Pulitzer-Prize Winning Food Writer Will Try Anything

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Jonathan Gold is the first food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. And he'll try anything — you name it, he's pretty much ingested it. Host Guy Raz goes to lunch with Gold at one of his favorite eating spots in Los Angeles to learn what he looks for in food and why.

GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

If you heard the program last weekend, you'll know we were in Los Angeles, and one afternoon, we stopped into one of Jonathan Gold's favorite restaurants to have lunch. Gold is the food critic at the alternative newspaper, The L.A. Weekly, and three years ago, he became the first food writer in history to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

He eats almost everything, like guacamole topped with fried crickets.

Mr. JONATHAN GOLD (Food Critic, The L.A. Weekly): I never realized that fried crickets were so freaking good.

RAZ: He loves hot and sour soup with sea cucumber.

Mr. GOLD: You sort of have to wrap your mind around that there are, like, slithery pieces of invertebrate floating around in it.

RAZ: There's pretty much just one thing Jonathan Gold doesn't like: eggs -boiled, fried, doesn't matter.

Mr. GOLD: It must be a childhood thing. My earliest conscious memory is of, you know, looking up at my mom when I was two-and-a-half years old and saying, you know, I have just eaten my last plate of scrambled eggs.

RAZ: When we met Jonathan Gold for lunch at El Parian on West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, he was hard to miss with his long, reddish hair. Gold's been described as a man who wouldn't look at a place on a pirate ship.

This restaurant serves Mexican food, Jalisco-style. And from the front, the place looks shuttered, abandoned, but inside, it's teeming with life.

Mr. GOLD: I'll have an order of the birria.

Unidentified Woman: Okay.

Mr. GOLD: And he'll have one too. And

RAZ: Birria is the signature dish here. It's roast goat swimming in a savory, vinegary broth of trippings(ph) flavored with chili and cloves.

Mr. GOLD: There's like crisp parts and there's chewy parts and there're soft parts.

RAZ: It's really delicious.

Mr. GOLD: Also, as you can see, they don't trim off the squarely parts.

RAZ: Before Jonathan Gold became a food critic, he decided to eat his way down this very street, Pico Boulevard, and he visited just about every restaurant on it. Twenty-five years later, he says he tries to tell the story of Los Angeles through food.

Mr. GOLD: When I was at the Los Angeles Times, there used to be a joke in the newsroom that there were vast parts of town that were only covered when there was a gang slaying or I wrote about a restaurant. And I think through my work through the years that it gives people a fuller sense of what their city is like and who lives in it. I really like to make people unafraid of their neighbors.

And, you know, we have this vast and glorious mosaic in, you know, shining up and exposing various tiles of it, I think, is a worthy way to spend (unintelligible).

RAZ: Some of the language in your columns about restaurants, you know, the meat was spilling out like Beyonce spilling out of a tight suit or

Mr. GOLD: I've said that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: I mean, does it almost feel like there is a limited language for food writers? I mean, there's a limited kind of vocabulary. I mean, you hear words like delicate and

Mr. GOLD: In English, there is a very limited vocabulary for describing food. For example, when something is salty, you can say that it's salty. If you do say anything other than that, if you say briny or if you say reminded me of the - like capacious, deep, it's bad writing because salty is so direct and it's so exact. Salty means salty.

I started using friable for a while, which is a geologist term for something that is basically hardened, unyielding and then yields all at once. But I started getting letters from people at the geology department at Caltech and they were bothered to have delicious food described as dirt.

RAZ: Do you ever think about the power that you have over a restaurant's success? You write about a restaurant and oftentimes, people will flood that restaurant.

Mr. GOLD: There are good aspects of that and there are bad aspects of it. The good aspect is I can take, especially in the sort of Sub Rosa restaurants that I often write about, I can take a hard-working business owner and make him a little bit more successful, and I like that. The bad aspect of that is that unfortunately, I can probably close restaurants or make restaurants unsuccessful.

RAZ: Has that ever happened?

Mr. GOLD: Yeah, that's happened. It has almost always been restaurants that have been really praised by the most prominent critic in town and where I found the food to be not just bad but pretentious and bad. But I thought that they'd be able to withstand it. But the climate is pretty bad these days and sometimes, they can't.

And just because somebody owns a restaurant that puts out bad food doesn't mean that they're evil. You know, they have a dog, they have kids, they have, you know, 50 people on the payroll who work really hard and don't deserve to be put out of work just because I find something that they're cooking aesthetically displeasing.

RAZ: I mean, do you sort of walk a minefield doing this job, because you are dealing with a sacred thing for so many different cultures and they're all here in L.A. and you're assessing their food.

Mr. GOLD: Several years ago, I went to a Taiwanese restaurant in a mall. And I hated the meal I had and worse than almost any meal I'd ever had. There was soup that was sort of mucilaginous, that was - had this weird sort of sweet smokiness, like somebody had stubbed a cigarette out in it.

There was the stir fry of pork, black beans and bitter melon, which when you cook it right, it has the lusciousness of the ripest, most delicious melon you've ever had, but is bitter like cancer medicine. There was a dish with what's often translated as stinky tofu, which is this fermented tofu that can often be delicious but smells like garbage left festering outside for the entire month of August.

And as I was eating this food and hating every single bite of it, I was looking around and I realized the fault was not with the chef, who was doing what he did with great skill. The problem was with me and my cultural relativism. And I went back to the restaurant, and I went back and I went back, and I went back so many times that the waitresses were practically trying to set me up with their daughters.

And I think when I ended up writing up about it, I had been 17 times. And I'm not sure I liked it any better, but I understood it and I understood the way it could be. And I thought I was able to write about the restaurant in a reasonable manner.

And I think that my experience and I think that my study of food has gotten me to the point where I can tell a really good version of a dish I don't like from a bad version of a dish I don't like.

RAZ: That's Jonathan Gold. He is the food critic for the L.A. Weekly.

Jonathan, thank you so much.

Mr. GOLD: Glad to be here.

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