Like many immigrant families and many Jewish families I grew up around a kitchen table, often outside my house and experiencing food, culture, life and other people through meals. I remember fondly my dad (from Colombia) wanting to eat out of the house and experience the best multi-cultural foods one could actually find in middle-class, suburban Sacramento in the 70s & 80s. It wasn’t much but it’s a memory of father and son, a deeply engrained and nostalgic part of childhood.
My mom an even bigger driving culinary and cultural force. She opened a bakery and a California-French restaurant so when I say I grew up around food I mean it literally. And she pushed me to do my first trips to Paris and Tel Aviv that helped inspire what became more than a decade of living abroad across many countries and experiencing the world as it exists from humble street car food to haute cuisine.
Our first night in a Paris restaurant in 1993 I forced my mom to sit in the non-smoking section, which at that time meant sitting upstairs and eating on our own while the lively entertainment was downstairs. That was the last time I remember trying to impose my American value system on the world, the last time I tried to be “apart” from the crowd versus embracing it.
I ordered as best I could from my broken French. “Canard, s’il vous plaît.” I thought I’d try the duck. The bastards brought me beef. Some sort of steak and I was sure they had done it on purpose. I was warned about the rude Parisian waiters and their distaste for les Américains. Well, it turns out the French prepare duck differently than our local Chinese restaurant Peking Duck I was accustomed to and in fact the image that leads this post was the French Magret des Canard (duck). I never knew this until 2 years later when I moved to France and was served it again, a humbling experience. But also a rich one because it book-ended the cultural journey my mom & dad had set me on.
As a parent, the circle of life is a rich one. Yesterday I took my family to eat lunch at one of my favorite new spots in Santa Monica: Ox & Son. My wife still finds it funny that I want to eat out all the time since she didn’t grow up in a family of obsessive out-of-home diners. But for me it’s where family time is sacred and cultural journeys are experienced together. I ordered the “Bahn Mi Breakfast Bowl” – a Vietnamese inspired dish with a “California bowl” flair in stead of on bread. How very LA!
My younger son ordered the “Adult Grilled Cheese” (that’s the actual name), which has raclette cheese, fig mustard caramelized onions, parmesan herbs and a side salad. He diligently searches menus for items with “caramelized onions” on them, a source of pride for me in expanding his palette at the age of 10. He told us how he loved “this kind of lettuce” (Romaine) and actually ate his salad. We played 20 questions (animal, mineral, vegetable) and laughed wholesomely. If we stayed home of course our minds would have wandered towards iPhones, Minecraft, television or house chores. For me – meals are family escapes.
And yesterday’s lunch was inspired by a family outing to see City of Gold one of the most human and endearing documentary films I’ve seen since Supermensch. After months of enduring the utter nonsense of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz talking about how America has lost its way I can’t recommend City of Gold highly enough as an antidote. The film is a reminder of what is magical about the United States. It’s a story of many cultures and people who flock to this land of opportunity and the multi-generational batons handed off to make us second-generation folk mostly American but one foot in the cultures of our forefathers. You will leave newly inspired, heart warmed, proud of our country & people and stomach aching to try the rich tapestry of food and culture we have on offer.
The film is an onion layered with different stories revealing the most magical truths about the rich tapestry that is “American culture,” which is essentially a mélange of every world culture adapted to our local norms. The outer layer tells the story of Jonathan Gold, LA’s most famous food critic and perhaps one of the best known in the country. I had always respected Gold’s writing and reviews but after seeing a glimpse of his life I respect him even more as as human.
Gold is a quirky, eccentric, self-proclaimed procrastinator who is unashamedly a man of the people with no pretenses. He covered the dawn of the LA rap scene before he became an Pulitzer-prize winning food critic and was in and around the recording studio for Snoop Dogg’s career emergence. He played in a punk rock band in his youth but in a typical nebbish journey of a young Jew in Los Angeles he was the Cello player who was all too happy to find his outlet to be counter-cultural.
This layer of the film, not lost on Jewish people like me who grew up as “outsiders” or “others” is a really endearing. It is Gold as a human, not superhuman anointing successes and failures through his prose. I didn’t grow up hard scrabbled or poor but I always grew up with a sense that I wasn’t part of the mainstream so I’ve always had a healthy disregard for upholding its privileges or advantages.
The most obvious narrative of the film is the Los Angeles layer and it is here where the film shines. It tells the beauty that is our mixture of South Koreans, Thai, Filipino, Mexican, Central American, Jewish, Black, Vietnamese, Persian cultures amongst so many more. Gold eschews the trappings of posh haute cuisine restaurants and eats at the taco trucks, the local neighborhood favorites and wants to now the history behind the foods and migrations of the people who created it.
If you leave this part of the film without your tongue salivating you have no palette to speak of. He shows you Oaxacan food as handed down many generations and brought to the US. He shows Southern Thai food and spices that require an appreciation for the punch in the mouth one receives to consume them.
But if you leave the inner layer of the onion and are not deeply moved by the family transitions and opportunities of the US then you may have to check your empathy. I for one was bravely hiding my verklempt cheeks so my boys might not know how much the stories of family journeys shake me to the core. The woman from Southern Thailand who broad her son to the US to learn to study medicine at the age of 5 and the payback as he helps her get the loans required to go from waitress to restauranteur and then receive the imprimatur of Jonathan Gold that can lift ones ranks.
There is the Oaxacan family who are relegated to indigenous Mexican populations who can suddenly feel proud as their second generation food makes are having an impact on the overall LA food scene and culture.
It is my story. It is your story. It is the American story. We came here striving for more. Our parents made sacrifices we only appreciate in our adulthood as we consider what sacrifices we would make for our offspring.
Gold made all of the people richer. And I think he would define it as “richer in life” and let the spoils fall where they may.” He seeks no credit or glory or kick-backs on their profits. Watching the migration stories of fighting to come to American, figuring out how to sell products / services in our country and then figuring out how to grow from entry level to sustainable is really our story.
Gold chronicles LA in a unique way that isn’t matched in many novels. He captures the daily life of working class Angelinos in a way that would make Mike Leigh proud. You go into the neighborhoods. You get a taste of their foods, culture and lives. You get to pry on their journey. And after watching this film it’s clear that you’re ever richer for us and ready to dig into Jonathan’s writing.
Gold. Pulitzer Prize winning author. With a different craft, matches the legendary Philip Roth’s novel examination of the same trends through the equal Pulitzer prize winning, “American Pastoral.” They are the same stories. They are the inverse stories. Roth portrays the gutting of the American urban core and its impacts on communities. Gold chronicles the survivor stories of those left to pick up the pieces and keep on keeping on. Two Jews doing what we do. Observing and chronicling the world around us.
I have do doubt the City of Gold eating guide will be created and I’ll make it to his hot spots. I’m certain I’ll be there with my children as we dare each other to try new meal types which usually means my bribing them to eat escargot or similar.
Food is culture. Food is family. Food is history and sociology. And City of Gold is a magical tour through the eyes of our guide who has done his 10,000 hours to help us better understand the journey. Thank you, Jonathan Gold. Inspiration. Unintentional moral compass for the work of the rest of us. Thank you for the reminder that through food we experience family, friendships, experience and life.
Thank you for reminding us to look past the 2016 campaign rhethoric that America as “lost its way” and show us that at the street and community level we are doing what America actually does best: Immigrating, Integrating and evolving. This is all of our country. There is no “white narrative” of WASPs with primacy. America is us. And as we speak up the systems will realize this and our demographic trends will continue to favor tolerance of skin color, gender, religion and sexual orientation. This is our future and we must seize it.
Bravo to the makers of City of Gold and to Jonathan Gold for having so much impact on the lives of our city. What a beautiful film. Please go see it.
(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table)