Former Saveur editor James Oseland found punk-rock salvation in 1970s San Francisco
There are no more than half a dozen 24-hour eating places left in San Francisco. In the late 1970s tweaked-out art kids, mohawked punks, off-the-meter cabbies and Castro clones in leather angled for counter stools in diners all across a city where rebelliousness and reinvention ruled; these days in SF, everyone has to get up early to board two-story tech buses bound for jobs in Silicon Valley. But the Pinecrest, an all-night diner open since 1969 at the margin of Tenderloin and tourism, is a survivor.
This morning vacationers and a few construction workers mob the host stand. James Oseland and I are in dubious luck: There’s an open booth in back, near a down stairwell whose walls are a sickly shade of mint. The basement belches up sour vapors laced with bathroom cleaner, but for 57-year-old Oseland — 40 years ago, he was one of those arty queer kids who found punk-rock salvation in San Francisco — it’s all good. He’s just as much of a survivor as the Pinecrest. This is his sweet spot.
Outside food media, Oseland is known as the balding, nerdish and kinetic head judge on all five seasons of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” (the series went dark in 2013). Inside he’s a legend. As editor in chief, Oseland made Saveur magazine into a photojournalistic exploration of global cuisine. His 2006 book “Cradle of Flavor,” on the cooking of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, won a James Beard Award. Nowadays he splits his time between New York and Mexico City, where he’s getting ready to launch “World Food,” a cookbook series for Ten Speed/Penguin Random House.
Oseland says the project focuses on “the authentic, thriving, traditional food cultures of the world’s greatest food places.” (The first two volumes, scheduled for release in 2020, cover Paris and Mexico City.) And in February, Ecco/HarperCollins releases Oseland’s personal memoir, “Jimmy Neurosis,” following three years in the author’s life as a teen, from 1977 through 1980. It’s naked, and raw in places. Oseland spent eight years writing it, and says the way it peels open a difficult and crucial period in his life makes him feel very, very vulnerable. It’s not about tacos or baguettes.
“Jimmy Neurosis” traces Oseland’s journey from bullied and blindly thrashing gay teen to becoming an artist learning film and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. Its outline is that of the standard bildungsroman, but Oseland’s path to art has the peculiar texture of queerness in the time before AIDS, and the swirling anarchy of San Francisco’s early punk-rock scene: a portrait of the artist as a young gay man in the mosh pit.
After his father essentially abandons them, Oseland and his mother find themselves in an apartment in San Carlos, a suburb halfway between San Jose and San Francisco where the blandness is toxic. Soon, the underage Oseland is sneaking away on the bus north to the city, where he discovers art film houses, sex with older guys and shows at places like the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant that converts to a punk club after hours. Meanwhile, Oseland struggles with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that gets harder to hide.
The Pinecrest server is tall and blond and has a Sally Struthers perm. She’s tough and sounds Russian (maybe Polish), and Oseland, who shows flashes of John Waters–grade wickedness, loves her. “Amazing, amazing, amazing,” he says, after she drops off plates of scrambled eggs and toast. “That’s three amazings. She’s like a reality show of some part of the world that I want to go. It’s just so brilliant.” But as we start to talk about his book, he turns serious.
I read “Jimmy Neurosis” partly with an ear to find clues about the genesis of your food life. When it does appear, food is very much about discovering a world that is not San Carlos: a peeling back of the skin of the world you’ve been forced into, and finding delight in unexpected places. Was food in any part of your mind as you were writing?
Through the period in my life I depict in the book, the enjoyment of food was not at the center. After our family imploded, heavy matter and a lot of dust were falling for a few years. It wasn’t a time for seeking out fine olive oils from artisanal producers, we were just trying to get through. Really, it’s an attempt to tell the story of a young gay person’s life, and it’s one not told very often. I was a teenager when being gay wasn’t something looked upon very positively, and not only did I survive but I thrived. And also I had a really interesting time of it, too, and I wanted to document that. The lead character — me — who didn’t have a lot of opportunities, threw himself out into the world and learned some things. The time period during which I was a young gay man, which happened to be in the late 1970s (and in San Francisco, a kind of epicenter of gay consciousness in the United States), I felt it wasn’t well documented. And I felt a compulsion to do my best to encapsulate what that time period was about, not only for me as a young man discovering himself, but for historical events, including the murder of Harvey Milk and the White Night riot.
The way LGBTQ history is told now tends to be very canonical. It’s settled into a kind of normative story of gay pride: there were the bad old days, then there was Stonewall, then we all marched to freedom …
The story line is not so simple, is it? And this was also a time before AIDS, which in the 1980s completely recontextualized what it was to be a gay American. Everybody’s worst nightmare actually came true.
Were you involved with ACT UP or Queer Nation after the events of the book?
I was involved with an AIDS health service organization in Los Angeles — during the heights of the AIDS deaths, that’s where I lived. I lost a lot of people, probably about a third of the people I knew, including lovers and my best friend ever, who appears at the end of “Jimmy Neurosis.” And I was an active part of many people’s deaths, many more than any young person should have to go through. But you go through what you have to. In a way I realize I’m still recovering from the post-traumatic stress of a number of things that happened in the timeline of “Jimmy Neurosis,” and then a few years after that during the AIDS pandemic.
There was a lot of violence and trauma inflicted on the gay community when we started to express ourselves publicly in the late ’70s. It was a way of controlling us, of trying to make us afraid to come out and be visible. All those stories in the SF queer press at the time about attacks and murders: It felt like the systematic terrorizing of a population.
A hundred percent, it was a form of terrorism.
Maybe because AIDS came right after it, we sort of shrugged off the trauma and moved on. I don’t think we’ve really been able to absorb it all and grieve the way we should have.
But we do overcome. We do get better, and we do make progress. I believe that. I’m eternally an optimist. I think that’s clear by the character presented in “Jimmy Neurosis,” because boy, does he get kicked down often, but each time he stands back up. He dusts himself off, no matter how hard or how deeply he’s fallen. He might have to put on a new pair of pants because this one got ripped up by gay bashers, but I think the story I tried to tell is of someone who doesn’t just sit in bed and think about every terrible thing that’s happened to him, but instead sneaks out of the house and goes cruising in the forest at night without a flashlight. We all have our own version of that, and I think it’s a miraculous thing.
Certainly that’s the personality of the artist: to use everything, including really painful things, and create something, to turn it all into expression.
Even more than being an artist, it’s being a person who’s curious. And I think the character in the book (which is very different from the one I am now) is somebody who’s very curious, and that curiosity becomes a useful tool for diving headfirst into the world.
And obviously, that curiosity has really informed your pursuit of food — food and the world.
Fully, it’s what it is. That’s what I do.
How do you see the food media landscape these days, the legacy cooking magazines? Do you see a decline in these times of struggling revenue?
I see a diffraction in food media that concerns me. Forgive me if I sound a little old fashioned, but curators — people who’ve been at it for decades — have things to tell us still. Like the boy described in “Jimmy Neurosis,” we’re all hungry to know more, and we need guides, like the Indian food writer Madhur Jaffrey, for instance, to get us to our finest level of knowledge. We also need to get out and travel and break away from Yelp’s Top 20, to not know where we’re going to end up for dinner. It might be a mediocre dining experience or it might be a life-changing one, but being trapped inside a Yelp Top 20 review isn’t going to take anyone there. We’ve all got to find our own inner Jimmy Neurosis and just get out there. That’s what makes amazing experiences.
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