"Food is a social and cultural artifact of our time," says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. "When [Jonathan] Gold writes about food, it becomes an entrée to writing about people and the cultural meaning of this everyday act of eating."
Gold, a writer for LA Weekly, received a 2007 Pulitzer Prize in the criticism category — the first ever presented to food writing. The Pulitzer judges cited Gold for "his zestful, wide-ranging restaurant reviews expressing the delight of an erudite eater."
Traditionally, the Pulitzer in this category has been awarded to film, music, literature, art, architecture, and media critics, but in the past few years, the scope has widened. In 2004, Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times won for his automobile column, and last year, Robin Givhan of The Washington Post won for her fashion criticism. Gold's prize is a long-awaited recognition by the committee of the cultural importance of food.
In recent interviews, Gold has said that people typically don't think of the culinary profession as a fine art, and even though cooking requires many fine-tuned skills and involves a certain degree of artistry, it's typically considered a craft. Yet, the most exquisite dining experiences — with great ambience, great wine, great company, and great food — even though short-lived, are always remembered.
Reading Gold is bliss. In one column, he reviews the food of Laurent Quenioux at L.A.'s Bistro K: "[T]here are few chefs in Los Angeles who have Quenioux's touch with game: a soft, gloriously stinky Scottish hare stewed in something approximating the traditional foie gras-inflected blood ... a whole-roasted red-leg partridge with the funky, steroidal, locker-room smack of the best shot game."
In another column, he describes the rhythm of an izakaya meal (the Japanese version of a tapas meal) as "a waltz-time snack-sip-chat, snack-sip-chat dynamic that can go on for the length of a Mahler symphony ... animal-vegetable-mineral, warm-hot-cold, sweet-salt-funk."
When you have finished reading one of Gold's pieces, you'll have learned something beyond the particular food of a particular restaurant. This is food writing and criticism at its best.
Unfortunately, not everybody who writes about food embraces the traditions of other cultures with as much curiosity and enthusiasm as Gold. California-bred Colby Buzzell, author, blogger, and former soldier with the U.S. Army, recently toured the Mississippi Delta's tamale trail and wrote about his experiences for the May issue of Esquire magazine.
"Most of the tamales are stuffed with spicy beef or pork and corn dough. Some are sold out of small wooden shacks the size of port-a-shitters, some out of carts on the side of the road," Buzzell writes. "But here's the thing: Nobody here seems to know — or really care — how they got here. They just are."
Buzzell noting his subjects' disinterest in the tamale trail's history is a bit ironic. He himself never mentions a valuable resource in the Southern Foodways Alliance and their ongoing project documenting the hot-tamale trail.
According to Edge, tamales in the Mississippi Delta date back to the early 20th century, when bumper cotton harvests caused planters to bring in Mexican workers from Texas and Mexico. He calls what happened, most likely during a shared lunchtime, a "culinary transfer." "One culture learns from another," Edge says, "and what we see today is that tamales have become a part of the African-American culture."
And the tamale shacks that Buzzell compares to portable bathrooms are vernacular architecture in the sense that they are often built with found materials — a scrap of leftover tin roofing, sides that are made out of old packing crates.
Buzzell presents a disappointingly stereotypical view of the South, but there's hope for him yet. After all, he lives in Los Angeles, giving him easy access to the LA Weekly and Gold's column. Perhaps he'll start reading it. In the meantime, as Edge puts it: "For his sake and ours, we wish him good travels in other climates."
To read Jonathan Gold's work, visit www.laweekly.com.
For more information about the tamale trail, visit www.tamaletrail.com.