City of Gold (2015)

City of Gold is a documentary about Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. I’m ambivalent about the current spate of foodie-oriented TV and movies, but this was less of that and more about an interesting and quirky artist, and the real main character was the city of Los Angeles.

One of the main focus points is how Gold is the champion of the off-the-beaten-path restaurants, largely immigrant-focused. It’s a healthy counterpoint to the current post-election culture that has swallowed the news cycle, and the doc shows several examples of how he championed a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and made their business explode. An example was Meals by Genet, a restaurant in Little Ethiopia on Fairfax run by Genet Agonafer. She fled Ethiopia for LA with her young son, and struggled through the usual low-pay food service jobs. Her son, through her support, eventually grew up, went through medical school, and became a doctor. When the space on Fairfax opened, he maxed out every credit card he could find to get her restaurant going. When Gold reviewed it, she could not cook fast enough to handle all the new traffic, and now she’s flourishing because of his nod on the 101 Best Restaurants list he publishes.

There are several stories like this, where he writes about his favorite Thai food, taco trucks, Korean places, and works the Pico strip, eating at every small ethnic restaurant along its length. And that’s why I say LA is the main star here. I’m unapologetically a massive fan of Los Angeles, and wish I would have spent more time than the brief half-year I lived there in 2008. There’s some city planning porn in the doc explaining how LA has multiple city centers, and grows outward from each one. Many people — mostly those who have never spent any time there — decry this sprawl. But it’s a feature, not a bug. It means different parts of the city blossom and grow to provide different experiences for a widely diverse population.

Sure, that sprawl means unending chain restaurants. You’ll find at least 150 McDonald’s chains in LA county. But it means there are so many spaces for weird, eccentric, or authentic food. This is one of the big surprises of the city, and shown well in the film. There are big Zagat-reviewed fancy places in LA, which are all stuck in the 90s. But you can roll into a mini-mall in El Segundo and find mind-blowing food from any country or region of the world, sitting next to a cash-for-gold place.

Gold writes for the LA Times, but the movie shows his ascension through the ranks. He started at the LA Weekly as a proofreader back in the early 80s, when he was studying cello at UCLA. He moved up to music editor, then got into food. There are so many interesting intersecting paths here; he’s got the connections to the food criticism world, and you see Robert Sietsema, Calvin Trillin, Ruth Reichl, and so on. But he’s also a regular on KCRW. He was a champion of the early LA gangsta rap scene, spending time with Snoop Dogg in the studio while he recorded his first album. He played with the post-punk band Overman. He was around for the early 80s punk scene with X and the Germs. And it seems like he’s had a thumb in every little food scene within LA, from the old Jewish delis (he actually worked in Spielberg’s mom’s deli back in college) to food trucks to everything else.

One of the things I liked about the film was showing Gold, how he lived in a house filled with books on every horizontal surface, his close relationship with wife Laurie Ochoa (now entertainment editor at the Times) and his struggles with writer’s block, even though he still publishes 150,000 words a year. He’s a jovial looking guy, with long hair and always with a smile on his face, and it’s humorous to see him pecking at his Macbook at the kitchen table, then wandering off to pick up some random book and not get to a review his editor wanted yesterday. We’ve all been there, but I think the rewarding thing was to see him struggle with it and then at the last second crank out such engrossing and descriptive criticism.

The only sore spot with this film is it really, really made me want to go back to LA. Watching those long pan shots of the strip malls and restaurants of West Hollywood and Koreatown and Culver City and Sawtelle gave me such overwhelming nostalgia for the place. There are things I like about Northern California, but we don’t have city centers like that. We have downtowns surrounded by bedroom communities, and it’s just not the same. Yeah, the traffic sucks, but the traffic here sucks too, and we don’t have 350 days of sunshine a year and such an overwhelming food scene. I really wish I was back, to drive down Pico and look at everything, even if I do just end up at Norm’s at three in the morning, eating pancakes. Great film.

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Freshly

I am lazy. I can cook, but given the choice, I don’t. That means either I eat sad microwave dinners, or I go out to eat, and eat too much. That has been catching up to me, and I had to do something out of desperation. I wanted to get those Zone delivery meals, where they  cook everything and measure it out and do it to a certain nutritional profile, and then deliver them every day. I think if I was given three pre-portioned meals a day and told to eat just that, I’d be fine.

The big problem with this is that most Zone delivery things cost roughly as much as my mortgage. They also usually use their own delivery people, which means they will 100% get lost or not be able to get in my building. (Case in point: Amazon Logistics always fucks up deliveries here.) And some of the food delivery things have some flexibility with getting less than 21 meals a week, but some don’t.

I thought about Blue Apron, since they advertise constantly, and a bunch of people won’t shut the fuck up about them. But those involve cooking, and they’re more for two people, and my wife doesn’t eat. So that was out.

I finally found Freshly, which seemed to fit the bill. They delivered with FedEx, packed in ice. They have meal plans of 6, 9, 12, or 21 meals a week, which you pick from their rotating menu. They list ingredients and nutritional information. And their web site did not look that impossible to use.

I tried this out with the 9-meal plan. I did not need breakfast, since I have oatmeal each day. I also left some dead space for weekends or going out for lunch once in the week. 9 meals, including shipping, was $99.

First, packaging was interesting. The meals came in a cardboard box, which was lined with some padded stuff which is actually recycled jean denim, wrapped in brown paper. Then inside that were alternating packs of white plastic containing a frozen gel, along with the individual meal trays. Each meal tray was in a cardboard sleeve with nutritional info, then was a standard black plastic bottom/clear plastic wrap sealed top.

The food was all made with minimal ingredients, no preservatives. I generally don’t care about that either way, but it was all fresh, not frozen. There was zero prep involved: poke holes in the top, nuke for two minutes, done. I plated them after cooking, but that’s it. No flavor packets or mixing or anything else. It’s just prepared food in a plastic tray.

The meals I had ranged from pretty decent to excellent. Each one was protein-centric, with mostly carbs from vegetables and no sugar or starches. The best meal was a Lebanese meatball dish with spinach, chickpeas, tahini, and raisins. I would have easily eaten nine of those. There was also a beef provencal with brussels sprouts, and I absolutely hate brussels sprouts and I ate all of them. The first meal I ate was the most meh, a paleo toasted almond chicken. I wasn’t entirely into the coating, but even there, the chicken was perfectly done inside and not dry or knuckly or weird.

As far as ordering, their web site lets you choose what you’re going to get a week in advance. You can skip a week or throttle up/down from your chosen plan if you need to. If you did nothing, you’d get the same stuff as last week. It looks like it would be fairly easy to cancel the account if I needed to bail completely. (There’s a link at the bottom of the subscription settings page, so it’s not completely buried, or one of those things where you have to sit on hold for an hour.)

The one bummer about the whole experience is that the food expires fast. I got my meals on Thursday, and they were all marked best by Monday, and the weekend of eating out was in the middle of that. Their web site says you can freeze meals, but is really dodgy about it, saying some freeze better than others, but no specifics, and no instructions on the best way to thaw them. I froze two of the meals (a chili, and an asian steak) and they were not as on point as the rest of them, but were as decent as an average TV dinner. There’s no real way around this, other than maybe two deliveries a week, or knowing what freezes well and planning on that.

Other super minor gripe is there was no FedEx tracking number. That’s a big deal for me because every delivery person fucks things up, even though I am home all day, and it’s nice to feed the number into a delivery status app.

I ended up losing 3.3 pounds last week. I generally only lose weight from diet. I don’t subscribe to any belief on fad stuff like paleo or gluten-free or no-GMO or any of that. You eat more than you burn, you gain weight. That said, I also walked 36 miles last week, so there’s that. But I think having controlled portions to prevent me from gorging, and not having any bread or empty carbs helped most.

And the Amway part of the post: If you’re interested in trying this, go here: http://refer.freshly.com/s/7xqc7. Like I said, it’s not exactly cheap, and it’s not available coast-to-coast, either. But it’s been good for me so far.

 

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