In January 2015, Jonathan Gold spoke to my class, “Media, Food and Culture” at USC. I recorded the conversation we had with the class, and had it transcribed. As I reread it a day after his death, I’m struck by the almost offhand brilliance of his insights and descriptions. This was Jonathan unplugged, and embarrassingly generous with his time. In that spirit, I’ve decided to share what he said that evening in a lightly edited form.
I was going to title this blog, “Cod Sperm, Live Shrimp, Stinky Tofu, and the End of Food Blogs,” because he touched on all those subjects. But if you curl up with a glass or three of wine and make it through to the end, you’ll see he also weighed in on the difference between writing about eating and about sex, about snarky reviews, about Yelp, Instagram, CAFOs, bluefin tuna, about being the subject of a Dana Goodyear profile, and about vegetarian shark fin soup.
But mostly it’s about how to write well about food. I’m teaching the class again this Fall at USC. This talk went from souvenir to text book.
Our conversation began before I started recording. I had told him that after our discussion, I wanted the students to try their hand at tasting and writing about an unfamiliar food, so I had brought in some Korean salted fermented cod roe.
“Oh, daegu,” Jonathan said, like I had just said white toast and cream cheese. I got the sense he didn’t fully approve of the exercise, if only because, as he made clear in his remarks, describing an unfamiliar dish without heavily researching it first is more for Food TV than food writing.
But the cod roe got him talking about a meal of live shrimp he had just had at Chef Rene Redzepi’s temporary pop-up Noma restaurant in Tokyo. And so it began.
Jonathan: The first dish was a prawn that had been denuded, except for its head. The head and the legs and the antennas were still there and—
Rob: Was it cooked?
Jonathan: I’m getting to that! It was raw prawn. And it had been sprinkled with ants from the Nagano Forest, which is north of Tokyo a couple of hours, and it’s very dense. And the people there are quite indigenous, but it was Japan. It’s very, very traditional.
The ants had this taste of cedar or spruce. It was a piney thing. And I picked it up, and put it in my mouth, and the prawn kicked violently. It had—it was not dead and I was freaked a little about that. There was—living in L.A. and going to places in, well, like Japanese restaurants in say Gardena and Torrence, but even more Koreatown, the idea of seafood that’s alive when you eat it isn’t necessarily odd. I mean it’s always odd, but it’s not unusual.
And I actually—maybe some of you have heard—they seem to play every year at Thanksgiving for some reason a piece for “This American Life” where I talked about going to a restaurant in Koreatown an after half an hour after eating just absolutely abysmal stuff, a guy reached into a tank and pulled out a live prawn and put it on a bed of ice. This prawn was squirming on a bed of ice.
And the first time it freaked me out because you put it up to your mouth, it was still very much alive. It was weaving its eyes around at you, and you could tell that it was trying to swim away except that everything it used to swim away with — its flippers and its spinneret and all those other crustacean parts — had been stripped off it.
And then you bit into it. It was—its life expired in your mouth– and it was sweet and it was indescribable texture because it was also the idea that the prawn was trying to escape. These prawns aren’t necessarily the most intelligent creatures on earth. But one thing that every animal is hard-wired with is the desire not to be eaten. And you are going against this. So in a way it was sort of a spiritual moment and also an off-putting one, and I sort of thought that I’d never do it again.
Well, here, unknowingly I did it again. Oops! And again it was still obviously so fresh you could feel the individual cells under your teeth and you could tell, there was the sea brininess against a sort of woodsiness of the flavor of the ants and there’s the idea of mortality of life from dead ants where often you are accustomed to think of, say, dead shrimp and live ants.
It was a different. Again, it was like a dish that was as much for thinking about as it was for eating.
There was one a little later in the meal. Cuttlefish that had been—live cuttlefish which is like a squid– which had been cut into something resembling soba noodles, which is very popular in Japan. It had been served like soba on a bamboo mat and it was flavored with a huge quantity of, I guess you’d call them rotted cuttlefish guts.
Rob: Rotted cuttlefish guts?
Jonathan: They were fermented or aged. And [Chef Rene Redzepi] had been to Japan a year earlier and he’d done this, he’s been aging it some place but apparently people had been complaining about the smell.
And he served this with like a little cup of, again, always with the woods, served like a spruce tea, ice cold, lying on top of which was two inches of rose petals, pink, very fragrant rose petals. And you ate the cuttlefish—or you picked up the cuttlefish and you dipped it into the fluid. You put the roses on it and then you ate it.
There was this smell, this putrescent smell and there was this smell—the smell of beautiful flowers and you kept going back and forth, which is beautiful, which is ugly, which are you supposed to eat, which are you not supposed to eat? Which is sublime and which is shit?
And then when you finish eating the dish, then you picked up the bowl and you drank it and that’s sort of the beautiful flowery essence had been imbued with the umami and the stink of the cuttlefish guts, and it all became one thing. And as a lot of the dishes that I liked the best, it was a dish that didn’t really exist until you acted on it.
There were two separate things. And the idea of like combining it was something new happening. So you have to think about doing that. And it was unsettling.
You never knew quite where you stood in relation to the fish. And I’m not sure where this is going, except that I think you were talking about something being really weird and really upsetting, and it’s so all about cultural context. What one culture finds delicious, the other finds upsetting. And I was also in Japan at the height of the season for this food—speaking of cod ends—called shirako, which is cod sperm.
And everywhere we went, there was shirako. You went through the Tsukiji Fish Market. There were giant crates of shirako everywhere you went.
I didn’t have the dish that a friend of mine had when he was in Japan last year, which was a bowl of unadorned, raw, warm cod sperm with a little bit of sesame seed on it.
Rob: And how would you describe the taste?
Jonathan: Oh, you know what the taste was.
Rob: You don’t know me that well.
Jonathan: You know what the texture was, too. Apparently it doesn’t vary that much between species.
Rob: Why do they eat it? Is there some medicinal value to it?
Jonathan: Well, I mean, yeah. There’s probably you know, affirmation of masculinity, but anyhow it must be said they serve it to women every bit as avidly as they serve it to men.
Rob: One of the great things about what you’ve done in your writing is break down a lot of those cultural barriers, provide us with the cultural context so that we can go out and have this food and try something new.
But I want to start a little earlier and ask you about how you began as a food writer. I know that you were a cellist. You had a scholarship for school for cello. You were a music critic. With all those different talents and all those different interests, what about food told you that was the direction to go into?
Jonathan: Well, I backed into it. My first job out of college was at the Daily Journal, which is the law newspaper downtown. I ended up at the LA Weekly because I got tired of ghost writing columns called things like “Tips on Torts.”
After I’d been there a bit—you know it’s like one of these editorial meetings. We were going to do a restaurant issue. They needed someone to edit it and they asked me if I wanted to. And I had never written about it and I’d been obsessed about food. If you read the beginning of that book, you know that I ate at every restaurant in Pico Boulevard over the course of the year. I used food as a prism through which to look at the world.
But the idea of writing about it seemed just too vulgar. But it turned out that it was fun, that the sort of muscles that you need to write about food, which is sort of a decent palate, a sort of appreciation for nuance, a way of whittling things down to abstractions, which I got a lot from music, right?
Rob: What do you mean, “whittling things down to nuance”?
Jonathan: Well, if you’re… If you think about it, it’s really hard to say describe a guitar solo without being in reference to other guitar solos. If you’re just trying to describe the sound and you’re trying to describe the melody, you’re trying to describe the harmonics, things that are going on and you’ve got to realize, you realize that the people you’re writing for, unlike you, haven’t necessarily taken five years of music theory, then it’s difficult but it’s something that you can do if you try really hard at mastering that.
I know when I first started writing for Spin especially, it used to be like one of my party tricks that I could actually do a musicological analysis of a guitar solo. It was something nobody else was doing. It was interesting, but it’s the same thing with food. You sort of go into food from the inside and you’re describing a taste and describing how it makes you feel and you’re describing physical sensations.
You see in a certain way it’s like eating is the only sort of self-centered activity. You’re allowed to write about without censors.
Rob: What do you mean, do it without censors? With out external censors, internal censors?
Jonathan: Well, you know. If you’re writing about fucking, it’s going to be… If you’re doing it for the Los Angeles Times, there are going to be a lot of things in the way of you being able to describe that…
Rob: Right. Right.
Jonathan: And when you’re describing food, in fact it doesn’t, I mean, you’re describing something extremely physical and extremely intimate but nobody’s going to censor you.
Rob: This class is suddenly a lot racier than I thought it would be. But as you were saying, extremely intimate, extremely physical, and that seems to be one of the challenges because it is also so personal how we taste, and how you taste something and how you convey that to somebody who doesn’t have your taste buds and your context.
We were talking before how the temptation is to say, “I ate some place, it was good.” But how do you unpack that into something meaningful to other people?
Jonathan: Well, a couple different things about it. One, if you’re a food writer, your opinion of the food is really uninteresting. I don’t care. None of your readers really care whether you think it’s a good burrito or a bad burrito. What they care about it knowing what was—what’s in the burrito and how it was put together and… You just got to think about it—what are sensations you’re getting from this particular thing of food than you—that are the same as things you’ve had before, that are different from things you’ve had before.
How does it fit into your experience of a burrito? How does it compare in the context of the world of burritos? What is this burrito saying about the person who makes it? Does it, is it one of those gigantic overstuffed, over-steamed San Francisco monstrosities that has grilled meat and black beans and handfuls of cheese and a salad and everything else you can think of stuffed in there?
Or is it going to be like a really spare, minimal, slightly crisp burrito from East Los Angeles where the tradition of Mexican Americans, or people in this part of the country when this was still Mexico, was to put a couple of teaspoons of last night’s stew with a couple of tablespoons of beans and wrap in a burrito—I mean wrap in a tortilla—and that’s lunch. It’s a convenient way of carrying your lunch the way that like I say as a pastie is in England or lumpia would be in the Philippines.
And once you unpack that in your mind and what it says about the region, what it says about the people that are cooking it, then maybe you want to go outwards a little bit. Maybe you do want to be explicit about the, what happens especially in Los Angeles is this inter-cultural thing, like this place Oki Dogs, these burritos I used to write about. Like, I mean, the original branch of it was like Ground Zero for the L A punk rock scene in the late seventies, but the idea that you have a burrito which is a Mexican American thing filled with, say, pastrami which is Jewish with sautéed cabbage, which is Japanese, with pickles and with American cheese, that’s—let’s say that’s being made by Japanese from Okinawa and being served to a primarily African American clientele.
Rob: By Latino cooks.
Rob: So you’re putting it in that whole context, but as far as the flavor, I mean how do you focus to convey a sense of flavor and to convey taste?
Jonathan: It’s hard to say. You’ve got to work at it. I think that when—in my first few years as food writer may have been my weakest thing and I just worked on it. I worked on it. I worked on it and I worked on it until I would be able to tell—I think it was my strongest thing. It’s conceited, but it’s sort of like somebody like Kobe taking 1000 free throws a day and if you take 1000 free throws a day, you’re going to start to sink more and more of them because you know the rhythm, you start to know where the basket is. You start to realize the way to the basket. You start to realize that simple movement has so many different things in it.
And it’s what you do with food. You start this… You can describe an apple and describe it again and describe it again and describe it again until at some point it stops being descriptions of an apple and starts being sort of the embodiment of an apple and what it is. That sounds too mystical and stuff, but…
Rob: But it’s not hard for you to do anymore. I mean you’ve done it 10,000 times.
Jonathan: It’s always hard because you don’t want to repeat it. And to tell the truth, there are only so many ways to describe a piece of grilled fish. There just are. And one of the difficulties about writing about food, as opposed to writing about other things, is the vocabulary is actually pretty small.
I mean, there’s only one way to say a thing is salty. You say it’s salty. I mean, if you say it’s briny that’s not really salty; it’s a different characteristic. You can use metaphors but then you’re being too fancy. You can… There are a lot of over-complicated ways to say something is salty but basically you have to say something is salty.
So if you’re stuck with that, if I’m stuck with having to use the word “crisp” in every freaking review I’ve ever written in my entire life, then you learn to live with it. The way that when you’re writing everything else you may think that you’re saying, “He said” too many times, but everybody says that. You don’t have to worry about it, saying, “he says.” You don’t have to worry about repeating words like, there and and. It’s fine.
There are not infinite ways of putting words together. There’s an extremely fun way of doing it, but if you work hard enough at it and you practice and you have some idea of how you’re going to put some together, then you’re going to come up with something that is, one hopes, your own thing.
Rob: And where does opinion come in? It seems, especially if you read English restaurant critics, that there’s a bias toward meanness and snark.
Jonathan: People love reading really mean reviews. And you know, there was a point in my career when I wrote those because they’re—it’s fun. You get to take your knives out, and you’re usually pretty funny when you’re doing it. People will wince when they see the little bullet hole in somebody’s head, but it’s not like they don’t watch.
But there’s this thing in food writing—and this may be the sign that I’ve been doing it too long but I hope not—is that I’ve closed too many restaurants with my reviews. I mean, you write something and you make a joke and then the restaurant’s gone and 40 people are out of their jobs. And they’re usually not evil people and they want to serve people.
Rob: Did that actually happen to you?
Jonathan: It happened a lot. I mean, if I really slam a restaurant, chances are pretty damned good that it’s going to close. And unless I think there’s somebody who’s putting one over on a public that doesn’t want to have one put over on them, then there’s not—there’s not that much need to execute a restaurant. Whereas if my colleague Kenny Turan writes a bad review of a movie, then you know Warner Brothers is going to live to fight another day.
Rob: The director might never work again.
Jonathan: Maybe not.
Rob: But isn’t that, in a way, your job to give people—or a critic’s job—is to give people an honest reflection of what they think about this restaurant and that’s—it’s not his job to worry about the bus boy and the guy who opened the place.
Jonathan: Oh, very true. And I could probably do a restaurant almost as much harm by—if it intends to play in a certain league— by ignoring them as I do by writing about them. It’s just possibly less cruel.
There’s a restaurant that… It opened. The guy spent a lot of money on building it out. He hired a chef who he believed was a really fine chef. He really believed in his concept, which was a stupid concept, but he believed in it. He hired some of, he hired like one of the best bar guys in the United States to build the bar program, and he hired somebody else who was expensive to build the wine program.
And he truly thought that he had a world class restaurant. In fact, the restaurant was incredibly boring.
And I just couldn’t figure out what to write about it because it wasn’t very good. And yet, I didn’t want to slit its throat. I wrote a short thing about it’s opening when it did, but it’s closing in two weeks and I know that I could have kept it open for another couple of years. But it’s just… I couldn’t. It wasn’t good. And I’m offended by the idea that if it isn’t good, of going in like paying $200 or $300, even when it’s not my—when it’s my employer’s money—and spending it on food that’s not that good and an experience that isn’t all that it could be.
And especially when it would be easy to fix it. And the idea of being constructive that theoretically works. So it’s like this person’s theory was to open with like a Southern Italian slant. It used, it was named after the Greek name for Naples, that theoretically they were going to concentrate on that region of Italy.
But there wasn’t a single Southern Italian dish on the menu. And they were using—they were using vegetables and they were cooking things in a way that makes sense if you go to a cooking school in California, but not if what you’re trying to do is be Italian. But they didn’t have enough personality to make it definitively their dive anyway. My basic point on it is that the restaurant died anyway.
Would it have been better to have written about it 18 months ago and put it to a swift death rather than have it die a merciful death? I don’t know.
Rob: But you feel when you go out, especially someone in your position, the sense of responsibility to the reader to present an accurate depiction of what the food is but also to the restaurateurs who you assume have good intentions and you want to treat them with fairness. But fairness becomes something of a standard.
Jonathan: Yeah. I write bad reviews of places that are constructive and sometimes, in some restaurants the chefs actually take my suggestions to heart and they change it in ways that make them better.
Rob: One of the hallmarks of your writing is that you really educate us about regionalism and food. Otherwise we tend to think of Chinese or Thai or Indian food in these broad, almost useless categories.
And then you come along and just say, “No, there’s not Thai food, there is some Muslim Thai food and southern Thai food and and northern Thai food,” and you really define that. How much research do you do before and after a meal? Or do you just know everything?
Jonathan: I do a ton of research and I tell you how I have thousands and thousands of cookbooks, three or four or five thousand. I don’t know. There are rooms in my house you can’t walk into because there are so many cookbooks in them.
And I’ve always tried to read everything I could on a regional food in English before I go there. If I go there, and I’m actually surprised by the area that the food is from, then I’ll go home and do research. I go to a restaurant four or five times, so more if it’s a cuisine that I’m unfamiliar, so I sort of have the time to familiarize myself with that.
Rob: What does knowing about regional food or knowing about the background or the context for food add to the experience of eating? If you’re going to write about food, you either like it or you don’t.
Jonathan: But you see, what’s often good to you or not good to you is irrelevant because that’s often letting your cultural preconceptions come into play. Like there was—I know I’ve talked about this before but there was a restaurant that I went to a while ago, you know, very early nineties, a Chinese place, and I had what was by all standards just an awful meal.
There were a lot of things I was encountering for the first time. It was the first time that I had really tasted fresh, really well cooked bitter melon. Bitter melon is this weird sort of warty thing. It looks like a cucumber with a really bad rash. And if you braise it properly, it has this texture like the most beautiful, most luscious melon that you’ve ever tasted, except it doesn’t taste like the most luscious melon. It has a taste—it has this bitterness and it’s not like bitter like coffee. It’s like cancer medicine. It’s this bitterness that will stay with you for an hour and a half.
There was this kind of soup— on Chinese menus they always translate it as “potage”—that was sort of like almost gumbo-like in texture but it’s sort of like sort of like a mucousy type of texture, right? You take a spoonful and it snaps back into the bowl. And it was flavored with something sweet, something smokey, something that in my ignorance of the cuisine I thought was it tasted a little like somebody had stubbed out a cigarette in the bowl of soup.
It was my first experience with the infamous stinky tofu which is, which is tofu that’s left to age until it—
Jonathan: Yeah. It’s foul smelling. And yet I looked around and the restaurant was pretty crowded. And the restaurant was a little bit expensive and it’s crowded with people who were obviously enjoying their food. It wasn’t that they were there because it was the cheapest restaurant in the world. They weren’t there because they were bums. They were sort of, they were digging it. This was clearly specifically what the chef and the cook and the customers had in mind when they went to this restaurant.
So I went back, and I went back, and went back. I went back so many times the waitress thought I was hitting on her. She couldn’t figure out any other reason I was showing up there that often. Then the owner offered to introduce me to his daughter. They knew that I was being shown every off menu special. And all in all, I was there 17 times before I wrote about it. And I still didn’t like it but I understood it.
Rob: You went there 17 times before you wrote about it and you didn’t like it?
Jonathan: No. I mean, the more off-put you are by something, the more alien something is to you, the more you have to go. When I write a negative review, I have to go twice as many times as I do when I’m writing a positive review because I have to be absolutely sure. But in this case, it was my own cultural relativism. I wasn’t viewing bitter melon as something that was delicious; I was viewing it as something I had to endure. I was— the first time I had stinky tofu, which is like beautifully fried and golden and looks like the most beautiful fried tofu you’ve ever had and you bite into it and it’s like, you know—it’s an overflowing dumpster on a hot August day.
But it’s that way on purpose. There are French cheeses that, if you accidentally stepped on them in the street you would spend a half hour trying to scrub off your shoe, but yet when you eat them in the proper context, in a restaurant where it’s been properly aged and you’re eating it on a pause it’s just completely delicious. It’s all about context.
And so as a writer about food it’s your responsibility to know the context, and to not make fun of something. Because I think that most of the critics that I’ve talked to—I know most of the critics in the country—would have had that first meal that I had and they would have made some cracks about Taiwan and that would have been that. But you’ve got to break on through. You’ve got to understand, really understand what is something you dislike, it’s something that you really truly dislike, or it’s something whose taste you don’t really understand and you have to get around to it.
Rob: And then you use that often as a window into that culture.
Rob: How do you make those connections? What does that tell you about Taiwanese food culture, Taiwanese culture? What does eating live food tell you about Korean food culture, Korean culture? Is that something you do explicitly in your writing or something you just leave to the reader to infer?
Jonathan: Sometimes I try to make it implicit. Sometimes I make it more explicit. Sometimes it’s like everything you’re writing about—race and culture and religion and ethnicity—everything is fraught. Everything could be the third rail you accidentally step on. And you never want to make assumptions about a culture without really, really knowing about it.
I have all kinds of ideas about eating Taiwanese. And again food culture and the fact that—and the—I just think there’s a real “fuck you” aspect to it. “This is our food. We like it; you don’t like it. Leave us alone.” It’s the thing that you would find from a really—that you find sometimes in small countries that are under almost constant threat by big, dominant countries. I mean, there’s that aspect—
Rob: Kind of chutzpah kind of thing.
Jonathan: Yeah. Have you ever eaten a lot of Korean stuff?
Rob: Yeah. Have you ever grown to love a food that you just culturally were just not attuned to in the beginning? Or is it hard? It seems like tastes are so set so young with us.
Jonathan: I’ve had things that I like now that I really didn’t like before, but it was never like some revelation. I allow myself to hate things. It was funny. I don’t like eggs and I don’t like peanut butter and those are my two dislikes. And they’re good old nursery foods, right? And they’re both soft.
I probably cook eggs every single day of my life because I have a family who likes eggs and I think I’m a pretty good egg cook. That I really like peanuts in dishes where peanut butter is an ingredient. That’s fine. Dishes where egg is the ingredient, that’s fine. But I don’t think that it’s a handicap. I don’t think that I have to work past my loathing of eggs. I think that if you going to love something and you’re going to be passionate about something, then you’re going to hate something in the same way.
Rob: We talked about, just before you came, the differences between amateur food critics—because now everybody is a food critic—and professional food critics. What do you thinkof everybody wanting to horn in on your profession?
Jonathan: I don’t know. It’s funny, I guess. Most food critics hate Yelp and for some pretty good reasons. The level of a lot of Yelp writers are just not ignorant, they’re proudly ignorant. I mean if I had a nickel for every time somebody says something, I don’t know, usually about Chinese food but—at which point you wonder why you’re supposed to trust them.
And it is very, very, very rare that I’ll find anything in an individual Yelp review that will be interesting or useful. It is much, much, much rarer than that I will see a Yelp rating that I find interesting or pertinent. But the crowdsourcing has some advantages, right? They actually have a number of restaurants that nobody else can touch, and I’ve worked at two of the institutions that have poured tons of money into trying and accomplish sort of a universal restaurant guide. You just can’t, and sometimes the pictures are interesting.
Rob: Have you used it as part of your research, as part of your writing?
Jonathan: Yeah, I use Yelp all the time. You can look up a restaurant and the map pops up and you touch it twice and it gives you directions and then Siri starts guiding you there. I mean, that is occasionally useful.
For example, there’s a coffee and snack place in Hacienda Heights that replicates the feel of a Taiwanese classroom, sort of like a theme restaurant for Taiwanese ex-pat teenagers. And it is not un-useful to know what Taiwanese ex-pat teenagers think of a restaurant that’s meant for them, because I can go to that restaurant and I could like it or not like it, but it’s not meant for me. It’s meant for someone else and it’s—and in those circumstances, it’s sort of nice to know.
It’s not just Yelp. Now with the miracle of Google Translate you can find all kinds of stuff that you wouldn’t have before. Like there’s a local Chinese place that I go to a lot, and I don’t read Chinese, but I can lift the words, I can put them through Google translate and they will be nonsensical but I’ll have some idea of what’s going on. It’s almost like a romantic idea.
With that I could look at even restaurant’s self descriptions in Korean newspapers online. So I might not figure out whether something is good or bad, but I’ll figure out what the specialty is and I’ll figure out—I usually have some idea of who orders the stuff and I’ll have some idea of what region of Korea they might be from. And that’s incredibly useful as opposed to walking into a mini mall with 18 businesses that have all hung bold signs, and other than going into and eating at each and having no idea what’s going on.
Rob: You’ll copy and paste from a Korean article and put it through Google Translate and then learn from that.
Rob: And how often, when you go into these restaurants will you actually engage the owner or the chef to learn more about what they’re doing or the food?
Jonathan: I don’t interview them. It’s sort of—I mean, part of it is sort of a parlor game. It’s that if somebody volunteers something, then that’s their game. If somebody wants to talk about how a certain kind of fish reminds them of their village and they eat it as often as they can, this is the only place that has it, I won’t necessarily take it as gospel but I’ll certainly figure it out. I’ll try to figure out where the chef is from. I’ll try to… There are all kinds of clues that you can use to get information that will be useful or not useful in a review.
Rob: And what is your general take on the landscape of food blogs and then how do you go about parsing—what determines for you whether it’s worth reading or not worth reading?
Jonathan: Well, food blogs are dead. There are still some people doing them, and there are still a bunch of cookery blogs where people are wrestling with cupcakes, but Instagram has so totally and thoroughly usurped whatever blogs used to do.
Rob: Instagram is just ubiquitous.
Jonathan: How many people here have—does anybody here have a blog? No? How many of you are on Instagram? How many of you are on Twitter? Oh, that’s more than usual.
Twitter is more useful to people our age and specifically for journalists, because Twitter is a form of journalism the way that Instagram really isn’t.
Rob: So what killed the food blog?
Jonathan: Well, it seems easy and fun to do what I do, to go out and write restaurant reviews and have pleasant things to eat and share information with your friends. But in fact, it’s actually a lot of work and the amount of people who actually have it within them to do more than a dozen or so restaurant posts is really small.
Well, partially because there’s this idea of instant communication, that blogs just aren’t instant enough. You actually have to sit down and write it, where with Instagram, you can take a picture of a noodle dish and write a funny caption to it and boom, it’s on the Internet and you’ve only taken two bites of it.
Instagram is perfect for the first-thought-best-thought culture, which I think is, for better or for worse, what we’re in at the moment. There’s the pressure of immediacy. I know when I’m writing a review for the Times, I have to go four or five times. I won’t write about a restaurant at the first few weeks of opening. There’s for example a place that I’m just chomping to write about. I just so much wonder, I’ve got so much to say about it, but I’ve got to give them a couple weeks to figure out where the knobs on the stoves are.
And there are certain kinds of restaurants that do fine cooking, where it really literally takes them almost a year to figure out what they’re doing. And yet the pressure—my pressure— is to get it within the first couple of months and the pressure for a blogger is, you know, you haven’t written something the first week the restaurants open and why are you bothering?
Rob: Do your editors now put that pressure on you?
Jonathan: No. I have really splendid editors, but they don’t know as much about food as I do, and that’s why I’ve been hired. And there is just no chance to beat Yelp. There are a lot of people on Yelp who will write about a restaurant before it’s actually open.
And there’s no point in trying to beat the Internet because you will never beat the Internet. You will never be the first person to announce a restaurant. You will never be the first person to announce that, but what I can do that other people can’t do is I can put it in a kind of context.
And people in Chinatown will be shrieking about how it’s different, and people on Yelp will be shrieking about it’s not the same as the last place, and the few food bloggers that are left will be shrieking in their own direction and everybody’s running around, “The house is on fire, the house is on fire!” And then I’ll comment at the end of the week even with a first impression column saying that, “No actually this is the same as the last one in A,B,C, D and E different ways and it’s actually better in this way.” And everybody will calm down. They will just calm it down.
It sounds so self-centered, but there are an awful lot of Yelp user groups that refer to what I’ve done. I do this thing every year, “The 100 Best Restaurants in Los Angeles” and it’s sort of the touch stone. You can agree with the restaurants; you can disagree with them. You could say that, “This one should be on it, that this one, this one and this one should be on instead of this one,” but basically it’s where it’s become pretty much the starting place.
Rob: And that comes with three decades of credibility and research and eating at a stinky tofu 17 times, and there just isn’t—that doesn’t really exist anymore. Part of the explosion of food media is that there are very few people who are building up that kind of resume.
Jonathan: And there’s also the thing that, when you’re reading non-professional food media—I don’t know if you got into this—but the number of food writers in town that are not bought and paid for is small. They have—and I’m not saying people put money into other people’s pockets, though I have been passed envelopes, which just freaks me out.
Rob: Yeah. What do you do?
Jonathan: I hand it back and I say, “Thank you.” There is one place that I have that I can’t actually figure out a way to review because of this, but the guy—who was from a very prosperous chain of restaurants in China was—I was pointed out to him at another restaurant. And he came over with an iPad that had a video about his restaurants and he said, “Will you watch this?” And I couldn’t find a way to weasel out of it, so I watched the two minute video and then I walked across the room to give him back his iPad and he said, “No, no, that’s yours.”
“No. No, it’s not.” At which point he started talking about a two-week trip to Beijing, so I could see how his restaurants did there and it’s like—I don’t know if that’s the way it happens in China. I don’t know whether there is a tradition of newspaper critics having envelopes handed to them. I don’t know. It happens very infrequently, but there are all these things. There are like press dinners that bloggers and prominent Tweeters, etc., are invited to where you sort of have dinner on the house, and then you start seeing people that you actually know for a fact live with their parents and six dogs in a one bedroom apartment in Boyle Heights writing about caviar .
Rob: Right. And the other issue that comes up often with food criticism is anonymity. It used to be a standard. What’s your take on that? Do you have to be anonymous to give an accurate review?
Jonathan: Interesting time for you to ask that question. For two things. One, I’m actually having a page one story Saturday or Sunday of this upcoming week, where I basically renounce my anonymity. It’s become distracting. It’s become a game of gotcha. If a restaurateur figures out who you are they think they have one on you. And in point of fact, there are probably a dozen chefs in the country who are good enough to make much of a difference.
That means I had dinner with Ruth Reichl, who was a restaurant critic for The New York Times, last night and I told her about that and she almost like shrieked because the anonymity is such a huge thing with her. She wrote an entire book about wearing disguises when she was a critic for The New York Times. But I’ve been out with her a lot of times when she was wearing the disguises and they fooled nobody. Nobody!
Rob: Because everybody recognized you.
Jonathan: No, not at that point. But every restaurateur knows who every critic is.
Rob: So it’s just a game.
Jonathan: It’s just a game and it’s fun and it’s cute, but I think it’s a distraction. As a corollary to that, obviously one thing follows the other, but there is a very good film, a documentary about me that’s opening at Sundance next week.
Rob: I was going to announce it. Next week there’s an entire documentary premiering at Sundance about Jonathan, and that’s why he’s squeezing us in tonight before going to Park City.
Jonathan: And that’s strange, right?
Rob: Not going to be a lot of anonymity after that.
Jonathan: No. None at all. I already looked around at the publicity and stuff. It’s just freaky. It’s freaky to be the person being reporting on as opposed to being the one doing the reporting.
Rob: What was that like? Even with Dana Goodyear’s piece in New Yorker, what was that like for you?
Jonathan: Dana’s was a really different experience. Dana—is she going to teach for you?
Rob: Yes, she’s going to give one of the lectures here in this class.
Jonathan: Oh, great. But we probably went out 40 times. I took her to various restaurants. She’d hang out at my house.
We drove around the city a lot. And I’ve been a reporter for a really long time and we all have our techniques, and we’d be driving back from some place in Rowland Heights and there is this silence in the car and you’re wondering, “Is this like, is this companionable silence? Did we just have a good meal and we’re driving back to the West Side? Or is this the kind of silence where she’s trying to get me to like just snap, and tell her things that I wouldn’t tell her otherwise? Or is this…?”
When you’re a reporter who’s being reported on, then you keep thinking of how you’d report it and how she’s reporting it differently and maybe she’s using a different reuse and… So there was all of that stuff. But with the documentary there wasn’t that stuff.
Rob: She was following you.
Jonathan: It was—we went to a lot of restaurants. They were all places that I had already reviewed and I had already gone to essentially as a regular and not… I thought people knew who I was, but they didn’t always. There’s a place called Sapp Coffee Shop, an astonishing little, tiny little place in Hollywood. I’ve probably eaten there 50 times. I would put them on my list a thousand times and I’d taken Anthony Bourdain there and I figured that everybody knew, but they didn’t. They like me now.
Rob: I’m going to ask Jonathan one more question and then I want to hear your questions. Who are the food writers that you do love? Who should we be reading?
Jonathan: You should be reading the classic stuff. You know, all the elderly or dead white males, like Calvin Trillin, Joseph Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, who are all The New Yorker writers of a very specific type. They’re wonderful. I’d probably add, I might add Joseph Mitchell who did a lot of dining between the war also for The New Yorker. M. F. K. Fisher who I find it really hard to read now, but was super-inspiring when I started reading her.
I think the stuff that’s out now… I know there’s an article of an interview with me and it does seem self-centered, but Lucky Peach just started their website and they’re gone deep on ramen for the last two weeks. It’s just fucking amazing, right? It’s a bowl of noodles, it’s a stupid bowl of noodles. And there are so many people that they’re so obsessed with it in so many different ways and they write about it in different ways. It’s like a graduate school of noodles. I mean, you should look that up right now.
Student: So I went to Taiwan and one of the very, very first type of food experience that I had was stinky tofu. I felt like your description of it was very accurate considering that I’m not a food writer, obviously.
So if you’re in a situation when you’re trying something that tastes odd to your natural taste buds, how can you honestly talk of it, analyze it, like you said, tell us what it is, instead of what you prefer or what you’re used to?
Jonathan: I don’t know. There’s the idea—Jeff Steingarten, who writes for Vogue, also is a good food writer to read—did this thing where he tried to train himself to eat food that he didn’t ordinarily buy. And after you eat something quite a few times you maybe do like it. But in certain senses your repulsion is a gift, right? Because you can eat a ham without thinking about it, but if you’re going to eat stinky tofu and you didn’t grow up at a stinky tofu culture, it’s something you’re going to think about. It’s just going to be in your entire nervous system is going to go onto that, and it’s going to force you to sort of think about it.
Student: I mean, like for that specific example, I couldn’t even really tell how it tasted because, I guess, my senses were focusing on the scent. I didn’t even actually get to taste it for what it was.
Jonathan: Actually the taste is pretty mild. It’s just the smell that’s hard. I mean, Japanese natto is another one that has this like, it has a really strong smell but it also has like this sliminess to it. It really looks like something that came out of Alien.
Rob: Durian has the same…
Jonathan: Yeah, durians, you know, Anthony Bourdain had the best description of it. He said it was like eating delicious strawberry blancmange in the most unimaginably filthy subway lavatory.
Rob: Culturally we expect taste to be in synch with smell, and there are things that just aren’t.
Jonathan: There’s this interesting wave that’s going on at certain level of restaurants, both around the world and the US, that I call “transgressive,” where they are actually in a lot of ways serving food that’s supposed to freak you out. Like there’s a place called “Night + Market Song” in Silver Lake, very good Thai restaurant. And one of the dishes he serves is, he calls blood soup with MSG sauce.
And it is actually a bowl of warm pig blood and there are some like Thai herbs that are sprinkled over the top, and some fried skin, you know, crunchy. They serve it with a dish of sticky rice. You’re supposed to swipe your, make the rice ball, you’re supposed to swipe it through the blood and there’s some herbs on, maybe the MSG sauce. And then you eat it.
And the taste is pretty mild. But eating a bowl of blood is freaky, right? It’s like, by US standards it is freaky. I know that there are a lot like Asian cuisine have a lot of things like blood tofu or blood jello, of blood made of different things, but this is like actually just blood.
When you’re finished eating you look at your napkin and it looks like a massacre. But the weird thing of this dish is that it is actually not super popular in Thailand either. There’s like two villages in the far north that make it. A couple of months before they opened there was a feature on Vice that had 80-year old women eating this stuff as if it were the most vile eating practice in the world. And that even there, according to the critic, it is basically the old drunkards that eat that stuff at 4 in the morning after they’ve been gambling all night. But it’s there as something, again, that’s going to waken your nervous system, is going to make you aware of it, that’s going to make you think about things a different way.
Anyway, you were asking me how you could eat stinky tofu and survive to begin with. That’s a lot of, that’s a big digression, but you don’t have to eat stinky tofu if you don’t want to. There’s no, nobody’s making you, no one will think less of you.
Student: Well, I know. But one of my goals is to eventually do like food critiscism. Obviously for me I want an experienced palate, but certain things are difficult to start getting past, but I think maybe it’s more of a mental thing.
Jonathan: Yeah. Go and have dinner at Animal.
Student: I did. So it’s like they have a wide variety of animals, different types of rabbit. That was actually really good, but I think it’s more visually appealing as well.
Rob: Do you think there’s a future in food criticism? Do you think that people will be making a living out of it in the future given all this social media?
Jonathan: If you’d ask me that two years ago I would’ve said no. But people are obsessed with food now for whatever reason. And people keep getting hired. They’re more professional. Way more people make their living right out of food now than they were when I was doing it, when I started in the 80s. But there are all these websites.
I’m not sure anybody, I’m not sure that many people are going to be getting paid extremely well at it, but food in a lot of ways has taken the place in the culture that, you know, what rock ‘n’ roll did 35 years ago, that people go to big food festivals, the chefs are… I mean, the cliché is to call them “rock star chefs,” and they kind of are, and they’re celebrities in a very real way. People watch Food TV and people specialize in being television chefs, people who specialize in being sort of like caterers for the stars, or people specialize in food trucks or all these different things. And then there’s also all these different tribes that people are totally loyal too. You’re vegan, or kosher, or nose to tail, in a way those things go back and forth, it’s really interesting.
I, for example, find it totally 100 percent fascinating that in a lot of ways vegans and extreme carnivores have the exact same end. One of them wants to consume all of the animal and the other wants to consume no animal at all, but both of them in the end are about fewer animals being killed. Everybody wants them to have better lives.
Student: Were you always open to try these atypical foods or was it like one moment where you were like, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never tasted that?
Jonathan: Oh, hell, I didn’t even eat broccoli when I was in high school! I mean, cauliflower was like a foreign country.
I guess I’m open and there are still, there are still places that I find it super hard to go. I can’t just… There are taquerías in Mexico City that will serve, for example, tacos and banana slugs. I’m not at the point where I could go, “I’m really in the mood for some of this.” I mean, it’s still like, “Okay, this is what I’m going to do now.”
Rob: It’s a job.
Student: Is there any food you’re really tired of?
Student: I don’t like in any way the idea of the eggs on everything, it really has to go. I mean, I would be okay like if nobody ever served kale again.
Rob: Is it the Internet’s fault? Food trends spread so quickly now and they just take over.
Jonathan: I think it’s always been like that. I mean, people eat three meals a day, right? They may eat more, they may eat less, but they eat something. Nora Ephron writes about like in 1966 was the year of quiche, where at every dinner party she went to, every restaurant she went to, it was always like a quiche set in front of her.
Rob: And there was fondue…
Jonathan: Yeah. And suddenly there was a day when you’re, “No way, I haven’t had a fondue in ten years, what happened?” Whereas fondue used to be inevitable. I mean, things are cyclical. The thing that the internet does is it may accelerate the cycles. Things can go in and out of fashion amazingly fast.
One of my favorite examples is that I used to sort of collect absinthe. It was strange. But it was like forbidden, then somebody would have a bottle himself and then you’d get like 50 ml of it.
And then somebody figured out that absinthe wasn’t technically illegal and he started to be able to get it into every bar in the world. Absinthe went from zero to douchebag in a couple of days.
Student: So speaking of these trends, what do you think of this small plate thing that’s going on in LA, like all these new restaurants have a course like a brussels sprout dish? Do you think that’s going to last?
Jonathan: I keep thinking it will go way, and yet it doesn’t go away.
Rob: Can’t you please write something to kill it?
Jonathan: I think I may kill a certain part of it. There were places that did shared plates, where everyone does actually have one Brussels sprout. They had to use one Brussels sprout for four people. You do it so that, you know, dishes are garnished by certain plants. Somebody gets the Brussels sprout, somebody gets the carrot, and nobody is actually able to experience the dish.
Rob: You’ve written about the Basque restaurants in Bakersfield where they have these platters of food that would come to the table and five or six people would gather around, and there would be like rice with clams and you couldn’t finish it. Now with shared plates it’s just the opposite. It’s like one pizza in a dorm room for 100 people and everybody’s grabbing a piece. There’s something so unsatisfying, so inhospitable about it .
Jonathan: The Basque restaurant is a good example. Or there used to be, or I guess there is a bistro way out in the 17th—14th— arrondisement in Paris, where all the cool stuff actually happens before the dinner where they give a platter of purees and pates, vegetables, and then you could order your individual course.
But there are two things, a few things I think that are powering the small plate thing. One is really it’s easier for the kitchen. If anybody has ever worked at a restaurant kitchen where the really hard thing is firing dishes so they’re ready at the same time. And nobody even knows how to do that anymore.
The second thing is that it might be a generational thing where people find it really hard to commit to a main dish. This way it can be like Tinder dating, like turnip, swipe left.
Certainly it encourages drinking. In a way, that’s a big profit center.
And I mean, there’s a lot reasons. When chefs go out to eat they’ve always eaten like that, just every single dish appears on the table at once. They do that. Sometimes, as a restaurant critic, when I’m going out and eating with friends it’s just understood that I’m going to have to eat something from everybody’s plate at some point, and it could be you portion it out onto a bread plate, or you could do half plates, you could do anything like that. That’s the way it has to be done. Now I don’t even have to pretend.
Rob: You just grab that.
Jonathan: Yeah. It also has precedence. I mean, people talk about tapas, but I think actually it is probably more deeply rooted in the Japanese izakaya tradition. Japanese traditions in particular are extraordinarily influential, especially in Los Angeles.
Student: This isn’t really to what you were just saying, but I was wondering when you look at a menu how do you decide what to order? Like if you’re going to a restaurant for fun, if that ever happens?
Jonathan: It’s hard to turn it off. I mean, I know my own peculiarities. I’ll usually order the strangest thing on the menu because that’s probably the one that the chef has put the most thought into. That if they’re are going to be serving heart, there’s no reason to serve heart except he’s really interested in the idea of serving heart. It’s not going to be something that’s going to fly off the menu.
I tend to avoid the same dishes. We all know what Brussels sprouts and bacon taste like. And I just try to figure out what stuff is going to be closest to the chef’s heart, that’s going to be closest to what the mission of the restaurant is.
And if I’m at a restaurant serving traditional food as opposed to chef’s food—I hate the word “ethnic” because everything’s ethnic—that you sort of look for the dishes that are centered there too, right? I mean, if it would be like a fairly standard French bistro menu but there are like four dishes from the Southwest France or something, it could be that, A, the chef is from there or, B, has relatives from there or it’s important for him to try to dig into the tradition of it that way. It works with Chinese menus too, but sometimes it’s harder, there’s more homework to do.
Rob: What did you mean by “everything’s ethnic”?
Jonathan: It’s like, you know, an old white guy was running a town café in a small town I was at. But nobody ever talks about that as ethnic. Nobody ever talks about white folks. If I wanted to go to ethnic, they always mean Asian or Latin American. And it’s not a useful differentiation.
I mean, there’s this idea that a certain kind of French cuisine is like the ultimate in dining, but is fine French cooking necessarily better than fine Nicaraguan cooking? Maybe on the average, but that’s probably exceptions for example.
Student: Do you find any particularities in Los Angeles compared to, say, New York City or in any global city? And if so, how do these particularities affect how you do your reviews?
Jonathan: LA is probably a more global city than New York. The biggest difference here is in the sort of people who happen to live here. In New York, especially in the city, people tend to live in crappy, small apartments and you have to be pretty wealthy in order to have dinner parties. And people tend to go out all the time. That if you take the subway, you bump into anybody from all parts of the city and you’re aware of that.
So in certain ways if somebody is opening up a Filipino restaurant in a Filipino neighborhood in Queens, they’re perfectly aware that the people that are going to come to the restaurant aren’t Filipino and they have some ideas of what those people might like to eat, and there’s that idea of combination.
And in LA a lot of us have houses or bigger places and we drive around in our cars. We don’t necessarily interact with people from other communities all the time. So we’re more insular. I mean, it’s possible to live here your entire life speaking nothing but Korean in a way that it just isn’t anywhere else in the country.
There aren’t necessarily less people from outside a neighborhood who will eat at your restaurant than they eat at one in New York, but it’s like here I just don’t think that restaurant chefs care that much. I mean, you can go to a restaurant that Mr. Kim goes to for his noodles every Thursday afternoon because they’re exactly the way that he eats them in Seoul. I mean, you’re going to get those same noodles. Nobody is going to try to adapt them for you.
And so in that way I think insularity is sort of lousy as a social thing, but for food it turns out to be pretty good.
Student: Recently I’ve been hearing a lot of restaurants that only have limited seats and you have to buy ticket months in advance. Is this a marketing idea to make the restaurant seem more exclusive?
Jonathan: I’ve got to do it all the time, but I try to go at weird hours. What’s interesting in Tokyo, for example, is there are so many restaurants and so many places you really want to go. And you practically have to know someone to get in or you have to wait in line for two hours.
We’re starting to see places like that here. Like an 18-seat restaurant and a chef that’s completely famous from Food TV, so everybody wants to go there, but they can’t because reservations are super hard to get. Or the idea of going to Trois Mec, which is run by Ludovic Lefebvre. It’s really interesting, really fabulous food, but you have to basically buy a ticket for it way in advance. If you’re not willing to get out there at six in the morning on a Friday you’re not going to eat there.
It’s a way of sort of separating the food experience out from the people who really might enjoy it. It’s sort of selecting. So some people are willing to wait in line and some people are willing to make extreme efforts for reservations, and some people are willing to pay obscene amounts of money.
Rob: One thing I’ve noticed about your food writing is you don’t tend to focus on things that aren’t the food. You tend to write deeply about the food and the context, as we were talking about, but not really about things like the decoration.
Jonathan: I mean, I try to write about what it feels like to be in the restaurant. I will write about the music that’s playing because I think that it’s part of the experience of the restaurant, but it’s also who the restaurateurs are trying to bring in.
I’ll talk of noise levels. It’s, again, this might be the thing I’ve been doing this for a long, but I think it’s disingenuous to write about service a lot because I think that service may be the thing that I experience differently from the way that other people experience it. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different.
Student: A lot of times nowadays people write about things like sustainable food or problems in the food system in America and around the world, and I was curious if you’ve noticed that being more part of restaurants you go to, that affects the way of the reviews you’re writing and sort of where you see that headed in the future?
Jonathan: Yeah, it’s a huge part of… Would you call it mainstream? But anyway, the important restaurants of town care a lot about that. And at certain point there are some vegetables like those fingerlings from Wieser Farms that are like celebrities. Everybody knows what they are. They’re on the plate and it’s just like, “Wow! I know where that turnip comes from!” Because if you shop at the farmer’s market the chefs are shopping at the same farmer’s market, so you see the same thing, you can actually make the same stuff at home that they can make in the expensive restaurant, which is something that’s really new. You couldn’t even… 10 or 15 years ago that wasn’t possible.
But there’s the idea that you have to eat organic sustainably farm vegetables. This is attached to the idea that proteins, the meat and poultry, should be really well raised and really well cared for. Is that because people are being stewards of the earth or is it just because it’s trendy, or is it because chicken that lived a happy life actually tastes better than chicken that hasn’t had a happy life? I don’t know what it is, but I think that at a certain level you’re almost certain to enjoy something that’s really well raised.
And as part of that, there are unsustainable things that I’ll always call out. I was very, very vocal against shark fin until that was banned.
I’ve almost become shrill on bluefin tuna, because somebody really soon could be the last person with the honor of eating the last bluefin tuna. It’s just severely, severely endangered.
A lot of activists think that I should avoid the restaurants that serve it, and I think that in a way maybe I’m serving things better by not avoiding restaurants that serve them but like calling them out every time they do. There’s some social responsibility.
Student: I wanted to know your opinion on food trucks. As big as it is now, do you think it is going to die out? Do you think it will stay?
Jonathan: At the beginning of the food truck movement there were a lot of them that, I mean, including me, I certainly went a little overboard on. I thought that it was the coming thing. And I love the idea of entry-level capitalism. I mean, this is why there are so many great restaurants in minimalls in LA.
I love the idea that there were people who are coming out of culinary school or quitting serious kitchens and they were going for food trucks and they were just going to do fantastic stuff. But as with everything else, it turns out that actually 95 percent of them weren’t very good. The trucks began to occupy a niche, and maybe the niche shouldn’t be filled in a way. So, for example, when people are building office buildings or big commercial they don’t necessarily have to have places for restaurants, they don’t necessarily have to provide places for their employees to eat. They can just have a parking lot with some food trucks and they’re done with the responsibility.
But that being said, some of the food trucks are really great and at some of them you eat great stuff.
Student: Do you work out a lot?
Jonathan: Yikes! I go to the gym three times a week, probably not enough. I’m not small.
Student: Is there anything in the food industry that bothers you or wish you could change?
Jonathan: Yeah. I mean, CAFOs have bothered me. I mean, concentrated feedlot meat agriculture bothers me. That until probably the 1960s, I mean you would have, you know, the guy that grows the cattle or pigs. They would take the manure and they would throw it to the field, which would grow the crops in order to feed the pigs. It wasn’t a perfect balance but it was kind of a balance.
By concentrating animal agriculture to the extent that we have, where you’ve taken what was sort of a beautiful self-contained system, you’ve turned it into like a million different disasters. You know you have places in North Carolina in Virginia dedicated to hog lots that are like the size of cities, midsize cities, and their pollution has killed off the Chesapeake Bay. The Midwest, the Great Plains are using just vast amounts of chemical fertilizer, which is washing, which is depleting the top soil, and causing giant dead zones in the Mississippi River.
And so you had one system that was all connected. And now you have four or five different ecological disasters. I would like for things to become smaller and more manageable.
Rob: How important is it for you, as a food writer, to bring thee issues into a review?
Jonathan: It’s hard to do it in a context of a review. I mean, like I don’t have perfect knowledge of where meat is coming from. And I know perfectly well, especially when I’m eating certain cultural food, know full well that they are not eating heritage breed pork. I sort of have to ignore it to a certain extent.
Rob: But do you feel like it’s in your responsibility to at least know the political and ethical issues surrounding food, even if you don’t put them in a review? Do you feel that’s part of what you need to know to be a good reviewer or be a good food writer?
Jonathan: Yeah, it’s huge. It’s a huge part of it! And I think when I was at the LA Weekly I probably used to do more of that. There’s this very, there’s more of a church-state separation now at the Times. I mean, I’m not allowed to donate to political candidates anymore. I’m not allowed to take sides on issues. I was a founding member of the LA Food Policy Council, and I had to resign from that.
Why? I don’t know. It’s much harder to be an activist. I wrote what a lot of people think was the defining anti-shark fin soup column at that time. That helped get shark fin banned. It even got brought up by one state senator in the south who had kept the fishery going for two years. The bill came out and he still wasn’t going to vote for it, but he didn’t bottle up for it anymore.
I mean, that’s something you could still do with the big newspaper. But the opinion side and the reporting side are, there’s a wall between them. So I can’t be an activist on those things as I want.
Rob: I’ve never had shark fin soup. How would you describe it?
Jonathan: Shark fin… actually the specifications for shark fin include there is no flavor. So there’s no taste of it. It’s a texture. It’s like this pleasant slippery, thickening texture. It’s something that you sort of eat in order to eat. There’s was a chef in San Francisco. He had three Michelin stars. It was an extraordinary restaurant, but he’d found a way to do like vegetarian shark fin that was just absolutely undetectable from the real thing.
Rob: Kale fin?
Jonathan: My brother is one of the founders of an environmental organization called Heal the Bay, and he’s head of the environmental institute in UCLA now. So anytime I eat a marine species that’s slightly endangered. I hear it. I accidentally ordered the shark fin dumpling in 1998 and he still talks about it.
Student: Do you think that there’s a space in cuisine for a vegetarian voice?
Jonathan: A really good vegetarian voice, yeah. It will probably be hard to be a critic at a place like the Times, but totally. And there are some like really great vegan food blogs and… it would actually almost be interesting to have a mainstream vegetarian critic. We’re not quite there yet, but we might be there in five years.
Student: Do you have any ideas for how to find a balance between fresh food that’s better for you, but more expensive, for people who can’t afford expensive food?
Jonathan: That’s a huge question. And it’s always a tough one to answer. A lot of it is people refusing to eat food from other cultures. A lot of times neighborhoods that have been traditionally African American for the last 75 years, and there will be a Mexican supermarket with good, fresh food and interesting things to cook, but they refuse to go in because they don’t understand the food and they don’t happen to understand how it’s cooked and how it should be cooked, and they don’t understand what to do with this vegetable.
A friend of mine is a farmer with a splendid fruit and vegetable farm. His family has been in the area so long that there’s a state park named after him.
Jonathan: McGrath, yeah. And he was in negotiations with the LA school district for a while. His plan was that he would sell them fruits and vegetables, beautiful, organic, fruit and vegetables, totally at cost. The district did the math and even being essentially giving stuff at cost, with no profit, with no bonus for the land, with no paying for the shipping, it was still going to be two or three times as much as it would’ve been to get the same vegetables from Mexico.
Usually people who are in my position say they could all cook fresh food and vegetables for much cheaper than the processed foods that everybody buys. That if we taught people how to cook they’d be able to eat delicious, fresh, nutritious things.
But that’s patronizing, because if you are earning $20,000 a year and you do have two kids to support, and you are working those hours to do that, when you come home from your job you don’t want to spend two hours on a stove, and that’s for hobbyists like you and me.
I wish I had an answer to that.
Rob: So, let me just ask a couple of final questions. You’ve devoted your life to food.
Rob: So how would you answer the question, “Why food matters?” Why it matters enough for you to devote your life to writing about it?
Jonathan: I mean, food is a way to look at the world. Everybody eats, everybody prefers foods of one sort or another. Or if they don’t prefer food, maybe they eat Soylent. I’ve talked to people who eat Soylent and that’s weird too, that’s interesting. As a writer, if you’re going cover a lot of things, people don’t want to talk to you, or they’re going to lie to your face. People who are obsessed with food are usually pretty interesting and have stories to tell.
And two, you know, you could talk to a general about what’s going to happen in Iraq and he’ll lie to you up and down. But if you ask them how he had eggs that morning, he’ll tell you the truth. It’s maybe a small truth, and it maybe in the large scale of things is a less important truth, but I think that makes it something worth writing about. I think it’s worth learning about it, and it’s something that we all have in common.
Rob: So we’re about to try some new food, Korean cod roe ban chan, and write about it. Just before you leave, Jonathan, I wondered if you could give your charge on how to approach what we’re about to taste. What’s the challenge there for us?
Jonathan: Well, I don’t think you can or should divorce what you’re eating from your previous experiences. Your experiences are what they are, they’re yours. So the first thing to do is to taste it, and try this new experience, and roll the eggs around on your tongue, and to get what’s probably the really strong sort of iodine flavor that’s maybe slightly off, to sort of conjure or think about where it might be biologically. What are the uses of the cod who gave it up so that you may eat it at your teacher’s whim. The cod is really committed to this process.
Rob: And stick to description, as opposed to opinion.
Jonathan: Yes! “This is good. This is bad. I like this. I don’t like this.” That’s not interesting.
USC undergraduate and gradate students who are interested in enrolling in “Media, Food and Culture” for Fall 2018 can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the syllabus online.