Sunday, April 11, 2010

Book Review: United States of Arugula

Have you read this? 

Never before has a civilization had so much access to so great a variety of foodstuffs. David Kamp knows how we came to be here. In The United States of Arugula: How We Became A Gourmet Nation, Kamp examines how we went from a nation of Jell-O salads and Shake N’Bake to the gourmet-loving country we are today.

The United States of Arugula chronicles America's biggest and most influential culinary personalities and describes the dramatically changes to the landscape of American food. The stars of the story are food pioneers Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and Julia Child, or as he refers to them, “the Big Three”. Kamp supplies an engaging account of their careers and explains how they shaped much of what we know of cooking today. Each paved the way for those who followed - Child as the early TV pioneer who made French-style cooking accessible to housewives across the country; Beard as the author of several best-selling cookbooks, some still considered definitive; and Claiborne as the first food critic for the New York Times and also a cookbook author - all redefining our views of gastronomy over the years.

Kamp continues the attention on the personalities that dominate the culinary world with several pages on Alice Waters and her focus on fresh and seasonal cuisine that created a shift from technique to ingredients. The revolution she started with her menus at the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant also induced a perceptual geographic shift from the East to the West Coast, and contributed to organic produce and free-range chickens entering our collective conversations. We also learn how Whole Foods, Zabar's, Dean & DeLuca, and Williams Sonoma got started and find out that Peet’s Coffee in the Bay Area led to Starbucks across the country. Chefs Jeremiah Tower, Thomas Keller, and Wolfgang Puck make cameo appearances.

I most enjoyed the book when Kamp makes parallels between culinary trends and the consumerism that has evolved since World War II. He shows how the prevailing French influence was not accidental, as it came about with the influx of kitchen workers from France after the war and continues today to what kitchenware we purchase. Leveraging the writings of others who recognized aspects of the same phenomenon, the author accurately shows how food has become a status symbol on our culture for the good life to which we aspire.

In the book's final section, the advent of the Food Network is seen as a touchstone for this pervasive thinking, as a new set of celebrity chefs - Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and Rachael Ray among them - instruct us on what we should be doing to maximize our enjoyment of cooking in the kitchen.

This is certainly a fun read for any foodie, and author David Kamp, a writer who contributes to Vanity Fair and GQ, does an entertaining job of providing both a historical perspective and a current look at the culinary industry.

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