Often imitated but never duplicated, Jonathan Gold — one of America's most prolific food writers — has signed a deal to write his first book in more than 15 years. Called Breakfast on Pico, Ecco, the publisher, describes it as "a culinary memoir of sorts... The year he left college, Jonathan Gold decided to eat at every restaurant on LA's Pico Boulevard. Thirty years later, he set out to do it again."
Pico Boulevard is one of LA's main arteries. It runs from the Pacific Ocean to downtown LA, and passes through both gentrified and well-preserved Persian, Jewish, Japanese, Black, and Latino enclaves.
Gold has contributed to countless publications (including Gourmet, LA Weekly, and Smithsonian), was the star of his own feature-length biopic, and remains the sole person to have won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about restaurants. He is currently the Los Angeles' Times' restaurant critic. In 2000, LA Weekly Books published a compilation of his restaurant reviews under the name of his longtime column, Counter Intelligence; it was positioned as a guide to dining in LA. A publication date for the new book has not yet been set. As for when it will hit bookshelves, Gold says via phone, "Well, I have to write it first."
Here's the rest of our conversation, edited and condensed:
Is the new book going to be exclusively about breakfast? No, that's just the title. When I was a young man I had a band — Pink Burial — and one of the songs was called "Breakfast on Pico" and I just liked that song.
Why did you decide to do another trip down Pico? I always feel good when I'm on Pico. Pico is the pulse of Los Angeles. Everything else changes and Pico sort of stays the same. The book is not just going to be about Pico but there will be a lot of Pico in it.
What's behind your obsession with Pico Boulevard? It started a long time ago... when I was just out of UCLA and working as a proofreader at a legal newspaper downtown. I was living above a Kosher butcher shop on the corner of Shenandoah and Pico and I became obsessed with the idea of the street.
I was going to get to know it by eating at every restaurant. I'm not going to say I did every restaurant but it was a lot of restaurants. I was just doing it to do it, it was rooted in my past as a performance artist. I started in the arts for a couple of years and worked as an assistant for a couple of years to the performance artist Chris Burden. I was inspired by a piece he had done in the '70s. So I did a performance piece... it seems goofy right now, but I went down Pico to Fairfax and up Fairfax and I bought a bagel at every place that served bagels and I made a map of it, a physical map, and I glued the bagels to this paper map.
I thought I would learn all there is to learn about bagels in LA and what I learned was all of the good ones came from the Brooklyn Bagel Factory. One can be really pretentious when one is 21.
I have to add: Pico was the last Mexican governor of California, and he's always been a particular hero of mine. He grew up in California, he was of African descent... though they didn't tend to make note of those things back then. He was the governor when California got its independence from Mexico. But he didn't want it to become a U.S. Territory. The paradise he saw in California he had taken away from him bit by bit by bit.
Will Breakfast on Pico be a memoir of your professional life, stories from a restaurant critic, or will it include personal passages as well? I imagine it will have a lot of personal stuff. A culinary coming of age book, I guess. Our lives are all shaped by food, food serves as a touchstone in various parts of my existence. It won't just be restaurant reviewing war stories.
Why Ecco? The reason I went with Ecco is because of a chance to work with Daniel Halpern, who's such an extraordinary editor. He edits Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates, and he has the best poetry list of anybody. He has such a wide ranging piercing intelligence. I'm lucky that he also cares about food. He wrote a splendid book about restaurants in Italy in the '80s that I wore out probably three copies of.
I had been thinking of doing [the book] more novelistically and doing it as fiction. But [Halpern] seemed to think a memoir was the way to go about it. Of course I have a long and deep friendship with Ruth Reichl, ever since she hired me to be the valley restaurant critic for the LA Times in 1987, and her memoirs have always been an inspiration.
Is yet another book in the works, a follow up to Counter Intelligence maybe? The idea of restaurant guides, I love restaurant guides, but everything changes so much and so quickly... I can see doing another one at some point in the future, to mark another moment in time.