Jonathan gold

Being Less Afraid of our Neighbors

It was one of those NPR features on Morning Edition that I was half-listening to as I headed to work. Rachel Martin, the host, announced that Jonathan Gold, the only food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, had died at age 57 of pancreatic cancer. Diagnosed in early July of this year, his death less than a month later was unexpected by many. I do not read the Los Angeles Times, where Gold has written poetically about food and community since the mid-eighties, or see many movies, including the “City of Gold” documentary in which Jonathan Gold is featured. But I was moved to hear about his life and saddened to learn of his death. What caught my heart as I heard the brief remembrance on the radio was the missional statement of Jonathan Gold. He said of his life’s mission: “I am trying to get people to be less afraid of their neighbors.”

I have been thinking about this ever since. I know that we speak often of the mission of an organization or faith community or particular product line. And I know some life coaches, counselors, and spiritual directors who encourage individuals to consider what their personal mission might be. But I wonder how many of us have articulated a life mission and I certainly have never thought about a food critic promoting neighborliness.

What seemed to matter most to Gold, whether in his earliest journalism of critiquing music or his later food writing, was discovering the under-covered, the misunderstood, the ignored. As an accomplished cellist, trained in classical music, he allowed punk rock to, as he said, “Get him out of his shell.” He looked for the underdog and the unexpected and brought awareness to individuals and groups that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. He spent time with them in their studios as they worked on the music they were composing and, after a day or two, the musicians seemed ready to talk. He cared not only about the music, but for those who produced it.

It was his style when writing about restaurants. He was not just interested in elite places, but hole-in-the-wall joints, street food, mom and pop shops, and “traditional foods,” as he called ethnic cuisine. He felt that even if people did not go to eat at the places he suggested there would be a greater awareness of and appreciation for the scope of humanity for the reader. He made it his practice to write positive reviews so he sought out places he could commend, rather than destroy, by his words. One Thai restaurant owner said that she did not even know what a food critic was, but prayed that Jonathan Gold would visit her restaurant and one day he did. It made all the difference.

Gold said he knew food could be a power to bring a community together and for understanding other people. He used his column as a conduit for stories of Los Angeles that made the city more approachable for newcomers and appreciated by those who had lived there a lifetime, weaving food reviews into the narrative.

I believe one reason this remembrance seems so relevant to me is the missional intent of Joshua Gold to address fear of neighbors. We hear so much about the ways in which our world and nation is divided, so much about the uncertainty we face as a nation in a global context. In the same way that some generations have had a pervasive underlying sense of guilt, it seems we are cultivating a free-floating sense of fear of our neighbors who may think or be different from us. How important to be less afraid of our neighbors and more willing to be curious about each other as Gold demonstrated in his life of writing, true to his personal mission.

I believe another reason this story keeps stirring my spirit is because it speaks of the difference one person can make when that person is intentional about his or her life and has a vision of the greater good they can influence. We hear much about what is going wrong in this world. What a breath of fresh air to hear how someone lived his life in such a way that he inspired community and hope. I pray that we all might consider a mission statement for our lives that will give us focus in living well and in leaving the world a better place. And thank you to Joshua Gold for inspiring not only good music and food, but purposeful living.