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David Kamp’s ‘The United States of Arugula’: A Review

The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation
By David Kamp

Reviewed by Robert Lalasz

(This review first appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on 12 November 2006.)

The secret history of modern America is the history of taste—how consuming in ever-more-refined ways now consumes our attention. Politics? Class? Bowling leagues? Who cares when you can get pistachio-encrusted quail delivered?

In fact, food’s been central to this revolution over the last generation, joining music, cars and clothes as one of those necessary luxuries that keep the economy afloat. Eating is often now performed with a connoisseurship previously limited to art (or drug) dealers. Restaurants tout four-hour tasting menus worthy of a Roman emperor; Food Lion sellls figs and broccoli rabe; and every McMansion must have a six-burner Viking range, regardless of whether it ever gets used.

More seriously, the cognitive dissonance around food is thick enough to require a $100 chef’s knife. While good fresh fare has never been more widely available, rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes are skyrocketing. Cities that benefit from thriving restaurant trades are outlawing foie gras and trans fats from menus. Local produce is mindlessly prized, even though rice shipped from Thailand could actually be more eco-friendly than that grown in California. To parse these contradictions—much less the rise of fine dining as a participatory sport—would require a book of enormous intellectual range.

Until then, we’ll have to make do with “The United States of Arugula,” David Kamp’s gossipy slog through the culinary evolution of America. Kamp, a journalist for Vanity Fair and GQ, subscribes to the Great Person Theory of Culinary History, aruging that a few geniuses such as James Beard and Alice Waters single-handedly dragged this country from Waldorf salads to microgreens.

That’s like writing a history of clothes by profiling only Paris couturiers. And Kamp only makes it worse with an insidery approach that hasn’t left a single thing out—neither a feud nor a burp. “Arugula” resembles a fawning rock musician bio in which no detail can be omitted for fear of losing even an iota of divinity.

One service Kamp does perform is in excavating the importance of Beard and two other mid-century culinary stalwarts—Julia Child and Craig Claiborne—as the forerunners of today’s food obsessions. Each of the Big Three (as Kamp calls them) took lonely stands against the Swansonized, ladies-magazine wasteland of 1950s America, thereby setting the stage for today’s celebrity chefs and heated debates about the proper way to truss a chicken.

Beard, a burly gay man who prefered wearing caftans (and nothing else) at home, made cooking safe for hetero men through his bestseller “Cook It Outdoors” as well as a weekly NBC-TV show that followed “Friday Night Fights” (and actually held the audience).

Child’s book “How to Master the Art of French Cooking” and famous PBS series demystified the techniques of haute cuisine. And Claiborne transformed The New York Times food page into an avatar of service journalism, including the make-or-break restaurant review.

While Kamp writes well in spots—for instance, he sketches Child’s TV persona as containing “the goofy, anachronistic enthusiasm of a Roaring Twenties girl in a summer-camp revue”—he too often does data dumps instead of analysis. Blind-alley digressions and undigested facts overflow into pointless footnotes, suggesting an author who needed to be pulled out of the library and hosed off. (Do we really need to know that the illustrators for an obscure Beard cookbook also did the artwork for the evergreen children’s book “The Fuzzy Duckling”?)

There’s also a present-at-the-creation tone that reaches nauseating levels in Kamp’s chapter on Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant that is often credited with the invention of organic cuisine. Chez Panisse—which Waters opened in the late 1970s and is still rated as one of the best in America by Gourmet magazine—pioneered the contemporary concept of the hot restaurant: seasonal ingredients foraged that day, ambitious dishes cooked by a kitchen full of sex and drugs and melodrama, and a mixed clientele of celebrities, foodies and folks from the neighborhood.

Chez Panisse was first and foremost a triumph of marketing, a prime example of baby boomers thinking they invented the world. Unfortunately, Kemp falls for it, spending nearly 50 pages cataloging the blow-by-blow (cocaine as well as fighting) history of the place. And he keeps reapplying this microscopic lens to the reformations and conterreformations of U.S. restaurant trends, right up to Emeril Lagasse and today’s $250 sushi meals in Columbus Circle.

However, Kamp’s cultural elitism prevents him from finding the meat of his story. Yes, influentials in New York and California helped transform America’s eating habits. But the real revolution took place in millions of middle-class homes, where fine food became mandatory. The dynamics of that process, the demographics and social psychology of it, seem beyond the author’s celebrity-soaked interests.

Which is a pity, because we need help pushing away from the table and taking a hard look at how we’re eating. The abundance of dining choices today represents not so much the bounty of the marketplace and the triumph of good food as it does the iPoding of culture at large: a curious mixture of status anxiety and private consumption of hipster pleasures. Whether we eat out or cook up a storm at home, we face ever more inward.

But while I love the farro pasta with currants and toasted pine nuts at my favorite $200-a-couple restaurant, I predict we’ll soon grow tired of the epicurean life. It costs too much, it’s exhaustingly faddish, and it relies on real-estate prosperity and flows of illegal immigrants—both trends in trouble.

We are due for another rebellion against the industrialization of taste, much as Beard and Child and Waters rebelled against the conformities of their ages. As the average workweek continues to increase, convenience and comfort food might very well rise again. Maybe then, when it’s too late, can the history of how we came to this point—how we can dine so well, but still yearn for a good meal—be written.

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