Trouble With Toast

Foodie Book Review–The United States of Arugula | August 29, 2007

As soon as I caught the lengthy-but-clever subtitle of David Kamp’s book, which read, “The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution,” I knew it would be a good read. I was not disappointed; The United States of Arugula is a fast-paced, intricately-researched, often-hilarious romp through the American food industry and its colorful history.

Kamp begins by introducing readers to “The Big Three”—also known as James Beard (the “father of American gastronomy”), Craig Claiborne (New York Times restaurant critic and food writer), and Julia Child (beloved Amazonian chef, cookbook author, and television personality). As the cast of characters grows to include disciples of Beard, Claiborne, and Child, the book journeys from New York to California and back again, not only describing how Americans went from Jell-O molds and Spam to foie gras and sushi.

From Francophilia to “New American” cuisine, Kamp does a wonderful job of chronicling this country’s great culinary voyage. His footnotes (which are often more interesting than the text itself) give fascinating glimpses into some of the peripheral characters and ironic coincidences that popped up throughout the years. He also strikes a fair balance between discussions of restaurant dining, home cooking, and retail food operations (interspersing stories about the likes of Dean & DeLuca, Williams-Sonoma, and Whole Foods with tales of bistro kitchens and cookbook recipes). Perhaps most intriguingly, Kamp includes a healthy dose of gossip about the power players on the U.S. culinary stage (it’s no surprise that many of the early food personalities were closeted gay men, but who knew that Chez Panisse was such a den of iniquity). Some hard-core epicureans might not appreciate the seedy stories and non-food-related lore, but I think it adds a human touch to some of America’s favorite culinary icons.

In Kamp’s discussion of American food history, no one is safe—from The Frugal Gourmet to The Food Network, from Moosewood to McDonald’s, from Batali to Boulud—and everyone’s influence on the current culinary state is analyzed. In the end, though, the note is positive—after all, we are eating better and smarter than ever before (despite a still-troubling rate of obesity and other food-related health problems).

Whether or not you agree with Kamp’s conclusions, chances are that you’ll enjoy the road he takes to get there. I wholeheartedly recommend this book—you’ll absolutely eat it up.

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