This story appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.
Story by Gina Yu
His dad sprinkled sugar on buttered popcorn, and they boiled cans of sweetened condensed milk to make manjar (known as dulce de leche). His parents had little patience for processed, Americanized food. Not for the Whole Foods’ organic-seeking status quo, but because, “we were poor immigrants,” he says. Born in Chile and raised in Los Angeles, renowned food writer Oliver Strand’s cross-cultural roots have weighed heavily on his palate. A taste maven (and coffee connoisseur) for The New York Times, Vogue, Travel + Leisure and more, Strand’s reflections on food — and coffee — go beyond mere taste, encompassing the social, environmental and contextual values that influence the modern consumer.
Culinary traditions, carried like heirlooms from region to generation, leave breadcrumbs of indigenous flavor combinations in their wake. The adventure, you see, is the hunt for the familiar and ancient through the modern and contrastive. "When you find yourself living in a culture that's not your own, you soften the blow by seeking out familiar flavors, and are open to new flavors because everything is new,” he says. Hence the drives to Redondo Beach to eat crab and mussels, attempting to get as close as possible to the seafood fare of Chile. “Then we would go get chicken and waffles in Crenshaw, because it was so weird and good,” Strand explains.
Growing up, he hated the standard American foods — tuna fish sandwiches, potato salad, grilled cheese with Kraft singles. To Strand, great food was about beef stewed with spices, heavy on the cumin. It’s about the distinctive and satisfying: beefy, spicy, salty, sweet, all wrapped in a flaky crust of an empanada. It’s about the machas a la parmesana — fresh clams shucked and roasted with a touch of farmer’s cheese and maybe a sprinkling of minced parsley.
The sense of adventure that food imparts is still very real years later, just different. The 1970s and ’80s were a time of risk for ambitious foodies. “You found out about these places by word of mouth, or by stopping and trying the food,” he says. “Today everybody is adventurous, and every adventure is safe, because you can download the menu and Street View the restaurant before you decide to go.”
There’s still risk, but Strand’s not so sure as many people are taking it. “In the mid-’90s, one of my roommates, who was Swiss, biked with his brother from Basel to Istanbul,” he says. Their trip was largely personal, and internal. I suppose they took photos, but what I remember are the stories — when you came back, you were a storyteller.”
These days, an adventure looks a lot more like: post, pin and gram. It’s packaged. “There’s less synthesis when you’re posting snapshots with pretty washes and pithy introductions, then checking the comments to see who’s paying attention,” Strand says.
And then there’s coffee. Strand began writing about food for The New York Times in 2005. It was a time when coffee was a topic that he could cover just as he did any other food. Starting initially without an intention of turning it into a focus, he soon realized that he had much to learn. “It took me a couple of years to log the miles and get me to the point at which I could trust my taste buds, my journalistic instinct,” he says.
He focused on coffee when he realized that nobody else was. “I fully expected a scrum of other journalists to tackle me, but so far few others have specialized in coffee,” he says. That said, he recognizes that the level of coffee coverage has improved dramatically. Instead of printing what is told, people are asking more questions. More people have a baseline of information. That doesn’t mean it’s good, though. “If I see ‘java,’ ‘cup of joe’ or ‘buzz’ I put that article in the same virtual wastepaper basket where I keep the food articles with ‘chow,’ ‘gourmet’ and ‘yummy.’”
The world of coffee is still one of business. Every roaster will say that they are unique; that they are rare in sourcing the best products; that they truly understand flavor and process. “It’s helpful to be able to listen to the patter, taste a coffee, tell that it’s past crop (and tastes old),” Strand says. “Then be able to ask direct questions about when it was harvested, and analyze the coffee based on objective considerations, not subjective preferences.
“When you show up in a new town and head out to a coffee spot recommended by friends or over Twitter, there’s still a rawness, a slight worry that things will go wrong — which is what makes it so satisfying when it’s good. You’re up early in an unfamiliar place, taking public transportation you don’t quite understand or driving on streets you don’t know, heading to a place that might make a kind of coffee you like or that might be popular because Yelp is for idiots. When everything lines up and the coffee is beautiful, it will set a tone for the rest of the day — a magic coffee in a strange city will make you feel like a part of that city. It will change your mood.”