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Remembering Jonathan Gold

What an acclaimed Los Angeles food critic taught me about being a bumbling journalist

Remembering Jonathan Gold

Jonathan Gold (Charley Gallay/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

On July 21, Los Angeles lost one of its greatest cultural icons. Jonathan Gold, a Los Angeles Times food writer born and raised (and beloved) in LA, died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 57, leaving behind his wife of 28 years and two children ages 23 and 15.

Gold is the only food journalist so far to win the Pulitzer Prize, and his whimsical, poetic descriptions of all things gastronomical—from golden ossetra caviar at a fine dining restaurant to carnitas off taco trucks—lured Angelenos into hole-in-the-wall eateries tucked into strip malls on the other side of the county. He challenged local eaters to venture into Korean cuisine beyond the tired all-you-can-eat barbecue to try out less-familiar dishes such as blowfish soup and live octopus. He pushed them beyond Americanized Chinese menu items such as kungpao chicken to regional dishes such as Chengdu’s cold-diced rabbit and Xinjiang’s mutton kebabs.

Unlike Anton Ego, the bony, acerbic food critic in the animated film Ratatouille, Gold ate everything and anything with gusto and good cheer, once even penning a tongue-in-cheek review of Olive Garden. He was never snarky in his writing, even with food he didn’t enjoy, but was honest and generous in his critiques, like an uncle reminding a kid that he could do better.

I began actively following Gold after reading his review of cheonggukjang, a thick, bubbling Korean stew made of fermented soybean paste that smells like pubescent boys’ socks boiled down into an orange goop. At least, that’s how I would describe it. But not Gold: He explained it as having “a lovely, nutty flavor, a little like toasted barley,” though he did advise readers to avoid it for lunch if they’re returning to the office.

I was impressed. Even I, a pure-blooded Korean, can’t stand the stink of cheonggukjang, yet this white Jewish man ate it, digested it, and then composed such a delightfully thoughtful description that scores of non-Koreans drove down to Koreatown to try it out. No doubt about it, this guy had a gift—he could make boiled silkworm pupae sound like a nice, juicy afternoon snack.

In the summer of 2011, I finally got to meet The Gold in person. I was a college sophomore at the time, interning at the Los Angeles Times, when I spotted Gold at a food event I was covering for a story. This was before Gold unveiled himself in 2015, but people by then already recognized his trademark scruffy mustache, black suspenders, and the strawberry-blond lion’s mane that floated like an Elizabethan ruff around his shoulders.

“That’s Jonathan Gold,” a fellow intern friend whispered to me, and we clumsily walked crabwise up to him. A throng of fans was already peppering him with all sorts of foodie questions. Gold seemed shy with a crowd, yet curious and interested enough to ask questions in return and discuss the intricacies of bibimbap, a Korean mixed rice bowl dish. Finally I got to shake his hand, and given that I had less than eight minutes with the Wizard of the Culinary Literary World, I tried to ask him something I couldn’t google: “Mr. Gold, you’ve written about food for decades. What keeps you fresh?”

Gold shrugged: “Well, you know, I always just saw myself as bumbling into places I don’t know and trying new things and sharing it with people. I don’t see myself as an expert. I’m just a curious guy.”

Gold, though not a religious person, understood the sacredness and communion of breaking bread.

At the time, I was a newbie journalist, unsure about my reporting skills, making tons of mistakes, and feeling like a fraud. Gold’s words comforted and encouraged me. If Gold, with the esteemed Pulitzer Prize and several other awards under his suspenders, still saw himself as a bumbling tourist in his own field of expertise, then it was also OK for me to bumble about, curiously asking questions and acknowledging that I don’t know as much as I’d like to know.

From then on, Gold remained one of my journalistic role models. He was more than a food writer, though saying that sounds like I’m trivializing the culture of food. As someone who’s had a fraught relationship with food, I know it was never just about the taste and the calories. Jesus broke bread with uneducated fishermen and sinners. He turned water into wine, and multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish into a feast for the thousands. He cooked a breakfast of fish and bread over a fire of burning coals for His disciples after they trudged back to shore from an exhausting night of fishing (John 21:1-14).

Through food, Jesus shared his love, care, compassion, power, providence, grace, and humanity. God could have made eating an act of pure sustenance, a dull transformation of calories into energy. Yet He made blueberries juicy and tart, made pigs deliciously edible from snout to tail, made tea bitter and honey sweet—all so we could widen our eyes in pleasure over a good bowl of chili con carne (or stinky soybean stew) on a cold winter night, and thank Him for the meal.

Gold, though not a religious person, understood the sacredness and communion of breaking bread. His writing showed clearly that he cared about the person who fed him, cared about the unique histories and cultures that produced certain dishes. He cared about bridging individuals of different upbringings, languages, and locations in a common dining experience, and about delighting, educating, and inspiring his readers. And he did all that by bumbling around with an open heart, a curious mind, and a hungry tummy.

That, to me, is what made Gold a brilliant journalist.