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.