Newspapers have restaurant reviewers. These souls will ordinarily suggest what dishes to eat and which to pass over.
And then there are food writers who are operating on another level entirely. There are the philosophers, like the late M.F.K. Fisher; the scout-discoverers, like Calvin Trillin; and the zeitgeist poets, like The New York Times' Sam Sifton. The writing of Jonathan Gold, food critic for the L.A. Weekly, borrows something from all these genres.
Gold won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2007, "for his zestful, wide-ranging restaurant reviews, expressing the delight of an erudite eater"; it was the first Pulitzer ever given to a food critic. Gold was one of three finalists for the award again this year.
His reviews (and his book Counter Intelligence) demonstrate his apparently exhaustive knowledge of every ethnic restaurant in greater Los Angeles, right down to which place serves the best, say, dan dan noodles, and which the best Beijing duck. He is as at-home poking around unpromising strip malls in the San Gabriel Valley as he is dining al fresco at chef Nancy Silverton's house in Italy.
Read his L.A. Weekly reviews, or listen to him on podcasts of KCRW's "Good Food" program. He speaks always with authority, at the same time that he seems to be weighing each sentence for its truth, resulting in long, drawn-out phrasings. A word like "but" can seem to have at least six syllables; a phrase like "on the other hand" over a dozen.
Gold will give a talk entitled "Authenticity, Culture and the Korean Taco" Thursday, April 28, at 7:30 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art, as part of the Wisconsin Center for the Humanities "Humanities Without Boundaries" series.
Authenticity as it relates to food is "an interesting topic, one I keep running into in my writing," says Gold, in a phone interview. "And I have absolutely 180-degree opposing views on it."
That seems a characteristic perch for Gold. "On the one hand, authenticity, or trueness to a certain kind of cooking, is the most wonderful thing in the world," he says. "But on the other hand, I'm finding it hard to believe that there is such a thing as 'authenticity.' Every time you try to make sense of something as authentic, it's like sands beneath your feet. Cuisine is always changing."
There are cities, Gold notes, where certain immigrant ethnic communities are large enough to sustain restaurants that serve what might be thought of as "authentic" food of that country. As Gold puts it: "There's certainly a big enough Korean community in Chicago that at least a certain percentage of the Korean restaurants there are Koreans from a very specific part of Korea cooking the food from that part of Korea for other people from that part of Korea."
While Madison has "an enormous array of restaurants representing other cultures," many are geared to the American audience. "You go in and the food is tasty and it's really good...." Gold sounds a bit dispirited by that, but notes that since cooking is always evolving wherever it's done, the authenticity of any given cuisine is a temporary state.
Gold serves on the Los Angeles Food Policy Task Force, which works on improving school lunches, encouraging urban farming and increasing consumption of locally grown food overall. While he's best known for his relentless explorations of L.A.'s ethnic cuisines, he also writes about "local-organic-sustainable-seasonable so often, I should probably save it as a string on my computer so I won't have to retype it."
He's a huge fan of the Dane County Farmers' market, which may seem odd for someone coming from L.A., where the markets run all year (although "there are those two weeks in November when there's nothing but persimmons, and that's kind of a drag"), but Madison's is "just so magnificent. I'm extending my trip so I can go to a market - I wouldn't be in Madison without going."
Maybe he'll find some parsnips: "They get so sweet when they overwinter."
Gold wrote a 2001 Gourmet profile of L'Etoile founding chef Odessa Piper (whom he terms his "absolute crush of the culinary world") and seems in awe of the challenge of making it through the winter eating local produce in the upper Midwest. "So much of what was going on with the restaurant then was them preparing for the long hard winter," he recalls. "Putting up or freezing all of the magnificent local hickory nuts and ground cherries, all of the indigenous stuff."
Part of Gold's thorough knowledge of his subject comes from a very good taste memory. "I can spend an hour talking to someone at a party and not remember who they are the next day," says Gold, "but I can remember a soup that I had 20 years ago, and whether it was garnished with parsley or chervil."
And it's all memory. He dismisses the idea of taking notes while eating. "It's part of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. You're either taking notes on it, or you're doing it - but you're not doing both at the same time."