Looking for good tacos? Ask an intellectual.
The film opens with a man trying to write at his dining room table. The camera, which seems to be set on his kitchen counter, frames him in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room. At the edges of our vision are a hanging basket of fruit and a gooseneck kettle for pouring water over coffee grounds. As we learn from a voice-over that rises above his typing, the writer is describing his recent fixation on tacos. Then we are out in the world. The camera shows us not only the particular tacos of desire but also the interior of the truck where they are made by an ingenious chef named Wes Avila, founder of Guerrilla Tacos. Avila is at work. Carnitas sizzle. Beautifully captured throughout the film are the sounds of vegetables sautéing and meat crackling, as well as the golden light that saturates and redeems the city each day.
The film is director Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold, and the writer is Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times, possibly the only restaurant critic in history to have a documentary film tell his story. The city is, of course, Los Angeles. The film asks a serious question: Where is the place of food in “culture,” which we think of as the province of the intellectual?
The film appeared in 2015, in the midst of a national conversation about the rising status of food in American life. Chefs were the new rock stars, and the image makers were descending upon their kitchens. Despite the inevitable crassness of promotion, food came to be recognized as a significant form of expression, our gastronomic tastes a part of our identities. Yet years before this trend began, Gold was already writing about food in Los Angeles in a way that defied the distinction between high culture and popular culture that had long dominated restaurants and the practice of writing about them. The old focus had been on French cuisine, rather than vernacular food. Gold is perhaps the most prominent of a wave of writers on food who have helped us abandon the value distinction between high and low. Later in the film we see Gold in two youthful guises: first, as a classically trained cellist, and second, a few years later, playing his cello in a punk band.
At another moment in the film, Gold compares the power of a dark Oaxacan mole negro to Charles Ray’s 1986 sculpture Ink Box, a translucent cube so filled with ink that it seems solid. And he likens the mole stains on partakers’ fingers to purple ink on the digits of the Iraqi voters of 2009. Such statements about the aesthetic and political associations triggered by Mexican sauces may seem implausible. Gold offers no formal critical theory, but, rather, the soft persuasion of reference works in his hands. Gold’s way is the way of facts, carefully woven into the fabric of reviews and articles so that they never seem rough: this much vinegar, that long to hand-pull the noodles, a particular part of the pig. Following in the treat-seeking footsteps of Calvin Trillin, Gold describes the experience of eating. He does not try to convince us that eating, say, mole-covered quail helps us to think through the political consequences of our foodways, or the possibilities for formal experimentation in the plastic arts. Gold is an intellectual, but his task is the colloquial description of pleasurable sensations, delivered while perched at a lunch counter. In fact, “Counter Intelligence” is the name of his column and of his first collection of reviews.
But what kind of informed intelligence is “counter intelligence”? If the idea that a restaurant critic can count as an intellectual seems strange, perhaps it is because of how we have customarily defined the term intellectuals. Three features of the definition stand out: the outsider status of intellectuals, their extraordinariness or even their singularity, and their politics. The term “an intellectual,” employed to describe a person of a certain social type, was first used as a noun during the Dreyfus Affair in France at the end of the nineteenth century. The term quickly developed associations with liberalism as opposed to conservatism, and with a progressive position on issues of social change. During the twentieth century, it would develop additional associations with antifascist and left politics in both Europe and North America. But part of the story of the intellectuals is that our quite appropriate interest in their politics, and our assumption that ideology is the horizon line of their salience, emphasizes one part of intellectual life at the expense of others.
In 2002, the intellectual historian Stefan Collini published an essay with a curious title whose first half he borrowed from George Orwell: “‘Every Fruit-Juice Drinker, Nudist, Sandal-Wearer…’: Intellectuals as Other People.”11xStefan Collini, “‘Every Fruit-Juice Drinker, Nudist, Sandal-Wearer…’: Intellectuals as Other People,” in The Public Intellectual, ed. Helen Small (Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2002), 203. Although Orwell himself was a prominent writer and cultural critic, he held intellectuals at arm’s length, describing them in terms of their suspect preferences regarding beverages or clothing (or lack of clothing). That distancing act is what interests Collini in his essay. Orwell helped set the tone for the British mid-twentieth-century attitude toward intellectuals. He contributed to the tendency to write them out of the national script. Intellectuals, the story ran, were not a natively British social type. There was something foreign about their ideas, and an air of dissident politics hung around them. The joke is that many of the French had thought so too, during the Dreyfus Affair. The term “an intellectual” was first employed as a slur, a way to discredit the supporters of the falsely accused French-Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus (charged, as it happens, with spying for the Germans) as somehow “un-French.” Here two of our ideas about intellectuals got their start, namely, that they are outsiders and that they work at a cognitive level divided from our common life. Our habit of thinking of intellectuals as defined by politics and ideology took hold at that time as well. Over a century later, we still tend to think of intellectuals as rootless commentators on high culture and politics rather than as members of a national or local culture, quotidian and by definition unexceptional. Collini suggested that someone should combat this way of thinking by writing an essay titled “Intellectuals Are Ordinary.”22xHere, Collini nods to the literary critic Raymond Williams’s essay “Culture Is Ordinary,” in Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (London, England: Verso, 1989): 3–18. Well, are they? If we could clear away all of our assumptions about intellectuals as exceptional individuals or as outsiders, would we then see them as ordinary people?
There are several ways to think about how this “ordinariness” might work. First, we know that intellectuals, however sophisticated their educations and complex their thoughts, have the same humbling human drives, appetites, and frailties that bedevil their less reflective fellows. One could argue that the central theme of the campus novel, such as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, David Lodge’s Changing Places, or Jane Smiley’s Moo, is that the life of the mind has a body. The work of professors is shaped and sometimes undermined by humbling drives both literal and figurative. The beast is complex, its pleasures are multiple, and its ability to distinguish among objects of desire sometimes flags. Second, we could observe that the activities of reading, writing, and thinking may differ from other forms of work, but they are nevertheless as worldly as the body.33xYou might add “conducting scientific experiments,” “doing anthropological fieldwork,” “making art,” or “performing music or theater or dance,” depending on how capacious a definition of intellectual you crave. Contemplating Platonic forms may elevate us, but contemplation is nevertheless an action in the world. Historical research in archives, ethnographic observation, and the analysis of narrative cinema are different skills that all deserve their separate and distinctive dignity, but that does not mean they rely upon a cognitive array entirely different from the one “nonintellectuals” use.
Critics, like other writers whom we might call intellectuals, submit their judgments to a broad public, and they do not pass judgment only for themselves. As A.O. Scott suggests in Better Living through Criticism, part of the critic’s task is to pass judgments that, while originally personal, make claims on everyone’s taste.44xA.O. Scott, Better Living through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016). Unlike many academic literary critics (for example), critics writing for a popular audience must concern themselves as much with quality as with meaning. They cannot be afraid to call something the best of its class, even if they stamp a qualifying De gustibus non est disputandum at the bottom of their reviews. In a world of relativists who merely describe the kinds of things they tend to like, critics are prescriptivists, arguing in subtle or overt ways for the relevance of their opinions. They have the tough task of implying or insisting that there might be a right way to navigate pluralist waters. And they do so in the face of the general but not wholesale abandonment of the high-low distinction in culture that once helped to legitimate the institution of criticism itself. The eclipse of that distinction in cuisine is only a small part of a larger shift in how we rate beauty, pleasure, and meaning. This helps us to understand why so ordinary a preparation as a falafel sandwich can prompt a discussion that goes beyond the bite of chopped onion and the nutty flavor of tahini.
Gold is, admittedly, easier to call an intellectual than many restaurant critics because of his interests beyond food. He began as a classical music critic and then made a name writing about the LA gangsta rap scene,55xJonathan Gold, “Rolling in Compton with Snoop and Dre,” republished at https://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/rolling-in-compton-with-snoop-and-dre-20101029. but he covered rock as well; his 1996 profile of Soundgarden singer-guitarist Chris Cornell is striking.66xJonathan Gold, “Chris Cornell, Searching for Solitude,” originally published in Details in 1996 and republished at https://pitchfork.com/features/article/10081-chris-cornell-searching-for-solitude/. As portrayed in Laura Gabbert’s film, Gold sees food criticism as a subtype of arts criticism broadly construed, and he has noted that his early project of eating at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard seemed like a good alternative to going to graduate school.77xJonathan Gold, “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard,” LA Weekly, September 23, 1998, http://www.laweekly.com/news/the-year-i-ate-pico-boulevard-2129883. One of his restaurant reviews from earlier this year includes a mention of the philosopher W.V. Quine.88xJonathan Gold, “The Hearth & Hound, April Bloomfield’s new Los Angeles restaurant, is nothing like a gastropub,” Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2018, http://www.latimes.com/food/jonathan-gold/la-fo-gold-the-hearth-and-hound-review-20180110-story.html. But such references have little to do with Gold’s effectiveness as a writer. Names are easily dropped. The sense of a critic thinking through the question of what typifies a musical genre, or a kind of dish, is a different matter entirely. The best writing by intellectuals for a broad public reaches for something that seems too high; we as readers are challenged, along with the writer, to think more about our pleasure, our lives, and our world than we expected we would. There is almost something morally compelling about this kind of writing, even when it is pitched in the vernacular and tells you where to find the best albóndigas. As the film shows, it is typical of Gold to begin a review in the second person, creating a bond between critic and reader. “You and I,” says one commentator on Gold’s work, “are the kind of people who eat deer penis,” or perhaps, on a less adventurous lunch break, a pork belly taco from the Kogi Truck, whose chef, Roy Choi, has a delightful cameo in City of Gold. The second person is a subtle and effective tool for arguing that one individual’s private judgment might count for us, the general public.
If the intellectual has always been a person displaced, either in geography, culture, or social space, criticism recapitulates this displacement in its own way. By the tick of the clock, critics are out of phase with the pleasures they describe, and much criticism is driven by a will to dig back into experience. In City of Gold, this shows up in Gold’s effort to turn the noun taco into a different part of speech. He’s driving his truck, saying “Taco should be a verb.” The taco, he says, is heated on the griddle, and the counterman slides meat onto it and sauces it and hands it to you and you eat it, all in one extended motion. “I know it’s overly romantic,” Gold says of this image of the unity of production and consumption, the implied friendship of cook and eater. He seems to mean “romantic” with a lowercase r, but within taco-as-verb there is an echo of Romantic aesthetics too, an implication that art tries to recapture our unity with nature, a condition we once enjoyed but have now lost. Criticism cannot help but echo that gesture when it summons the lost immediacy of aesthetic experience. It is in this sense that arts criticism reproduces the displacement that has always characterized the story of the intellectual. Susan Sontag described one version of this problem in the mid-1960s, arguing that critical interpretation in quest of meaning is marked by a profound loss of immediate experience. In place of interpretation, Sontag asked for “an erotics of art,” which seemed to reach for unity with the artwork itself, something Sontag knew was impossible.99xSusan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), 14. Practically speaking, this would be a descriptive criticism rather than a criticism preoccupied by meaning. Criticism’s tragic truth is that the original moment is always gone. Aesthetic experience is more “verbal” than “noun-like,” a continuity of movement and flux rather than a static thing, and interpretation can seem to will flux into a very unlifelike solidity. Tacos grow cold when you treat them this way. They are not primarily a receptacle for meaning. They are primarily delicious.
Criticism is a kind of ordinary intellectual life. From someone like Gold, we get very practical advice (go here to eat diver scallops, there to eat Szechuan food seasoned more delicately than usual, there to eat a specific Korean black goat stew), but also an enlargement of our sense of the possibilities of food, both for ourselves and for other people. Judgments about pleasure are not merely about pleasure, after all, but also about becoming a more discerning audience, and learning from the pleasure of others. Talking about tacos, Gold says, “My inner life tends to be measured out in radishes, meat, and limes.” It is hard to miss the echo of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” here, but the point is not to display a certain sophistication of reference. The point is to follow someone who believes that food prompts the kind of reflection we tend to grant only to high art. To say “Intellectuals are ordinary” is not to say that everyone is an intellectual, or that all culture is intellectual life. Nor is it to imply that everyday pleasures offer a safe harbor from the squalls of politics. It is to suggest that the life of the mind is “ordinary” in the sense that you can get there through the gate of everyday life. Our bread, rice, and noodles all contain common meanings that go by the name “culture.” Our enjoyment of them can be a call to interpretation, not in order to deplete the world of its pleasures, but to sort out how we might share them.