How Los Angeles Became The Capital of Extreme Foodies

Dana Goodyear
Photo by Gertrude and Mabel

This article is part of an ongoing content partnership between Neon Tommy and L.A. Currents.

After reading Dana Goodyear’s new book it becomes clear that it is getting harder and harder to accurately call yourself an ‘adventurous eater.’ Stink bugs, pig ears, insect larvae, ox penis and dinners where marijuana is the central ingredient are becoming de rigueur for a small but growing community of extreme foodies who Goodyear sets out to investigate, document and in some cases lionize in her latest non fiction book, Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters and the Making of a New American Food Culture. Goodyear, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is also a senior lecturer at the University of Southern California and the co-founder of Figment, an online literary community. Before Anything That Moves, Goodyear published two collections of poetry: “Honey and Junk” and “The Oracle of Hollywood Boulevard.”

L.A. Currents contributor Kelli Shiroma spoke over the phone with Goodyear to discuss her new book, her current food obsessions, her thoughts on the “extreme eating” food culture, and the one dish she wishes she hadn’t consumed while doing research for this book.

L.A. Currents: For starters, can you summarize what your new book is about?

Dana Goodyear (DG): The book is really about Americans broadening their conceptions of what is edible. Americans are really opening their minds to a greater array of food, and it’s an exciting thing to see.

LAC: Do you think the culture of extreme eating that you document in your book is just a passing phenomenon, a fad of sorts? Or do you think it will become part of the culinary cannon that will continue to evolve and grow in importance?

DG: It represents the coming of age of an American interest in food. It represents a fascination with food moving from a very elite preoccupation to something that is much more mainstream and widely available. The foodies I write about in the book really come from every part of the American melting pot. What we’re seeing is more and more people making food adventures part of their daily lives and part of their social identities. 

LAC: It feels that in so many facets of our lives—from sports fandom to politics—that we are living in an age of extremism. Do you think the stories in this book are just an extension of that trend — that extremism is extending into our appetites? 

DG: I think the extremism has to do with breaking away from the model that has been in place for 100 years and has so much food marketing behind it that says, “These are the foods that we eat and we should only eat these foods.” The extremism is a way of cutting through all of that and it takes a little bit of an aggressive approach to startle people into thinking, “Maybe I can eat more than steak and corn-based products.”

LAC: What conditions do you think will have to be met for this extreme foodie culture to ever go “mainstream”?

DG: It already is going mainstream. The fact that anywhere in America, you can meet people that call themselves foodies and make food adventures part of their daily lives … that represents a huge shift. Some foods will never enter the mainstream and it’s hard to say what those are, at this point. Several factors have to coalesce to push something exotic into the mainstream. A great example is sushi, which was considered really extreme and un-American and then three factors came together to make it something people considered eating. One of them was the rearrangement of the government food pyramid to emphasize fish, the rise of the Japanese car and the best-selling novel, Shogun. That was what made Americans open their minds to sushi, and now it’s in every grocery store in America. I don’t think we have quite reached that point with insects. We might need one more thing to get people over the hump and willing to each insects, but they’re being more exposed to them now than they were a few years ago. So insects are more mainstream than they were before, but they’re [still] fairly rarefied. 

LAC: On that note, which of the insects mentioned in your book did you find most appealing?

DG: I loved the escamoles, which are the larvae stages of a certain kind of ant that’s found mostly in Mexico. They’re considered akin to Caviar in Mexico; they’re very prized and they’re wonderful. 

LAC: If you could go back in time and NOT have eaten one thing you consumed during the research of this book, what would it be?

DG: I learned something from everything that I ate. The thing I regret is eating whale. At the time I did that, I was largely ignorant of the ecological and political arguments surrounding it. I was traveling and I was in Iceland; it’s a place where people eat whale. I have always been the kind of traveler who ate what was offered to me as part of the experience and also because it’s an extension of hospitality. But I came to regret that very quickly. 

LAC: In your book, you document your experience at a “Weed Dinner,” during which the chef said that, “In 10 years, marijuana will be the new oregano.” Do you think marijuana will come to be considered a traditional ingredient?

DG: Everything is changing about this country’s attitude toward marijuana. I think 10 years ago, that would have sounded outlandish, and today, it sounds much more feasible. It is always true that non-traditional ingredients move from seeming implausible to seeming everyday. You have to remember there was a time where Hawaiian punch was a delicacy in this country, marinated artichokes were unheard of and baby corn was exotic. We don’t always have the longest memories for how these entered our vernacular. 

LAC: You are from the East Coast but you live in L.A. What role did you want L.A. to play in your book?

DG: L.A. is uniquely positioned geographically between two regions of historical necessity eating — Latin America and Asia — and is also the point of entry for migrants from those regions. L.A. has an incredibly diverse and eclectic food scene. The chefs here have been able to experiment really freely with what is available here. For many years — maybe until now — L.A. has not been considered a great food capital of America. So chefs have experimented here without the burden of that pressure of being New York or San Francisco. We’re also 12 hours away from Paris, which I think makes a huge difference in terms of the kinds of foods that come to the forefront here. New York’s eating culture has been shaped by Paris; we just don’t have that, we’re so far away from Europe. [But] we’re much closer to different eating traditions which do not emphasize the same ingredients, but in general, those cultures are much more open to a wider array of animals and also eating lower on the food chain. 

LAC: As an East Coaster, how would you assess the culinary scene in this city?

DG: It is vibrant, vital and predicting where the rest of the country is going. 

LAC: It can be hard for people outside of L.A. to appreciate the impact that Jonathan Gold — the subject of the book’s first chapter — has had on this city and the culinary scene as a whole. How would you characterize the role Gold plays in L.A. and in the modern culinary world?

DG: He is the “Pied Piper” of food adventurers in Los Angeles, and he’s been playing that role for 25 years. I would say that he invented that role and, in large part, he invented his audience. That audience has become the model for adventurous eaters across the country. Of course, there are other influences—Anthony Bourdain is one; Andrew Zimmern is another—but those guys are doing something that Gold was doing first. Gold’s reach is more local because he was writing for a local paper, as opposed to a national TV show; people who are on television have a broader reach. But I think he made a template and he created a generation of adventurous eaters. 

LAC: How has your eating habits changed since starting on this exploration of foodie culture?

DG: I’ve always been my own guinea pig with food. I feel very open to foods from different cultures or foods that might appear at first to be unfamiliar. A big feature of this movement is that things that America doesn’t typically think of as edible are now being presented as food. I’ve expanded my repertoire. My basic daily eating habits haven’t changed that much. The only really significant change is I eat far less meat than I did a few years ago … but the meat I do eat tends to be from a wider range of sources. I think part of it [eating less meat] is just my taste change. Some people go through phases; for five years in high school and college, I was a vegetarian. But I think it also has a little bit to do with spending time thinking about meat and where it comes from and what it means. That has definitely decreased my appetite for it; it’s something I have on special occasions now. 

LAC: I read that you were pregnant during some of the research for the book. How did that affect the final product?
DG: She [my child] is a great eater, I have to say. But it [being pregnant] made me more sensitive to the risks involved with eating, which was a good thing. My attitude going in had been pretty naïve. I had never gotten sick from eating and I felt like I could eat whatever I wanted to eat and I could be really open-minded about it. It gave me a layer of sensitivity that I lacked before, and it allowed me to eat as my reader might eat — with greater caution and greater sensitivity, in some cases. 

LAC: You write about food, but not as a critic. Have you ever thought about becoming one? 

DG: I have written restaurant reviews—I did that for the first several years that I was working at The New Yorker—and that was incredibly fun to do. But I like to do the kind of reporting that I do in the book, where I can actually make a narrative around something more than my experience for one day or one night in a restaurant. I find that, with this patchwork reporting style—there’s some historical research, a lot of on-the-ground reporting, and the eating a restaurant critic would do—I’m able to do more than I could if I were just writing a restaurant review. This [reporting style] allows me to do more and explore things that are not just strictly culinary. 

LAC: Which city do you feel like you haven’t spent sufficient time in? Where would you like to go back and eat your way through more thoroughly?

DG: I wanted to spend more time in Portland and Chicago. I’ve eaten well in both of those cities, but I know there’s a lot more going on there than I’ve been able to experience. Washington, D.C. is a really interesting city, and I would like to spend more time eating there. 

LAC: If somebody asks you, “What is your favorite food?,” what is your response?

DG: I’m obsessed right now with the bread at Tartine in San Francisco. I’ve been in San Francisco a couple of times recently, and I’ve been sure to bring home a loaf or two in my carry on. 

LAC: Finally, what was the best gem you discovered about L.A.? A restaurant perhaps, or a great neighborhood that you hadn’t been exposed to before?

DG: This is not a hidden entity, but I want to focus on it because I think it represents something really great for the city of L.A. There’s a shop on Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood called Lindy & Grundy. It’s a butcher shop run by a couple—one of whom was a vegetarian and the other was interested in learning more about meat and became a butcher—and all the meat there is sourced responsibly and it’s very high quality meat. It’s such a homey place and they’re — Erika and Amelia — in there every day and they share their family recipes and they have beautiful cookbooks … it has become a real community hub. That’s what’s beginning to happen in L.A.—these places or islands of food culture are emerging, and Lindy & Grundy really represent that. When Andrew Zimmern is in town, he calls the shop for the chicken feet he needs to serve his dinner, people who are into the paleo diet go there; it really brings people from across the foodie spectrum together. It’s really like a campfire in the woods.