Remembering L.A. Food Critic Jonathan Gold
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The food world is mourning the death of another one of its own today - Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times. He died of pancreatic cancer last night at the age of 57. Gold is being remembered far less for his reviews of top-of-the-line Southern California dining establishments and far more for showcasing the range and skill of LA's diverse immigrant cooks in neighborhoods all over the city.
Here with us to tell us more about Jonathan Gold is Gustavo Arellano. He is an LA Times opinion columnist. He's also the author of "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America."
Gustavo, thanks so much for joining us.
GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Gracias for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: You wrote an appreciation of Jonathan Gold for the LA Times, and you said that he was a champion of Southern California who wasn't a, quote-unquote, "saccharine booster," but he didn't buy into the noir nightmares of the LA streets. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you meant by that? And how did he cover the California food scene?
ARELLANO: Far too often, writers about Los Angeles - they try to paint us as one of two ways - either complete paradise where everything's wonderful and happy and sunshine and oranges or the dystopia of "Blade Runner," of the Manson murders, of all that - you know, extremes. And what Jonathan did is that he actually covered the Los Angeles of today, which is multicultural, which is young. And, more importantly, he always documented the salvation, which is the working class, immigrant people who let the rest of LA know the way for us to exist is through our food.
MARTIN: One of the through-line in the pieces that I've been reading about him is that it's true that his attention transforms some of these places, but also that a lot of people said that he transformed the way they lived in the city. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
ARELLANO: Los Angeles, unlike the rest of the country, for instance - we're so spread out, but we have our bubbles. And what happened with Johnathan - anytime he would write a review, whether it was for LA Times or LA Weekly, people would start running, literally - or just want to go eat places. And Jonathan - the great thing about Jonathan is that he never presented the food as exotic. He never presented a food like the way Instagrammers or Yelpers do. Like, oh, this is so awesome. You've got to check it out.
For him, it was, like, look, we're all here in Southern California. Go eat at the table of your neighbors. They're not foreigners. They're us. They're you. And that was incredibly transformative. No one had really done that on the platform that he had ever in Southern California.
MARTIN: Another point you made, though, was that he was an exquisite writer, as exemplified by the fact that he was the first food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, which is awarded for, obviously, you know, outstanding journalism. Why do you think that is important?
ARELLANO: Well, because he was a stylist like no other. I mean, the guy could compare a plate of tacos to an N.W.A. lyric and come off, not as pretentious, but you'd think about it, it's, like, you know what? That's right. Because he knew the LA he was writing about. He wrote of the streets, but he could write also the Symphony Hall. And, more importantly, he made it approachable - and all for the bigger goal of making his LA the LA that everyone should be striving for.
MARTIN: There are a couple of sentences in your appreciation of Jonathan Gold that I think capture what it is that you're trying to tell us. Can you read that for us?
ARELLANO: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It goes like this. (Reading) Gold could have gone on to bigger and better things. But his choice to remain a food critic for a daily newspaper allowed Gold to be the change he wanted to see. And so we live in the Southern California that Gold predicted and documented in his reviews. It's the place where my Mexican mother goes to a Lebanese market in Garden Grove because they have better prices than the Latino market down the street - where we have pho for breakfast, hot chicken for lunch, pupusas for dinner and the late-night burrito from a taco truck just for the hell of it.
MARTIN: (Laughter) You're making me hungry now. Well, so what's the dinner tonight in honor of Jonathan Gold and his work?
ARELLANO: You know, it would have to be one of his two muses - ultimate muses - Korean food or Mexican food.
MARTIN: That's Gustavo Arellano. He is the author of "Taco USA," and he's also an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Gustavo, thanks so much for talking with us once again.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.