Food Politics

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Los Angeles’s reputation as a great food city – or more accurately, region – receives a big boost of validation in the current pages of Saveur magazine.

The March issue dedicates a hundred pages to excitement about the LA food scene. The centerpiece is an essay by Jonathan Gold, the LA Weekly’s Pulitzer-winning food writer, pronouncing Los Angeles -- right now -- the best place in the world to eat.

Gold argues that the sheer size and variety of LA’s ethnic communities, paired with the famous insularity of LA cultures, conspires to make the ethnic food available here more authentic and un-Americanized than just about anywhere else.

Using the prodigious diversity of Chinese cuisines in the San Gabriel Valley as an example, Gold says that when Mr. Chen goes out for a bowl of noodles, he can find noodles very much like he used to get in the northern province of Shaanxi.

Mr. Chen gets his taste of home. We get the pure taste of Shaanxi. And everybody wins.

Almost every current that has informed American dining in the past 30 years began in LA kitchens, Gold says. He lists Asian fusion, high-end comfort food, the sushi-driven bistro, modern Southwest cuisine, slow-rise bread, and of course the cult of the celebrity chef.

Saveur’s issue includes admiring pieces on Wolfgang Puck, home cooking, LA burgers and tacos as the ultimate street food.

For history, there’s an adaptation of the original Cobb salad recipe from the Brown Derby. Plus -- ruminations on classics like Perino’s and Chasen’s, as well as the first sushi bar in the United States, opened in 1966 in Little Tokyo.

The magazine issue identifies a moment in our cultural history that is undeniable. Food and eating have become a defining element of LA culture. Not THE defining element, but one that’s homegrown and not a creation of Hollywood or the media.

Dozens of passionate blogs, and an increasing number of opportunistic media websites, are devoted to the LA food scene.

Gold’s own LA Weekly is gearing up to make saturation food writing a signature part of its identity, much like the Weekly used to be associated with edgy music and leftist politics.

Gold writes in his Saveur piece that food is political here in a way that rock and roll hasn't been for years. He offers that food plugs into the rhythms of the city and the world, engaging all the important questions of social justice and health, diversity and inclusion.

OK, maybe he’s reaching for a little extra significance there. But food and how it’s written about has become a hot button for sensitivities about civic pride.

When the editor of the Jewish Journal, who’s also the paper’s food blogger, posted his list of ten not-so-rosy aspects of the LA food scene that Savuer didn’t touch, he offended some of the local boosters.

The editor, Rob Eshman, objected to the magazine package being edited, as he says, to within a hair’s breadth of puffery.

He would have liked some nod to the reality that vast areas of LA are food deserts, that it’s still hard to eat late, that there are no good places to eat on the beach and relatively few appealing outdoor tables anywhere.

His points sparked lively discussion in the comments on his piece, on Twitter and blogs, and at Chowhound. He was accused of being a newbie and a Westsider, instead of the longtime Angeleno (and foodie who works in Koreatown) that he is.

What really got readers in a tizzy was that Eshman called LA NOT a great food city.

It’s an almost-very good food city, he says, with some improving to do. Nothing radical there, but as Gold says, these days in LA, food and politics are sometimes the same thing.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.