It begins with a writer staring at a blank screen. Fingers fidget. Then culinary poetry emerges. Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold is writing about tacos (again). While his language makes your stomach speak and your mouth water, Gold is not just writing about tacos; he is writing about a way of being. In his prose he captures the philosophy of a new generation of chefs who are drawing from the traditions of their mixed-cultural backgrounds to make something fresh. Gold’s descriptions of disparate flavors and textures create a vividly spicy portrait of Los Angeles.
“Everybody thinks they know what Los Angeles means,” Gold says early on in Laura Gabbert’s documentary City of Gold, describing how visitors to the city believe the image of a sprawling, superficial wasteland that has endured for so long in the popular imagination. This is funny because Jonathan Gold, a native Angeleno who grew up in South Central L.A., has spent most of his adult life getting to know his home town — through his taste buds. The film takes the passenger seat as Gold roams the city’s streets in search of the perfect food. What they find together is a cultural vibrance that is based on diversity.
Los Angeles is described in the film as a post-modern creation. It didn’t develop as other cities did, from a specific center. Rather, in rhizomatic fashion, it is the product of many centers that spread and became joined. As such, L.A. has always had a stubborn defiance to definition, it is a collection of equally strong personalities all inhabiting the same body. And each personality is a great cook!
The film follows Gold from neighborhood to neighborhood (Little Ethiopia to Tehrangeles) uncovering the mom and pop joints where new immigrants serve the traditional foods of their homelands. Behind each is a story of street-level capitalism, of families risking everything to make it to and in America. Their ability to resist this country’s “melting pot” philosophy is what makes them strong. Contrary to current political debate, which reveals this idea’s endurance, what these immigrants offer, and this is what Gold seems in constant search of, is a celebration of their individuality. They bring literally to the table the secret ingredients of their family traditions.