Every so often, I would send the food critic Jonathan Gold a fan note when one of his pieces seemed even better written than usual. He would always reply with something gracious like “Too kind, as always,” or with a reciprocal compliment for a piece of mine he’d happened to see. What I never said and always meant was, “Reading your latest piece made me think, as I always do the minute I start anything with your byline, Why do I even bother to write?” There seemed little point in trying to be funny, or original, or stylish, or to distill years of experience and acres of reading into 2,000 compressed words as long as Jonathan Gold had access to a keyboard.
The fact that he no longer does is tragic and incomprehensible: diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that the Los Angeles Times reports came at the beginning of this month, then gone in a matter of weeks. But it also seems to be the greatest possible cheat. Now what I think is, Why bother to write when I don’t have your next piece to live up to? He was an endless, and for food writers slightly frustrating, joy to read:
Does it matter that my favorite [taco] stand, set up most evenings in front of an auto body shop, has no name, no license, and may not be there tomorrow or next week? Does the stand’s precariousness, the fact that its lights are powered through cables attached to the battery of a constantly running old car, and the surreptitious nature of the transaction flavor the experience? Or is it the lashings of cumin in the meat’s marinade, the careful grilling and the elegant green salsa that has a family resemblance to a hotly spiced Punjabi chutney?
Great gelato makers specialize in capturing the ephemeral, the flit of resinous complexity across the midrange of a white peach, the bare hint of sweaty afternoon sex in the scent of a juicy midsummer melon, the phenolic fugue inscribed in the taste of a ripe banana. When you look at a Chardin painting of fruit, the cherries are sweeter, riper, more impossibly aromatic than an actual cherry could ever be. When you taste the cassis sorbet at Paris’s Berthillon, it is more than cassis: rounder, subtler, more exquisitely perfumed than cassis, which in its natural form is a fairly boring kind of black currant. And then there is Bulgarini’s pistachio.
I mean, “the bare hint of sweaty afternoon sex in the scent of a juicy midsummer melon.” You see what I mean.