By: Daina Beth Solomon
March 3, 2010
Imagine picking up the colorful, alternative LA Weekly instead of a brick-thick Sociology or Urban Studies textbook, and, for homework, reading Jonathan Gold’s restaurant reviews. More than describe the best spots for tortas ahogadas or Peking duck, Gold’s writings also comment on Los Angeles culture and society. Gold, a Pulitzer-Prize winning food writer, will discuss these topics in a “Food for Thought Remsen Bird Speaker Series” talk on March 3 at 5 p.m. in Room 200 of Johnson Hall.
The six-speaker series aims “to open a discussion about the social, cultural, and political importance of food and food-related topics in our everyday lives,” said Sociology Professor John Lang. Lang organized the program in cooperation with Urban and Environmental Policy Professor Robert Gottlieb. Both teach courses related to Gold’s talk; Lang, “The Sociology of Food,” and Gottlieb, “Food and Environment.”
In their classes, Lang and Gottlieb emphasize the relationship of food to larger social and urban concerns. Gold fits into this idea because his descriptions of food enable people to reflect on and absorb other cultures, Lang said.
While food writers explain food to their readers, and academics to their students, L.A. politicians are elevating food-related concerns to the realm of public attention and action. Both Gold and Gottlieb serve on L.A.’s Food Policy Task Force, just one of several new city initiatives geared to promoting access to fresh and healthy foods in L.A., particularly to underserved communities.
“Food is political here in a way that rock and roll hasn’t been for years,” Gold recently wrote in Saveur Magazine. “It plugs into the rhythms of the city and the world, engaging all the important questions of social justice and health, diversity and inclusion.”
Gold is uniquely poised to understand, analyze and discuss the role of food in our city by virtue of the number and range of restaurants he visits coupled with his drive to experience the undiscovered or undervalued, and to explain it to the city at large.
Gold’s circuitous evolution into a celebrated food writer – the first ever to win the Pulitzer for criticism – may have helped develop his unique perspective.
Growing up in South L.A., Gold’s passion was music. “I was locked in a small room with my cello for most of my adolescence,” he said as a KCRW guest DJ. He earned a music degree at UCLA, retaining a love for classical while also getting hooked on punk, rap and heavy metal. His first beat as a journalist and critic covered this wide musical spectrum.
Simultaneously, Gold delved into the L.A. food world. In his early twenties, he set out to eat his way down Pico Boulevard, a street that represents a “We are the World” of ethnic foods. In his book Counter Intelligence, a collection of his food reviews, he wrote that it seemed like “a reasonable enough alternative to graduate school.” Eating Pico Boulevard’s pupusas, marinated octopus, goat soup, barbeque, tamales and chili fries was an education in itself. Gold’s appreciation of L.A. mushroomed. He had planned to join the Foreign Service to see the world, but changed his mind. The world was in L.A.
In 1986 he began the “Counter Intelligence” column for the LA Weekly, attracting a following with his mouth-watering prose. In Gold’s imaginative writing, potatoes “ooze out of the tacos with the deliberate grace of molten lava” (from El Atacor in Highland Park) and pizza slices that are “burnt, bubbling majestic things, crunchy and thin… sliced in a way that defied standard geometry” (from Casa Bianca in Eagle Rock).
Gold’s column is also distinguished by a recurring interest in “hole-in-the-wall” ethnic eateries. He encourages eating as a way to relate and connect to fellow Angelenos, saying “it’s important to not be afraid of your neighbors.”
In his recent Saveur article he explained how food can stimulate a cultural connection. “While I might not be able to stop a guy in the street and talk with him in his native tongue about Khmer lounge singers or Mexican fútbol,” he wrote, “I can sit down in restaurants, eat well, and absorb as much of the city’s diverse cultures as I care to take away.”
Luckily, Gold can converse with Oxy students. His “Food for Thought” talk will allow the Oxy community to participate in an important discussion on food with one of the city’s most distinctive and knowledgeable voices.