Perhaps the best way to the heart of Los Angeles is through its stomach. Acclaimed food writer, Jonathan Gold explores the sprawl of Los Angeles one bite at a time in this documentary that comes with a surprising side of urban planning. It may have you question your deep-seated aversion to sprawl in the city that planning forgot.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles, having lived there in the mid- to late-1980s. For someone with a planner’s sensibilities, there’s a lot to dislike: traffic, smog, air kisses, unrelenting sunshine, not having a there there. Since my escape and my later thinking about planning, I’ve tempered my bad attitude about the place and can now honestly say that I find the city “interesting.”
On the love side of the dichotomy is the food. I am not suggesting the fancy pants Polo Lounge or Spago, where Bel Air real estate deals are made and celebritities are seen (although I’m sure those places are nice too); but the sidewalk carts, where I learned that its perfectly okay to dredge a mango in chili spice; and the corner Mongolian barbecue, where I learned to never question the owner’s opinion on my personal heat preferences; and the nondescript storefront Thai place, where I learned that you can make a whole meal out of green beans.
This is Jonathan Gold territory. Gold was the first food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He did it by writing about real food, made by real people, out in the sprawl. Places like the San Gabriel Valley and Pico Boulevard. There was no way I would have discovered these places on purpose if it weren’t for Mr. Gold’s Counter Intelligence column in the L.A. Weekly. Gold writes about Uzbek, Korean, Peruvian and Islamic Chinese cuisine. He discovered the only Trinidadian restaurant in Inglewood.
Gold has observed that in Los Angeles, immigrants do not necessarily assimilate their cooking styles to American standards. The insular nature of the in-between places out in the Los Angeles sprawl allows them to keep their imported regional cuisines intact, sometimes traceable to the chef’s village of origin. “The difference is that in New York, they’re cooking for us,” he said. “Here, they’re cooking for themselves.” That can only be good for us.
Part of Gold’s appeal is that he writes his reviews in the second person, making the experience more direct and urgent. Many times I’ve read a Gold review and felt an urgent need to drive out to the San Fernando Valley for a sandwich. The other part of his appeal is that he doesn’t really write about food; he writes about people.
His perspective on food writing was pioneered by Calvin Trillin, the “Walt Whitman of American Eats.” Trillin’s books include: American Fried; Alice, Let’s Eat; and Third Helpings. In traveling the country in search of unique culinary experiences, he would ask his hosts for their recommendations: “Don’t take me to the place you took your parents on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, but the place you went the night you came home after fourteen months in Korea.”
Gold didn’t have to travel the entire country or even the world in search of the world’s best edible offerings. He could find it all in his home town. The essence of Los Angeles can be found in the diversity of its residents. It’s the kind of place where those residents, no matter where they’re from, can reinvent themselves and be successful. The small family-run restaurants and food carts that Gold writes about represent a kind of entry-level capitalism.
Gold is a critic of urban living as well as food. His columns since the mid-1980s provide a unique map to the City of Los Angeles and a frame of reference to understanding it. He insists that there really is “a thereness beneath the thereness.”
Reyner Banham, in his 1971 book: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, was arguably the first to make sense of Los Angeles from a planning perspective. “L.A. needs some explaining because it’s typically thought of as an unspeakable sprawling mess.” This film gives a short lesson on the geography of Los Angeles and includes footage of Banham insisting: “You can build a city any shape you like as long as it works.” I have to squint my eyes a little, but I can see his point. It may have everything to do with how you define “works.”
Just because Los Angeles has done everything wrong and had boldly gone against everything we’ve been taught as planners, doesn’t mean it’s not a vibrant, thriving, successful city. Perhaps, this is because Los Angeles, in all its sprawl, provides the places for people, especially immigrant people, to reinvent themselves in its nooks and crannies, its lack of a center, and its fluid boundaries. It could be that it’s easier to make a new start in the in-between.
Maybe there is an order under its chaos. But even if I’m wrong about this, it’s still a great place for lunch.
Book by Jonathan Gold: Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles, 2000
Article about Jonathan Gold: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/11/09/the-scavenger