A Cold Email From a Food-Obsessed Teen: Why I Owe Everything to Jonathan Gold
Originally published in L.A. Taco on July 25th, 2018.
I first emailed Jonathan Gold when I was 16. It went something like this: “Hi, Mr. Gold. So, like, I’m in 11th grade and can’t find ‘Food Writing’ as a major anywhere. How do I become a food critic and what’s the dark side of it?”
He responded: “Well, I kind of fell backwards into it and for every one good meal, you will have at least 10 bad ones.” That brutally honest response would change the course of the rest of my life.
It was a pivotal point in where the naive allure of living a life of punk rock-induced inner-city nihilism with the homies had almost done me in. But somehow, someway, through accidentally reading his stories laden with punk rock references in the LA Weekly during my long bus rides back home to East L.A. from the San Gabriel Valley, he carefully led me to discover my obsession with food and more importantly, embrace it.
Hell, what’s more punk rock than getting paid to eat? I’m down, I thought.
My family had just lost our house through a bankruptcy, and we were living in my father’s office behind my dad’s furniture store in East L.A., which had also recently burned down. I didn’t have the slightest bit of money to go out and eat at the places he wrote about, but that didn’t stop me from walking into those places week after week, grabbing a bunch of take-out menus, and reading them over and over like a book on my long way home. So, when the rare time came of me having $10 to my name again, I already knew exactly where I wanted to go and what I wanted to order.
We mostly talked about the quickest way to get from Boyle Heights to Highland Park, and why it’s always better to not take freeways.
I used every excuse I could to visit the restaurants Jonathan wrote about. On my 18th birthday, I took my mother and father (who don’t speak English) to a Cambodian restaurant he loved. They weren’t quite sure how to eat coconut milk fish cakes and bitter herb salads but they were down for whatever knowing that eating out made me truly happy at a time filled with so much trauma. To this day, both my parents still call me on weekends requesting “those little plates filled with turnip cakes” aka, dim sum from his favorite dim sum banquet halls.
Gold and I communicated back and forth through my Hotmail account. I got to a point where I started out my emails by calling him shifu since I was really into tai-chi at the time and I somehow knew he would be my teacher for the rest of my life. But through those emails, he gave me something that I never had in life: a vision and a future to work towards to.
The author’s early food blog, Teenage Glutster.
Inspired by him, I started a food blog in 2006, where I wrote about my few restaurant experiences as a very anxious teenager. When I (barely) graduated high school with a C-minus, I even based my college choice on one of his restaurant reviews. I enrolled at Pasadena City College because I was eager to call Heidar Baba and their saffron rice my nearby lunch spot. I remember scheduling my classes with a two-hour lunch break and me blowing through my Pell Grants in weeks.
Without knowing it, I was channeling my would-be inner-Gold, hoping that I would find the next great hole-in-the-wall, like him. Then, it happened. He actually credited me for his 2009 restaurant review of Moles La Tia in East L.A. Food writers were often territorial and unwilling to disclose sources for their stories, Jonathan Gold credited a teenager from East L.A. for one of his reviews, leading up to his winning the Pulitzer Prizee.
This was the truest depiction of Jonathan, using his privilege to pay it forward to the underserved and people of color. At a time when I was broke and almost gave up on my writing dreams, he secured a freelance position at L.A. Times for me to make me his official restaurant scout, and write stories as the extension of his stomach. He wrote my letter of recommendation when I tried to transfer to USC (Ha. They didn’t accept me.)
Gold made me look real good in front of my big-shot bosses from New York when I got my first staff job as a food editor, even though he was slightly disappointed that I became an editor, because he knew that meant I wouldn’t write as much. He introduced me to the Guelaguetza family, who have come to be like my second family. He always came through for me no matter what and always, always had my back.
And just a couple months ago, he kindly corrected me on the proper spelling of a subject I wrote about. Gold never stopped reading me.
Illustration by Joaquin Hernandez/IG: @monsutajakku.
My favorite memory will be the time he agreed to meet me at Mariscos Jalisco to be interviewed for a podcast with an old boss — to make me look good. I could tell he was doing it just for me, and when we were done, Gold offered to ride me home in his legendary pickup truck. The drive was trafficky and naturally, like the true socially awkward writer Angelenos that we were, we mostly talked about the quickest way to get from Boyle Heights to Highland Park taking surface streets, and why it’s always better to not take freeways.
I owe every single thing to Jonathan. If he had never responded to that one cold email I sent 15 years ago as an anxious kid, I have no idea how my life would have turned out, but I suspect it would not have been one filled with so much happiness.
I had heard that he was ill earlier last week, but not this severe, in the least. On Saturday, I walked in the middle of the street in front of the cathedral in Morelia, Mexico, a city known for honoring and celebrating loved ones long after they have passed on to the next world, and as the sun set over the baroque edifice, the messages and texts started pouring in. I was on my way to feast on uchepos, the regional all-sweet corn tamales traditionally eaten with cotija cheese, crema, and salsa, but suddenly I felt empty. The messages took the breath out of me.
I felt like someone just told me my father died. Gold is the closest person that I have ever lost. I felt this way because my instinct was right: being a food writer is the most punk rock thing a person can do, and Jonathan Gold was the most punk rock of us all.
Old punks never die.