Almost any formal introduction of Jonathan Gold, the Los Angeles food critic, who died on Saturday at the age of fifty-seven, leads with the fact of his Pulitzer Prize for criticism, which he won in 2007. That Gold deserved the award is not even distantly in question—well before he earned the prize, he was a beloved keeper of his city’s stories, already in the great pantheon of L.A. chroniclers, alongside Chandler, Didion, Bukowski, and Broadus. But, to his fans, his colleagues, and his fellow food writers, the prize served as validation not of the work (what could the Pulitzer committee tell us about Gold’s greatness that we didn’t already know?) but of the entire notion of food writing as a worthy pursuit.
Those of us who write about food tend to feel defensive about our subject matter, which has always been taken less seriously than other forms of cultural criticism. We are ready with an apologia, making our case for the richness of the subject as a prism through which to filter virtually any other. We point out that the annals of gastronomy (as it were) abound with unimpeachable literary merit—the gilded extravagance of Liebling, the haughty precision of Claiborne, the cerebral expansiveness of Fisher. Amid all the pleading and exasperation—see, too, the tightly argued introduction to virtually any anthology of great food writing—Jonathan Gold’s Pulitzer stands, always, at the center, the ultimate rebuttal to skeptics. In the forty-eight years that the Pulitzer committee has been honoring criticism, seven awards have been given to architecture writers, six to television critics, eight each to books and to music. Gold remains the only food writer to wear that golden pendant, a singular icon in the culinary world. Maybe it was fate: with his rough-hewn features and leonine fall of backswept hair, Gold’s profile bears an uncanny resemblance to the man, Benjamin Franklin, depicted on the medal itself.
Gold was a music writer before he was a food writer, and before that he was a musician: a classical cellist with punk sensibilities who, as a young man in Los Angeles, dabbled in multimedia performance art. His uncommon grace as a critic came from a compulsion to look for beauty and truth in the overlooked and the marginalized. In his music writing, he championed rap and hip-hop in an era when many influential white writers still dismissed them as irrelevant niche genres. In his food writing, which he began to pursue in earnest in the nineteen-eighties, Gold occasionally spent time on the fancy, media-friendly restaurants that his peers reviewed, but the bulk of his attentions were directed at L.A.’s sprawling, decentralized grid of neighborhoods—often, immigrant enclaves, where the neighborhood restaurants cooked not for the fussy palate of a glossy-magazine critic, or for the see-and-be-seen automata of the city’s celebrity economy, but for the needs (and nostalgia) of the restaurateurs’ own closely-knit communities.
Through his reviews, Gold chronicled the emergence of southern-Thai cuisine, the capitulation of ranchers and farmers to L.A.’s ever-expanding sprawl, the gradual shifting of neighborhoods, block by block, from Mexican to Ecuadorian and back again. “I don’t see going to restaurants as being a separate, discrete activity from the rest of the things that people do,” he told the Mercury News, in 2012. Gold’s focus—he liked to use the word “traditional” to describe the sort of food he found appealing, rejecting otherizing words like “ethnic” and “global”—was groundbreaking at the time, though, by now, a Goldian brand of of exurban culinary treasure hunting is standard operating procedure for food writers; at any given moment in the San Gabriel Valley, herds of Google Translate-wielding food obsessives are on the prowl for the mind-exploding Sichuan restaurant no one’s heard of yet.
Food writing is a uniquely physical category of criticism, and Gold applied himself to the business of eating with an ambitious formalism, often trying every single restaurant on a particular stretch, or chasing down every iteration of a particular dish, putting tens of thousands of miles a year on his faithful pickup truck. These marathons of consumption were undertaken largely without regard for their effects on his person. In a 2009 New Yorker Profile, Dana Goodyear described Gold’s quest to find the city’s best espresso, a single-day gantlet comprising twenty-seven espresso shots, ending in a quivering meltdown of panic and tears. Gold would often complain, good-naturedly, that he suffered from persistent food poisoning; when I once tweeted about my fear of someday acquiring gout, he replied almost instantly with a reminder that Calvin Trillin had renamed it “Samuel Johnson’s disease,” thereby elevating it from disgrace to honor. “Everybody has their own style of writing,” he said in that Mercury News interview, “but it’s something about the sort of physical description I do that seems to work well with food. I could also be a pornographer, but that’s kinda not my kick.” In one of the L.A. Weekly reviews from 2006 that earned him his Pulitzer, he wrote, “You munch still-muddy radishes to sweeten your breath, but the stink of onions and garlic and cilantro and pig flesh will haunt you like a friendly ghost for days.”
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. In that same Pulitzer-winning piece, a novella-length paean to Los Angeles’s wealth of food cooked over an open flame, he described a cook who “works his bank of burners like Keith Emerson working the keyboards in a concert film”; picanha, a Brazilian cut of beef, “is like that caramelized strip of crusted steak fat devoured alone in your kitchen — oily and crunchy and salty and seasoned with flame, the crack cocaine of the meat world”; onion rings are “as golden as the bangles on a Brahmin woman’s arm”; the tandour at a Persian restaurant is “a spherical oven that looks like a giant, blue-tiled eyeball whose iris seethes with yellow flame.” The linguistic filigree wasn’t limited to praise—Gold delivered some of criticism’s most exquisitely devastating blows: “If Bäco Mercat were any more of the moment,” he wrote, in 2012, of the restaurant, then new, “it would be a Pinterest page devoted to Tumblrs of itself, so that restaurant and metarestaurant could devour one another like Jung’s famous snake swallowing its own tail.”
“There are so many food writers that never vary their gaze six inches from what’s on the plate,” Gold said once, in an interview. “They’ll describe one dish, then another dish and then another dish, and then they’ll look around the room for a second and try to tell you what the people are wearing and then look at another dish. When you look at food without referencing who’s cooking it and what the ingredients are and how they might’ve been produced, you might as well be describing a stamp collection.” 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; he saw his mandate, as the Los Angeles magazine food editor, Garrett Snyder, wrote in a moving obituary, as “showing L.A. to itself.” In a city whose hills, valleys, and knife-slash freeways could create neighborhoods of hermetic cultural isolation, “he pulled back the curtain,” Snyder wrote. “That alone was worth a Pulitzer.”
Unlike the experience of watching a movie or reading a book, and more even than that of viewing live performances like theater 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. In 2015, when I shared the stage with Gold for a SXSW panel about the Internet’s effect on food writing, he passionately described the importance of this kind of wide-ranging contextualization. “There’s this glorious noise of specialists who will go onto Chowhound and discuss sambals all day, and there’s nothing that anybody in any form of criticism can tell them about it,” he said, explaining that his job, and the job of any restaurant critic writing in good faith, was to match that level of obsessive technical knowledge, and then go beyond it, illuminating the forces that create and sustain culinary traditions, and that continue to shape them as they evolve.
In the decade-plus after he earned American criticism’s highest honor, Gold’s career was transformed, in part because an article in L.A. Weekly inadvertently unmasked him—a photo editor at the paper, caught up in the excitement of an in-house Pulitzer win, ran the story under a picture of a champagne-soaked Gold, scuttling his anonymity. With the weight of the prize behind him, Gold’s celebrity became mainstream: he was profiled in national magazines, appeared on television shows, and starred in a documentary, from 2014, “City of Gold.” After winning the award, “his awkwardness lessened and he was less shy,” Evan Kleiman, the chef and radio host, and one of Gold’s close friends, said when I spoke to her shortly after his death. “He more easily engaged with fans and spent more time with them at events. He never said this, but I feel like the Pulitzer was a vindication of some kind that made him feel more at ease in himself.”
For his own part, Gold treated his exalted status as both liberating and mildly exasperating; it was a toy to play with, a door-opener and easy one-liner bio, and a ballast for his open-hearted mentorship of younger writers. In a column, from 2010, about the pros and cons of critical anonymity, in classic form, he played the whole thing for laughs: “After the Pulitzer, a guy ahead of me in line at a Belvedere taqueria once said: ‘You’re that guy. That guy who won that thing.’ ”