scratch beneath the phony tinsel of our anxious city you'll only find the real tinsel.

Bowl of <em>Pho</em>
Bowl of Pho | Photo by James Creative Commons License

For Gold, the bowl of pho is real. It's also a complex sensual and imaginative experience, akin to standing before an accomplished work of art. And it's an anchor, both to the kitchens of Vietnam from which it comes and the place in which the bowl of pho is eaten. Nostalgia and exoticism mingle in the bowl, as they do in our Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is crowded, for Gold, with mixed authenticities. "Under a grimy freeway overpass you may encounter," he told the rancho audience, "one or two acres of tired cactus plants -- noaples -- being harvested by a couple of campesinos with machetes and burlap sacks. It could be a scene from 19th century Mexico."

The harvesters make use of the qualities of this place, as all have from the Tong'va to us.

The thick, fleshy paddles of the nopal cactus might accompany a meal at the kind of eastside barrio joint Gold favors, or they might become the principal ingredient in a plate of "nopal cactus with caramelized onion, guajillo chili, and fresh cheese" that Rick Bayless might serve at Red O in West Hollywood.

Either way, Los Angeles has rendered up locally sourced sustenance and a cultural connection that intersects wonderfully in each forkful.

There are backyards and unbuildable fragments of the grid in southeast Los Angeles County where Gold and the owners of La Casita Mexicana in Bell have seen patches of sugar cane, rows of corn, and trees with Mexican crabapples and chayotes (a fruit with qualities like squash).

The crops are identifiably of their country of origin but they (and their growers) have become, he says, "citizens of Los Angeles."

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"I like to take visitors to Los Angeles to Langers, an old-line Jewish delicatessen across from McArthur Park," Gold said. "By the time they have walked the half block from the subway stop to the restaurant, they will have smelled food from four or five Central American countries" and examined Mexican murals, been offered freshly cut mangos to buy, and bootlegged DVDs.

None of this localism is provincial in Gold's view of what happens when Los Angeles eats. There's a larger dimension to what's on the menu. The immigrant from central China, longing for his regional cuisine, gets a bowl of noodles nearly identical to a fondly remembered meal. His homesickness is relieved. We (who have no memories of central China) are given the taste of a place that may transform what "Chinese cooking" means for us. We may even, I suppose, be led to rethink what we mean by "Chinese" itself.

Gold is a partisan of a cosmopolitanism that begins at the dining table -- or the standup lunch counter -- and extends to the way we are Angeleños today. Cooking traditions bounce off each other in Los Angeles. What's on our plates hybridizes at the speed of an artisanal food truck on the 605. "Los Angeles rewards the wandering diner," Gold believes, and "Los Angeles may be the best place in the nation right now to eat."

It may be one of the best places to figure out what it means to have loyalties that are divided but do not conflict.

"Food is political here," Gold believes. "It plugs into the rhythms of the city and the world and engages all the important questions of social justice, health, diversity, and an inclusion." What's in our bellies may not be the ultimate force for civilizing this place, but it's not a bad place to begin.

Gold and Ruscha 'Actual Size'
Gold and Ruscha 'Actual Size' | Photo by Jennifer Durban Creative Commons License

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