James Oseland of “Saveur”: Don’t Judge, Just Eat

James Oseland ate breakfast at the Pinecrest Diner in San Francisco, then showed up at the CHOW offices to talk about his new book for Saveur. (That's him getting a kiss from an old friend, CHOW's Jane Goldman.) Oseland is Saveur’s editor in chief, and the Pinecrest—that's a place where the short-order cook once shot the waitress after an argument over poached eggs. The food isn’t good, it’s not even bad in a cool way. But for Oseland, who haunted the Pinecrest 30 years ago when he lived in San Francisco, a kid into punk rock and art school, it’s not about good or bad. It’s about meaning.

Meaning is the theme of Oseland’s new book. The Way We Cook: Portraits from Around the World illustrates the connection people everywhere have with food. It culls extraordinary photographs (including outtakes) from 18 years of Saveur: People cook, eat, say grace, compose fancy plates with tweezers. The Way We Cook suggests how small the world is and yet how astonishingly diverse. There are 50 recipes at the back.

During his visit to CHOW, Oseland talked about the suddenly pressing notion of authenticity in food, finding greatness in dubious places, and his optimism about eating in America.

SHUT UP ABOUT AUTHENTICITY
“I think when people are worried about ‘inauthentic’ food what they’re really saying is that it’s compromised. Probably what they’re saying is that something that’s ‘authentic’ is a more virgin state of a dish or a way of cooking. But I don’t think there’s such a thing as inauthentic food, just food that’s transforming into something else. Chinese food in America has been evolving over the last 150 years into something that may not be, say, classical Shanghainese anymore, but it’s equally remarkable.”

TRUST YOUR FOOD-DAR
“Before this trip, I took a nine-day road trip with another Saveur editor, driving from the Twin Cities out to San Francisco, largely taking two-lane country roads virtually the entire way. There was this amazing place in Grand Junction, Colorado, definitely Mexican-American, such pure, good Mexican-American food. There was a market across the street called La Milpa: My food-dar immediately went off. They made the most beautiful puffy tortillas, and also sold locally produced Mexican cheese. There was also a melon farmer we encountered in the middle of just butt-fuck Utah; I think it was called River Junction. A fellow had a stall that opened up at 7 in the morning when we were rolling through town, and he had these varieties of melons that I’ve never seen anywhere. They were the best melons I’ve ever eaten, and they were in the middle of Utah. These two things were really just the starting point of a journey that proved to be a reminder of what genuinely wonderful food is out there.”

DIVERSE, EVEN IN A WALMART WORLD
“We’re so busy decrying food in America—high, low, and in between—and bitching about chefs and complaining about corporate greed squeezing every last ounce of regionalism out of the American way of cooking and eating. But we grow, make, and consume a lot of very wonderful food. The book is a logical extension of what we strive to do every day in the magazine across its different platforms, and that is to celebrate the great and glorious egalitarian world of food, and spotlight the similarities in what we eat rather than the differences. I travel a lot for work, but also for pleasure. Every time I travel I’m amazed and spellbound, honestly, about how much better food seems to be getting everywhere.”

Photo of James Oseland and Jane Goldman by Blake Smith / CHOW.com