How the 1984 Olympics Defined California Cuisine in the Eyes of the World

The food program at the ’84 Olympics established L.A.’s culinary reputation—and changed the face of food at future Games
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Angelenos who lived through the 1984 Olympics would be hard pressed to forget the experience. The streets were bedecked with fluttering banners in magenta, vermilion, and turquoise. Sam the Olympic Eagle’s lovable aquiline features sparked a citywide pin-trading mania. Jubilant superfans gorged on Big Macs, thanks to a McDonald’s promotion that worked a little too well.

 

The 1984 Summer Olympic Games were also an elaborate feat of gastrodiplomacy. From a political standpoint, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The quality and quantity of the food served in the Olympic Villages was more than a gesture of hospitality—it was a referendum on the host nation’s ability to provide for its citizens.

Take Moscow, which had hosted the Games four years before. The United States, along with 64 other nations, boycotted the event in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Still, rumors and reports of the Soviet menus trickled back to the West. They skewed—perhaps predictably—toward Eastern European tastes, featuring dishes like borscht, sturgeon, zrazy, and spikacki. Participating athletes reported that the food was “all right,” even if western journalists interpreted the abundant displays of caviar and imported Finnish yogurts as tasty distractions from the sight of ordinary Muscovites lining up at the markets each morning, waiting for their bread rations.

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War—especially after the Soviet Union and 13 members of the Eastern bloc dropped out several months before the opening ceremonies—the 1984 Olympic dining program became Manichean in nature. Who got the edge in the struggle between democracy and socialism could be determined by cheese and fruit displays.

1984 olympics opening ceremonies
Thousands link hands during Opening Ceremonies

The Herald Examiner Collection/LAPL Photo Collection

The Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC) had to play to its culinary strengths. “Los Angeles, during July and August, is able to provide fruit and vegetables in a variety and quantity like very few places in the world,” proclaimed the LAOOC’s “food vision” document penned over a year before the opening ceremonies. This advantage, they believed, would allow them to provide a dining program that would, “in quality, quantity, preparation, presentation, and taste, exceed services rendered during past Games.”

Pulling it off began with the service model. At Games during much of the 20th century, different culinary cultures were stratified in separate dining halls. One cafeteria would specialize in Asian cuisine. Another would specialize in Eastern European fare. It was a model that Los Angeles itself had pioneered when it hosted the Olympic Games in 1932. Before then, visiting delegations were at the mercy of the host country’s tastes, sparking frequent allegations of culinary sabotage.

Offering a single international menu to athletes began with the Munich Summer Games in 1972, even if the recurrence of meals consisting of meats and potatoes called the “international” component into question. But that decision was deliberate. According to “modern scientific findings,” the Munich organizing committee claimed in its official report, “the nutrition of a contemporary high achievement athlete is almost the same all over the world.” Little changed four years later, when the Summer Olympics were held in Montreal. One New York Times journalist marveled at the abundance of food in the athlete cafeteria, which was available 24 hours a day. There were “vanishing shelves of strawberries and raspberries,” steaks cooked to order, eggs prepared a dozen ways, and an unnamed Korean sauce that supposedly “would set an igloo afire.” Still, the journalist admitted, Asian athletes complained about the lack of options.

1984 olympics food salad bar
An athlete serves himself

Courtesy LA84 Foundation

In order to feed 12,000 participating athletes, the LAOOC also came up with a single menu that rotated on a five-day cycle. Key ingredients (beef, pork, chicken, etc.) were conveyed to the international roster by pictograms rendered in the Festive Federalism design scheme.

The menu, which was overseen by ARA Services (now known as Aramark), attempted to combine state-of-the-art nutritional research with international flair. Recipes were tested to meet athlete requirements (rich in protein and complex carbs, minimally sauced and never fried) while pleasing palates from all over the world.

California contemporary this was not. At the time, a handful of fine-dining restaurants were beginning to shape L.A.’s culinary image, defined by fresh, locally sourced ingredients, unforeseen marriages of disparate traditions, eclectic cooking techniques, and an effortless air of casual cosmopolitanism that inspired the New York Times to attempt (several times) to deconstruct the building blocks of “California cuisine.”

But within the nine Olympic Village cafeterias, there were no seared duck breasts, no eclectic pizza toppings, nor a trace of radicchio to be found. Margarine outperformed butter. “Fruited gelatin salad” was a staple. The carefully manicured cornucopia of fresh peaches, nectarines, apricots, figs, cherries, and mangoes displayed in each of the nine cafeterias was counterbalanced by recurrent shipments of syrupy fruit compotes and canned pineapple chunks. And thanks to its sponsorship agreement with M&M/Mars, the LAOOC had its hands on 800,000 packages of candy.

Nevertheless, when compared to previous decades’ Olympic competitions (when items like chop suey made the menu), L.A.’s catering effort was a breath of fresh air. There were calorie-heavy crowd pleasers: swiss steak, chicken florentine, and fettuccini alfredo, But there were also regional favorites: cheese enchiladas, gazpacho, and avocado soup. There were also items that were still unfamiliar to most Americans in 1984: ceviche, tabbouleh, “oriental vegetables and water chestnuts.” While many of these dishes might be described more accurately as American interpretations of foreign cuisines rather than the real deal, they nevertheless introduced Olympians to a new culinary lexicon.

“We even had a couple of complaints that the dining program was too impressive,” Rich Perelman, the editor-in-chief of the Official Report of the 1984 Olympics, says. “The displays were intimidating to athletes from poorer countries.”

To those immersed in California’s emergent fine-dining scene, the Olympic effort could resemble, as one journalist from the now-defunct California magazine put it, “a vast midwestern farm affair.” Yet what made LA84’s dining program distinctively “Californian” had less to do with the fine-dining restaurants covered by the gourmet press—Michael’s, Trumps, Spago, etc.—and more to do with the elaborate theater of abundance on display in middlebrow chains (i.e. Sizzler) and fancier steakhouses (i.e. the Chart House) that were already prevalent in Southern California. In other words, what the Olympics mimicked was a massive salad bar. The concept had been around since the 1960s, but until 1984, it had never been reproduced on an Olympic scale.

Designed to call attention to the abundance of fresh California produce, this bonanza of avocado, jicama, alfalfa sprouts, hard boiled eggs, chopped bacon, julienne beets, chickpeas, feta, sunflower seeds, and artichoke hearts drew delighted exclamations from athletes…once they understood how it worked.

“It took a little breaking in,” Perelman says. “We had to reassure some athletes they could keep coming back for as much as they wanted.”

Doggie bags were provided to athletes to take food back to their rooms, turning some dishes—such as kimchi—into surprise hits. “It would disappear every night, and we didn’t know where it was going,” says Anita DeFrantz, who managed the USC Village during the 1984 Olympics. “We eventually found out that athletes were taking it to their rooms to eat for breakfast the next day.” According to several news outlets, upward of four cases of it were being supplied to one of the Olympic Villages each day.

Olympic athletes, at least directly before competition, aren’t known for making great culinary leaps of faith. (Except if you’re track star Carl Lewis, who reputedly dined at Michael’s every night throughout the Games.) Yet the elaborate displays of cheeses, breads, and fruits, not to mention the steaks grilled to order en plein air, made the nine Olympic Village cafeterias particularly exciting places to mingle.

“The easiest way to meet athletes from other countries was always in the food service line,” John Naber, a former Olympic swimmer, recalls. And even though some nations, such as Italy, brought their own chefs to help oversee the cooking, the LAOOC ensured that commensality was strictly enforced. “If a [National Olympic Committee’s] chef wanted to cook a dish for the athletes, he or she had to make enough of it to serve everyone who came to eat in the cafeteria,” DeFrantz says.

1984 olympics los angeles
A water vendor at the Olympics

Michael Haering/Herald Examiner Collection/LAPL Photo Collection

Of course, athlete provisions were only one prong of LA84’s food program. Others were considerably less successful. Even though California was developing a worldwide reputation for its fresh, health-conscious fare, the fantasy didn’t necessarily translate into revenue. The absence of beer at many of the competition sites drew complaints—and slowed concession sales.

And while the 1984 Olympics was the first international sporting event in modern history to hawk fruit cups, yogurt, and vegetarian sandwiches (pitas stuffed with avocado, alfalfa sprouts, tomato, lettuce, and shredded cheese) alongside hot dogs and potato chips at its competition sites, the lighter options flailed when matched against traditional stadium fare.

Did the 1984 Olympic Games start any new food trends? Probably not. Yet LA84 did give new meaning to “California cuisine”—one that had less to do with open kitchens and wood-fired ovens and more to do with options, eclecticism, and a killer avocado-grapefruit salad recipe that could be easily prepared at home. “There was certainly a national pride aspect to [the food program],” Perelman says, “and everyone agreed that the food in the Olympic Villages was better than it was four years earlier in Moscow.”

LA84’s biggest culinary impact, perhaps, was on Games that followed it. Inspired by California’s example, for example, the 1988 Summer Olympics, held in Seoul, Korea, featured its own “Hodori salad bar,” named after the tiger mascot. They might have copied it too well. Save for the now-ubiquitous kimchi, the Korean salad bar catered to Western tastes, serving up boundless portions of pesto, potato salad, marinated mushrooms, and cottage cheese.

Shortly before the opening ceremonies, the New York Times dismissed L.A.’s Olympic moment. “Call it the Hollympics,” one journalist said smugly. “Think of it as an avocado salad with feta cheese.”

In a way, he was right.


RELATED: How L.A. Stuck the 1984 Olympics


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