It's hard to say who Jonathan Gold influenced more, people who love L.A. (both “hot new trend”–seeking types and historians), food enthusiasts (fine-dining fans and seekers of bites on a budget), Caucasians seeking knowledge of ethnic flavors, or people of color who came to realize that our food heritage is an essential part of what makes this city the most diverse and delicious melting pot in the world. More than any food journalist anywhere, Gold made us reverent about what we ate, and that will be his legacy for the public at large.
There's another important group that Gold influenced: writers. He was so good, there was no way he couldn't have had an effect on those of us who use words for a living. Since Gold's death on July 21, the heartfelt sentiment from fellow scribes has been one of the most telling signs of his cultural impact. You can read about it in Seven McDonald's piece and here, in our exclusive chat with Gustavo Arellano, former editor-in-chief at OC Weekly, nationally syndicated columnist (“Ask a Mexican”), author of books and busy freelance writer for countless publications, including the Columbia Journalism Review (where he wrote maybe the first unbiased piece on the web about L.A. Weekly's current ownership).
Arellano knew Gold since his days with this publication back in the early 2000s (as did I) and as he shares with me here, the iconic food critic remained inspirational throughout his life and will surely continue to do so even in death.
L.A. WEEKLY: You wrote some of the most heartfelt remembrances and tributes to Jonathan in the L.A. Times, on L.A. Taco and on your own website and newsletter, covering his influence. Can you tell me about your personal relationship with him and how you guys first met?
GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Ya know, I'm not sure. I think it was the Weekly's old offices on Sunset Boulevard. I would always end up hanging out with the fact checkers there, who were friends. We'd hang out, then go down the street to Cat & Fiddle to look for Morrissey. One time I was there and this big tall guy walks by. And then somebody says, “Oh, that's Jonathan Gold.” I was like, “Really?” So I go to say hi to him — and this was like around 2003 so I was still starting as a writer. I said I was a big fan and I hoped to try to do what he was doing, down in Orange County.
He said Orange County had some good food. He wished he could get down there more and to reach out if I wanted any help with anything. And I was like, “Wow, that's really cool.” This was before Jonathan became “Mr. Gold,” by the way. It was just “Jonathan.” He seemed shy, and he picked his words carefully. But he was funny always. Always smart and always really gracious, too.
Did you ever write for L.A. Weekly?
Yeah, I wrote for John Payne [former music editor]. I was doing rock en español stuff and some concert reviews.
Wow, John Payne (who still writes for the Weekly) was my first editor at the paper also — when I started interning at the Hyperion Avenue location in Silver Lake.
So you're known for writing about political and social issues as well as food, mostly as it pertains to the Latin experience, but in a broader sense as well. I bet a lot of people probably didn't know you started with music, just like they didn't know that about Jonathan. Was he a direct influence in inspiring you making the leap into food coverage and critique?
Oh yeah, as a food writer, for sure. Back then I didn't know Jonathan's music writing career. This was before the internet, so you didn't know all this stuff. I just knew him as a food writer, and I first started reading him even before getting into journalism. I'd pick up L.A. Weekly at Tower Records in Buena Park. I remember getting the paper and reading the food section and thinking, “Wow, this guy really knows his shit.”
In 2003, I started a column called “This Hole-in-the-Wall Life.” I did it for 14 years at OC Weekly. That's what people outside of Orange County don't realize: I was a full-time food critic.
So how did you develop a friendship with Mr. Gold over the years?
We would send little notes to each other via email. Then social media came around and we would leave comments on each other's Facebook or Twitter. Once I started becoming more known for my food column, we started to be on the same food panels. So that's really when I would see him most — at events. He lived in Pasadena and I lived down in Orange County, so it was impossible for me to go up there and hang out with him more, or go on the food adventures I would have liked to, or anything like that.
What was your perspective on his Pulitzer win?
It was amazing. Of course it was deserved. All food writers try to mimic Jonathan Gold in one way or another. What I love about his stuff was just stories of immigrant communities and telling like whole prior histories of a neighborhood just through one dish. That's what really struck me. That's what made me decide to be a food writer in Orange County.
It's funny, because whenever we'd run into each other we wouldn't talk about food. We would gossip about the old owners of the L.A. Weekly and OC Weekly. Like, what weird email did we get from the bosses this time … what crazy new demands? Reporters always talk about their bosses. Always.
You dealt with lots of, shall we say, challenges with the former owners at OC Weekly. What was your impression of Jonathan's relationship with the former owners at the L.A. Weekly?
Well, he left the Weekly because of the way [owners Village Voice Media] treated his wife.
Right. That's been well documented. They let editor-in-chief Laurie Ochoa go and she went to the L.A. Times, where he followed.
Yes, and it's a little-known fact that Jonathan tried to recruit me for the Times from OC Weekly. I said, “It would be an honor to work alongside you, Mr. Gold” (at that point I always called him Mr. Gold) but “the OC Weekly is my home forever.”
Well, that didn't end up being true.
I feel like journalists are all in this sort of club, especially in L.A. Sadly it's more like high school, with cliques and bullies, these days; people who'd rather judge each other for their work or professional choices than support each other. Jonathan was never like that. It's part of why he was so inspirational to all of us. Losing him was a real blow to the journalism community. But what would you say Jonathan's impact on Los Angeles as a whole has been?
I think he might go down in history as the greatest Southern Californian of them all. He was from here. And he really made an effort to try to learn about all the different parts of what makes Southern California special. We were all shocked about his passing because it was so sudden. He was at a pie contest just a few months ago, like beginning of May. Now this amazing man is gone.
It's been beautiful to see so many people of all walks of life understand how important he was. We've seen simultaneous sadness and happiness — sadness because he's gone but happiness that we had him to begin with and that we all had the privilege of reading his work. We haven't lost someone on this level since Huell Howser. The next time we might see such goodwill in L.A. for someone is whenever Vin Scully passes away.
What else would you like to say about Mr. Gold's passing?
Just that he was a kind man. He was a kind man to people who didn't know him, and even kinder to those who did. It's sad what happened, and I just hope before he passed away that he knew how many people loved him.