Criticism: Food and Film

The Pulitzer Prize for criticism was announced this week, and personally, I couldn’t be more delighted that for the first time in its history, it went to a restaurant critic: Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly, whose “Counter Intelligence” column has served as my homing beacon for food exploration and discovery ever since I moved to Los Angeles about six years ago.

This is one of the world’s great culinary cities, not necessarily because of indigenous cuisines, but because of its authentic and multifaceted ethnic imports; my stomping grounds in the San Gabriel Valley, for example, are widely regarded as the center of the most exemplary Chinese cooking outside China, bar none, as this fine guide attests. (And not just “Chinese food,” but Hong Kong, Cantonese, Chiu-Chow, Hunan, Islamic-Chinese, Schezwan, Yunnan, Shanghai, and countless more regional cuisines probably within a five-mile radius of my apartment.) Gold made a name for himself charting the dramatic influx of these restaurants in the ’80s and ’90s, touching on geography and global culture in his reviews of establishments with few English-friendly menus or service staffs (eating in Los Angeles is often a matter of pointing at photos), most of which (tucked away in ethnic suburbs) are ignored by the mainstream press and tourists alike.

The LA Weekly has assembled a few representative articles of Gold’s craft, but for pure style, I don’t believe he has ever bettered his opening paragraphs of his review of Nice Time Deli (reprinted in his essential 2000 guide, Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles):

“I have stared down okra gumbos so gooey that a spoonful of broth snapped back into the bowl as sharply as a stretched rubber band. I have enjoyed tacos made with a corn fungus called huitlacoche, which looks like gangrene on a plate. I have sampled dried Icelandic seaweed that smelled like the set of a porno movie, and green tea salads that had the caffeinated kick of a pound of Yuban. I am no stranger to the fabled Javanese stinky bean named pete.

But of the world’s pantheon of hardcore vegetables, surpassing skunk cabbage, Japanese mountain yam, and possibly even the toxic Indonesian bean so delicious that its devotees eat it despite the certainty of excruciating kidney pain, the most intense may be Chinese bitter gourd, a warty, pale-green thing the size of a large cucumber, as bitter as envy, as bitter as hot tears.”

After the recent, abysmal breakup of the Village Voice film section, I’m surprised to find myself quoting executive editor Michael Lacey on anything, but he nails Gold’s uniqueness when he writes, “like many of our best critics, [Gold] is a cultural omnivore who can write captivatingly about almost anything. His gift to us is that he chose food.” Gold drops unexpected cultural references throughout his writing. In his review of the Japanese yakitori grill, Kokekokko, he notes that the restaurant “has the rustic look familiar to anyone who’s seen an Ozu movie or two: walls of peeled logs, hollow stumps as stools, big sake bottles stacked and arranged artfully as a fancy supermarket display….salarymen, several sakes into their evenings, whose loosened Windsor knots droop even with their sternums.”

In a similar way, my love of ethnic food and world cinema has often merged into evocative combinations, from post-screening, late-night dinners in Hollywood’s Thaitown to Persian meals following UCLA retrospectives to Yucatecan delicacies at the Mercado La Paloma near USC. Few multiregion DVD aficionados are as lucky as I am, with opportunities to buy import discs off the shelf in malls containing requisite meals of steamed dumplings or Korean bibimbap (informed by Gold’s epic account of dining in Koreatown). And I couldn’t underestimate the impact of the exceptional Ethiopian meal that topped off my first visit to the Toronto International Film Festival, where a loose coalition of online friends shared a large platter of food and injera bread, community-style, enriching our friendships as well as our stomachs. For me, traveling to festivals is as much an exploration of cuisines as much as an exploration of cinema.

Food analogies come easily when talking about movies (and particularly taste), but has there ever been significant insights birthed by their integration? Many come across as trite, like Peter Cowie’s comparison of Bresson to a fine glass of wine in his commentary for Criterion’s Diary of a Country Priest. But I’d be curious to hear of any good examples, or even the stories and insights of readers who, like me, have benefitted from the merging of cinema and food in experiential, unexpected ways. And whether or not you live in Los Angeles, you might want to keep an eye on Gold’s writing; perceptive, lively, and particularly adventurous, he might just change the way you think about eating (and criticism) wherever you live.