Is there a greater uniter than food?
“The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all areas,” writes French epicure and early food essayist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in his classic 1825 treatise The Physiology of Taste, Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. “(I)t mingles with all other pleasures, and remains at last to console us for their departure.”
Laura Gabbert’s sly documentary City of Gold digs in to this idea as it follows Pulitzer Prize-winning, Los Angeles-based food critic Jonathan Gold, a writer whose inclusive and perceptive palate reflects the diversity of the smorgasbord-like metropolis that is his home. Unlike many modern food writers, Gold isn’t afraid to eschew the latest concepts from career restaurateurs in favor of food carts and strip-mall joints.
Pleasantly plump and possessed of a juicy wit, Gold himself is a fascinating character. Born and raised in L.A., he attended UCLA and intended to become a cellist. While still a student, he worked as a proofreader for the LA Weekly, where he nurtured a passion for writing and exploring the city’s ethnic neighborhoods.
Gold eventually focused on food, often served with a helping of cultural perspective, and fostered a ravenous following in the process. He later settled at the Los Angeles Times, and in 2007 he became the first food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.
But as we savor City of Gold, we find it is not just about Gold, or even food. Gabbert emphasizes the power and importance of thoughtful criticism (the movie relishes contrasting Gold’s sumptuous words with the “AMAZING!!!!!!!!”s of Yelp reviewers); through Gold, she tells of vibrant, but oft-ignored, segments of Los Angeles that are collectively the city’s soul; she reveals the apparent existence of deer penis as a delicacy.
Near the end of the movie, Gold reads a segment from “A Neighborhood Just West of Downtown,” a gut-punch of a column he wrote in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots:
“My neighborhood has always been transient, a brief stopping place for Thais and Nicaraguans and pale, gaunt poets before they move on to single-family homes in greener parts of town. But to my Korean landlords, this neighborhood is home. … I have been awakened before dawn by the rhythmic thud of garlic being pounded into paste on the back porch. I have stumbled out the door with an armful of wet laundry, only to find most of the clothesline taken up by drying fish. I have also come home from work to find the backstairs spread with leaves of cabbage curing in the hot sun. Even when their son was murdered a half-mile south of here, there was no questioning that they belonged. The landlords keep to themselves and so do I, but I sometimes wish that they would invite me over for dinner. …”
As we sit back at the end of City of Gold, push away from the table so to speak, we digest that what the movie hungers for—and Gold as well—is for us to consider what we share and what we stand to gain when we look beyond our own kitchen tables.