"This is a book about how we got to this pointâ€”how food in America got better, and how it hopped the fence from the ghettos of home economics and snobby gourmandism to the expansive realm of popular culture."
Yikes! The project David Kamp sets out for himself in The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation is almost as daunting as Jim Harrison's twelve-hour, thirty-seven course meal. The questions this quote from Kamp's Preface inspire could give Will and Ariel Durant the vapors: At what "point" are we? Where did we begin? At what point will the book beginâ€”if different--and why? What is meant by "better," and is it? Whose homes are we talking about? Which restaurants? And why the idea of "ghettos"? Who are the snobby gourmands? Who is cooking for whom? And who is this American "we" anyway? Other than a legal definition, the characterization of what is an American changes every day. Charting change and, worse yet, trying to assign cause and effect when almost all the variables are in motion is a tall order. But Kamp is too smart to succumb to the temptation to cover more ground and argue more positions than he can comfortably and divertingly account for. His book attempts to pull together the multifarious people and events that contributed to the changes in the eating habits of many (though clearly not all or even most) Americans and the cooking habits of some of the best-known chefs on both coasts (and a few from the middle). Basically, Kamp examines the evolution of Twentieth-Century American food literacy. His is not a scholarly work with more endnotes than text (though it does include an excellent bibliography). And sometimes it gives a little more attitude than this reader cared for. But it informs, teaches and, much of the time, entertains. No mean feat.
The first problem he addresses is that of where to begin? If one begins at the historical beginning of the United States, then one could turn to early cookbooks as source material. Some of them try to adapt recipes from the writers' countries of origin and others utilize native ingredients in an effort to establish a new food identity for a new nation. In fact, one could make a case that today's "farm-to-table" movement is a return to the culinary practices of this earlier time. Which leads to the question of why we abandoned those sensibilities for so long? But, again, this would make for a much longer (and perhaps drier) book. Kamp wisely acknowledges the problem and then comes up with a solution ideal for the limited scope of his project and the interests of the current culinary world readership. In an Internet interview with Powells Books, he says that the story he tells is "character-driven." Kamp asserts that the interests, personalities, andâ€”sometimes--the psycho-sexual profiles of the major players that are the food writers, farmers, and chefs drive the changes in the nation's eating habits just as much as the foods themselves. And where better to begin than with the just short of mid-century origins and rise of the "Big Three": James Beard, Craig Claiborne, and Julia Child. Each of these figures, as Kamp says of Beard, helped broaden cooking from a purely female branch of home economics to "a cultural pastime, to be pursued as ardently as golf, opera, painting watercolors, or any other activity that aroused one's passions."
The idea of focusing on "characters" rather than on events is inspired. The people in this book have outsized personalities as well as enormous passions when it comes to life in general as well as food in particular. Their stories are engaging in and of themselves as well as indicative of how their influence was spread. Beard was a generous mentor as well as an ebullient writer who held salons in his apartments and oversaw the careers of many cooks and writers. Julia Child's quirky charm and earthy, good humor clearly brought many home cooks into the French cooking fold. Alice Waters & company embodied the culture of the Sixties and Seventies with a culinary politics that was often fueled as much by the sex, drugs and rock & roll of the day as by Elizabeth David. Jeremiah Tower's insatiable drive to outdo himself and others in all things challenged the country French/ counter-cultural simplicity of Chez Panisse with increasingly elaborate meals that some say made it a place worthy of a dining pilgrimage while ironically taking it away from its neighborhood bistro ideals. And the good-cop/bad-cop partnership of Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff, although a tad gossipy, helps explain a lot about Puck's rise and the aura around his restaurants. However, I'm not really sure what Craig Claiborne's rather unsavory relationship with his father has to do with his writing and the hugely important changes he brought to restaurant reviewing. And why end a chapter on the arrival of French chefs who brought the tradition of Caràªme and Escoffier to New York with a decidedly vulgar story about Julia? I'm no prude it just seemed out of place. There are times when the attractions of BOH dirt and acrimonious revelations come close to derailing the book's stated narrative goals.
Yet the pleasures of Kamp's character sketches far outweigh the missteps. With someone like Julia, you can't deny that her enthusiasm mixed with her personal oddities made for compelling television, and thus, an enormous following. Kamp offers an hysterical quote from her show where she was "mmmucking about in the supermarket, looking for something to eat." She found herself "staring at a fresh beef tongue, and . . . said to it, 'You ugly old thing, I'd like to fix you up!'" Kamp's description of her is pitch-perfect:
"How could TV viewers not be mesmerized? There stood a towering, skinny, middle-aged woman in pearls and an unreconstructed Smith '34 hairdo, hovering behind a kitchen counter that rose only as high as her thighs, unspooling this bizarre monologue in a fluted voice and uncertain cadence, gasping for breath in the wrong spots."
There's no denying that Kamp is an excellent writer with an eye and an ear for character detail as well as a charming historian.
Some of the most informative and, indeed, enjoyable sections contain profiles of the shop-keepers and farmers who helped change the food habits of chefs as well as home-cooks. Chuck Williams was inspired by his experiences in the bistros and pastry shops of Paris and opened Williams-Sonoma, selling all the kitchen tools one would need to replicate that aspect of French culture. His timing couldn't have been better. Not only did Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking create a demand for quality pots and pans, but her weekly television show would regularly cause a run on the utensils as well as the ingredients she had used the night before. Kamp writes that "Kitchenwares suddenly attained the status of fetish objects in certain American circles, where you just had to have the Le Creuset casserole dish and a crepe pan the size of a manhole cover."
Giorgio DeLuca (of Dean & DeLuca), a volatile Italian-American kid from a tough neighborhood, wasn't initially inspired by the Old-World food he ate at home, but by his AP history teacher who told the kids that "beauty and truth are not subjective, they're objective." Several years later, when he become acquainted with Joel Dean and his partner Jack Ceglic, this idea came into focus. They exposed him to good opera, art and food. DeLuca comments, "I learned that you could learn to see better, hear better, taste better." Through these experiences he began to appreciate the foods his father had imported, and he'd contribute "tins of briny Sicilian olives and yard-long soppresattas" to the communal dinners. Once he opened his first shop, he became a true-believer when it came to changing what people ate:
"I didn't want to just play the nice gentle thing . . . I wanted to make 'em lock onto me. I wanted to grab their attention. I would get confrontational about Jarlsberg. People would ask for it, and I would scorn them. Scathingly put 'em down. But then, then I would take 'em under my wing and say, 'C'mereâ€”let me show you the possibilities. Let me show you real Emmenthaler.'"
And then there were the folks who came to farming with little or no experience while looking for an off-the-grid way of life. There's Laura Chenel "the nation's first commercial producer of goat cheese" who found in her calling "that I belong to the goats, that I am in their tribe." OK. But this goat girl was savvy enough to take her first year's production to Alice Waters who placed a standing order. Today she sells a million pounds of cheese yearly. Bill Niman originally moved to Bolinas to teach, but kept animals on his eleven acres in an attempt to remain self-sufficient. His transition to commercial rancher with superior beef and pork provides an interesting insight into the reasons for the decline in quality of corporate meat production. Railroads, improved refrigeration, and post-WWII grain supplies brought cheaper, year-round beef, but no one consulted the bovine anatomy. Kamp's concise description of the move away from seasonal, "grass-fed beef" to year-round availability and the resulting use of hormones and antibiotics is excellent.
That the book focuses on the two coasts is another choice Kamp admits he made reluctantly (as well as the decision to exclude winemakers and pastry chefs) in order to meet the demands of space, though the New York-centered bias at times did tend to grate on this Westerner. I would have liked a clearer, perhaps more concrete sense of how New York restaurants and restaurant reviews influenced the eating habits of the countryâ€”if they in fact did. In addition, apart from the French and later the Italians, the role of immigrants who brought their food sensibilities to and opened their own restaurants in this country is almost nonexistent. Certainly most of us did not learn about salsa from Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless, though their cookbooks have made authentic techniques more accessible to the home cook. And the "Chinatowns" all over the country have been exposing non-Chinese Americans to new smells and tastes for years. Yes, the book looks at personalities as much as movements, but a more substantial acknowledgement of the contributions of mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants wouldn't have to undermine that. Chefs eat out too.
With increasing density and speed, Kamp takes us through a litany of celebrity chefs, chef-entrepreneurs, slow-food, gourmet fast-food, Vegas food and FoodTV. With so much material and so many culinary tangents, how is he to wrap it all up? Does he restate everything the book has tried to accomplish, as though the reader, after 350+ pages, has forgotten or lost the thread? Are predictions called for, where the writer attempts to forecast the future based upon the past? Or is the final chapter a place for judgments? Perhaps the crux of the last chapter comes down to a 2005 quote from Frank Bruni who observed that eating had "evolved from a matter of survival to a statement of values." We pat ourselves on the back for shopping at farmers' markets and knowing where our restaurant chicken comes from. And, like Alice Waters, we take chefs like Rick Bayless to task for getting into bed with Burger King. However, Bayless maintains that he is being realistic. He is trying to reach the Americans who can't afford Chez Panisse and are getting increasingly obese from having to rely on fast food. Such conflicts are forcing "foodies" to start looking at food politics. Kamp argues that our "culinary sophistication" and knowledge about the availability of superior ingredients has made us smug and elitist. More and more Americans suffer from what Michael Pollin calls our "national eating disorder," where we focus way too much on getting thinner while getting fatter, mostly from fad diets and processed foods. Given that, what's so wrong then with taking real foods to the corporate table?
Kamp's final chapter is unwieldy with a multitude of ideas, touching on complex areas better served by writers like Pollin, Marion Nestle, and Eric Schlosser. But at least he points the way to other discussions. In the end, Kamp declares that he is optimistic that not only is food getting betterâ€”and will continue to do soâ€”but that more of us than ever before will experience good food whether it's at an innovative farmhouse restaurant in a small town or a revamped inner-city school lunchroom.