BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how does a food writer, from an alternative weekly, no less, win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism? Well, try a taste of The LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold. JONATHAN GOLD: There's something about the smell of charring meat, the fire, the island of warmth and light in the cold dark, that can practically compel you to stand around, to eat off soggy paper plates balanced on the roof of your car, to inhale varieties of sweet, dilute fruit juice that you ordinary wouldn't drink on a bet; to watch the cone of marinated pork blackening on its flame-licked spit as if it were the final moments of the World Cup.
You munch still-muddy radishes to sweeten your breath, but the stink of onion and garlic and cilantro and pig flesh will haunt you like a friendly ghost for days. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathan Gold took the long way around to the Pulitzer Prize. He launched his column, called Counter Intelligence, at The LA Weekly, in 1986, took it to The L.A. Times in the early '90s and then brought it back to The Weekly.
A former music critic, he's applied his pungent prose to culinary delights found in all corners of his city. He once said, "When I was at The Times, there used to be a joke that huge parts of L.A. only got written about if somebody got shot or if I was writing about a restaurant there." In fact, those less-traveled precincts are a specialty of Gold's. JONATHAN GOLD: Streets filled with places, each more wonderful than the next, that you can go into and have food from, not just from northern China or southern China but from eight different provinces of China. It was just incredible, and it was unexplored, and it was there, ready to be written about. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I can see that, but I thought it was just because you were a big fan of food stands, which populate those parts of the city. JONATHAN GOLD: A great taco is something that is made and then eaten in one continuous motion. [BROOKE LAUGHS] I mean, taco should be a verb. [BROOKE LAUGHS]
And it's possible to do this. In East Los Angeles, there's this wonderful thing that's come about in the last few years where people set up these bootleg taco stands, especially outside nightclubs, outside old body shops and the like, where they'll have grills set up and they'll have tables set up with all kinds of condiments and wonderful homemade salsas. And the tables aren't necessarily in the same places from week to week or from night to night, so you have to keep driving around and finding the best ones. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's talk about your process. Do you take the Gay Talese approach - it seems like you would – and put away your notebook during the experience? JONATHAN GOLD: Oh, yeah, sure. I never write while I'm eating. But then if I do have notes, you know, they're usually spattered with taco sauces that give me a better idea of what I was eating than anything I happened to write at the time [BROOKE LAUGHS] under the influence of all that barbecued pork. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how long can pass between the meal and the writing of it before you begin to forget? JONATHAN GOLD: I'm the sort of person that will not remember the name of somebody that I've met 15 minutes ago, but with a soup that I ate 30 years ago, I will remember whether it was garnished with parsley or with chervil. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there a vocabulary associated with food writing, you know, like there is for wine? And do you use it, or do you go out of your way not to use it? JONATHAN GOLD: I try not to use the fancy words and I try not to use the Latinate synonyms for things. It drives me crazy when people talk about eateries or about scrumptious food. But it must be said that there is only one word that means "salty," and if you try to get beyond something being salty – you know, briny or oceanic - you're overwriting, and the prose suffers, I think. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I also notice that you're an intense devotee of meat - charred meat, grilled meat. Do you ever get demands for equal time from vegans? And before you answer, read that last excerpt that I sent. JONATHAN GOLD: The meals that have meant the most over the years have almost always involved live fire: the plate of wild mushrooms roasted by the side of the road in the mountains of northern Catalonia, the sizzling skewers of lamb cooked by elderly Malay men on braziers set up near Singapore's municipal cricket pitch, the flattened chickens crisping over a hot wood fire around the corner from Perugia's Cathedral, the magnificent skewers of beef heart grilling on half the street corners in downtown Lima. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So? JONATHAN GOLD: Yeah, I get letters from vegans, usually more in sorrow than in anger. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And I get a lot of letters from Jewish people who, correctly noting my upbringing through my last name, complain that I write an awful lot about pork. BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you write so well about this one topic and you allow this one topic to communicate so much about so much, do you ever feel hampered by it?
JONATHAN GOLD: Artistically it has its limitations. It has many of the aspects of fine art, but, unlike high art, it's gone at the end of the evening. You know, whatever it is – you could have the best chef in the world with the most exquisite ingredients and the most beautiful restaurant in the world, but tomorrow it's all the same thing, if you know what I mean. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sure. JONATHAN GOLD: That being said, eating is the only biological function that you can write about without censors getting excited. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And there's something very nice about that, almost subversive. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathan, thank you very much. JONATHAN GOLD: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathan Gold writes about food for The LA Weekly. He's just won this year's Pulitzer Prize for criticism.
"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"
by The Beatles