Thursday, January 17, 2008

United States of Arugula review

David Kamp of The ____ Snob's Dictionary's fame (notably Rock Snob's and recently Food Snob's) presents a journalistic account of America's contemporary food pedigree in The United States of Arugula. It follows the current tide of food books that goes beyond actual food and recipes to look at the people involved. Kamp proposes a food pantheon comprising three figures who have shaped today's food culture: Julia Child, James Beard, and Craig Claiborne. Child showed America in her idiosyncratic manner that French cuisine need not be inaccessible to the home cook. She also paved the way--for better or worse--for TV chefs and the idea of the chef as a TV personality (think Food Network's Emeril Lagasse or Rachael Ray, both industries unto themselves). Beard was a believer in American cuisine and mentored many of today's notable chefs. Claiborne was a pioneer in food journalism at the New York Times who held restaurants to greater standards and introduced Americans to ethnic fare.

Kamp profiles other well-known and obscure figures who have played roles in altering how Americans view, treat, and demand their food. These profiles are usually peppered with colorful anecdotes, juicy gossip, and contentious quotes. Rivalries, affairs, and arguments between the different players are laid bare with Kamp offering those involved (and still alive) the opportunity to respond. Oftentimes, I felt as if I were reading a celebrity magazine in between the layered narratives of recent food history. Kamp often inserts his own take on certain figures and institutions (he doesn't hold back his exasperation with the Beard Foundation) without great detrimental effect on the narratives. I found it interesting that he concludes the book by noting the major issues confronting various food camps and the entire food industry and culture, e.g. organic production, the viable sustainability of gourmet cuisine and consumption. The United States of Arugula is an engrossing look at how America's cuisine reached its current gourmet status.

Next on the "To Read" list:
  • The Omnivore's Dilemma & the follow-up In Defense of Food, both by Michael Pollan
  • Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes
Today's Supplements:

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