The United States of Arugula : how we became a gourmet nation

by David Kamp

Hardcover, 2006




New York : Broadway Books, c2006.


A compilation of essays goes inside the American food revolution to explore the growing interest in gourmet eating, chronicling the evolution of the movement and profiling those responsible for the transformation.

User reviews

LibraryThing member subbobmail
The United States of Arugula tells the tale of how Americans went from vending machine coffee to Starbucks venti lattes, from ketchup to salsa, from Spam to Kobe beef, from regarding eating as mere fuel consumption to seeing it as an art and a lifestyle statement.

Author David Kemp focuses on the so-called Big Three of American cuisine -- Julia Child, James Beard and New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne -- and the food professionals who followed in their wake, right up to Emeril and Rachel Ray and (va-voom) Giada DiLaurentiis. He notes that Americans, for a very long time, thought of cuisine as too feminine, too faggy, too French to be taken seriously. Thus the frequent calls for an American cuisine. Is there any such thing?

Sure, but it's a hodgepodge -- salsa and sushi and pizza and spring rolls and mesclun and whatnot...the most American thing about our cuisine is the fact that it has remained open to influences and flavors from all over the world. Our politicians make speeches about closing the borders, then go out to campaign events where they eat tacos and calzones. Our cuisine is more of a melting pot than our society-at-large.

I am grateful to Kemp for 1) giving Alice Waters her due, noting that she has helped a nation to learn that it makes sense to eat locally and think globally, and 2) also noting that she is an insufferable, manipulative scold who sets herself up as the high priestess of holy culinary purity.

Kemp is also wise to mention that, in dietary terms, we have two classes in America -- the one that eats processed garbage (because the government helps keep it artificially cheap), and the one that shops at Whole Foods (often while feeling morally superior about it). So when McDonalds begins to sell salads, and when Wal-Mart makes a move into organic groceries, should we cheer or be disheartened? Is the organic-crunchy-sustainable-SlowFood-gourmet movement being sold out, or taking root in mass culture?

There's a lot to think about in this book, which starts out strong, sags in the middle (too many stories about chefs changing jobs) and closes on a high, optimistic note. Kemp thinks this is a very good time to be alive and eating. I think he's right. Now if only I could afford a bit more of this wonderful food he writes about...
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LibraryThing member piefuchs
Kamp, a GQ magazine writer, has created an engaging history of food in American from 1939 to the present. The book consists of a series of vignettes each focusing a specific person - starting with the Big Three of Claiborne, Beard, and Child, then moving to Dean and DeLuca, and finally onto the west coast, where he focuses on Alice Waters (and the organic movement) and Wolfgang Puck (and nouvelle cuisine). The early history portions of the book are fascinating, the later history portions of the book are fulled with gossip a plenty. This book was a great choice for reading out loud, Kamp is funny, the chapters read well as independent entities, and it is a good story. However, so much is covered in such a cursory manner that one really loses track of which bit player is associated with whom - and this, coupled with a little too much gossip on the later players in the story, limits the overall quality of the book.… (more)
LibraryThing member hombredemaderas
After reading the Omnivores Dilemma I started on a gastro-trail of reading. This might be the 4 star place of the lot. Great history of those individuals involved in bringing taste to the American plate and rescuing us from bland food (like my mother-in-laws.) Have begun to notice names and places that Kamp mentions, and vow to eat at least one of the restaurants.

Great read.
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LibraryThing member LaBibliophille
Very detailed, well-researched book about the AmericanFood Revolution. The author has written numerou articles for Vanity Fair and GQ so, if you enjoy that style of writing and are interested in the subject, go ahead and read this.
LibraryThing member aliciamalia
Great books on food are few and far between, but this is absolutely at the top of the class. The text follows the last 60 years of food in America, but it's not your average non-fiction work. Kamp has a gift for writing about facts in an incredibly dishy, gossipy way. It feels like you're really getting the inside scoop. He's quite persuasive - I actually went out and bought grass-fed steaks while I was reading it.… (more)
LibraryThing member nemoman
Kamp does a good job of cataloguing two American food revolutions - one on the east coast and one on the west. I part company with him, however, in his connection of the two; I think they were entirely separate. The east coast always has been Eurocentric and not surprisingly turned to French cooking as the cure for the appalling state that American cuisine had reached in the 1950s. The west coast, however, traditionally has either looked west to the Orient, or inwardly, in reinventing itself. Therefore the western food revolution epitomized by Alice Waters, and its post-Hippie sentimentalities, had nothing to do with what Julia Child was preaching. Indeed the beauty of living in the west always has included the fact that anything east of the front range is not relevant. If you are already a foodie and conversant with the seminal chefs, you will find this a very enjoyable book. If this is your entree to food writing you may become somewhat lost in the personages.… (more)
LibraryThing member sunshine608
IT seemed interesting, but this book was really hard for me to get into. A lot of the focus seemed to be on these chef's and their secret and not-so secret lives and to be honest, I didn't pick up the book to read about Chef's, i wanted more information than a biography. Eventually, i just gave up and will try again letter.
LibraryThing member Nerd_Girl985
This is a densely written book about the way that fine dining has changed in America over time and how those changes have made a significant impact on the way Americans view food in general. The book manages to dish the dirt on the big names of the food industry (chefs, cooks, restaurateurs, and writers) in a fairly even-handed manner without seeming exploitative or muck-raking but instead using the information to show why things happened as they did. The writing style is more academic that one might be used to for a tell-all about the world of food; it reads more like a history book (complete with footnotes) than an industry-wide "Kitchen Confidential." Although the book seems about 40 pages too long and could possibly stand some trimming in the middle section, it is worth sticking it out to get to the end.… (more)
LibraryThing member kristenn
When reading the intro, I was afraid that this book was rehashing all the stuff that I already knew, but he did end up going into all sorts of new-to-me detail. Although it was still detail on familiar people/places/trends. There was only one name that I didn't recognize, and she was in Wisconsin. It was really clear that he writes for Vanity Fair, however. I didn't need all the asides about their sex lives. And most of the interviews seemed to involve provoking famous chefs and or food writers to take digs at other (still living) famous chefs and/or food writers. I've never read good things about Amanda Hesser from anyone anyway, but a lot of the rest seemed gratuitous. But when he's not dishing, he's pretty funny, and again, there's a lot of good detail as well as a very balanced look at the more recent foodie controversies.… (more)
LibraryThing member teaperson
This book was an entertaining look at how I ended up with a son who will happily eat eel sushi at a Japanese restaurant. Starting in the 50s, it looks at key figures in America's rise to culinary sophistication: Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Wolfgang Puck, Dean & Deluca, Chuck Williams...

The story is heavy on description and anecdote and gossip. It brings these characters and their dreams to life.

Where the book is weakest is in the explanation: it doesn't do a great job of actually explaining how these pieces added up to change. But it helped me see the history of how we got here, and gave me back story on a lot of those folks who were on Top Chef Masters.
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LibraryThing member auntieknickers
A very gossipy history of the growing interest in food and cooking that has transformed American foodways since the 1970s. I would have liked more substance and less gossip.
LibraryThing member Cacuzza
For me, this was a real eye-opener. I was born into a family of "buon gustai" and hadn't really noticed that everybody else had caught up with my family in both amplitude and quality.
LibraryThing member kgodey
In the last 40 years, the predominant food culture in America has become "gourmet". Salsa and sushi have gone from unknown to ubiquitous, and local ingredients, specialty cooking tools and celebrity chefs have become routine. The United States of Arugula attempts to tell the story of how this happened.

This book is a fairly fun read, although it meanders quite a bit. We start with the Big Three that popularised inventive cooking and dining - James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne, and go all the way to Emeril Lagasse's restaurant empire. Kamp has certainly done his research, and the text is packed with all kinds of little asides and tidbits that make the events in the book come to life.

Any revolution always begins with a few people, and it is always interesting to read about those people's motivations and understand the movement itself in context. Kamp takes this a little too far, though and the book comes off as overly gossipy. Beard and Claiborne's (among others) sexual preferences are exhumed in detail, and there's a lot of focus on who did and didn't get along. For instance, Graham Kerr, a contemporary of Julia Child who also had a popular cooking show, is introduced as "Everyone in the food world agreed on one person they could hate", even though their hate of him had no bearing on any significant events. I wish that Kamp had instead devoted that space to the events he mentions omitting in his introduction.

Another problem with this book is that it was really hard to follow. I usually read epic fantasy and have no trouble keeping hundreds of characters straight in my head, but Kamp introduces so many names that it detracts from the flow of the book. Many of the people mentioned by name are only mentioned once, which adds to the confusion (is this a person I'm supposed to know?) Adding to this is Kamp's love of tangents, he does not stick to one person or one chronological period or even one story. Chapter 2 starts off with an introduction of Pierre Franey entering the US, but jumps quickly to Jacques Pépin's childhood, and then to French cooks' propensity for local foods, to an explanation of "classic French cooking", to a biography of Antonin Carême and so on... and when the book got back to Franey's story after he gets off the boat, I had a hard time remembering who he was.

Aside from those two issues, the book was a great primer on recent food history in the United States.
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LibraryThing member StoutHearted
This book was obviously written by an author who is enthusiastic and knowledgable about the history of gourmet food in America. But his enthusiasm oftentimes bogs the book down with constant name-dropping that is difficult for a novice foodie to keep up with. There is a lot of tedium that could easily have been cut out.

The novel is its best in the beginning, where it has its most focus, giving a rich history on the major players that made French food a hit in America. When the middle of the book reaches California, the novel bounces around erratically after singing the praises of Chez Panisse and Alice Waters. By the time the book reaches the nineties, it's a rush to the finish line. Wolfgang Puck , Emeril Lagasse, and the author's friend Mario Batali get the spotlight while many other famous chefs get mentioned in passing, usually in reference to their work on the Food Network. And on the subject of the Food Network, you'd think there would be more to say about it, since it turned many average Americans into foodies. But the author devotes only a rushed chapter, perhaps because he spent too much time back in the '60s discussing every chef that walked through Chez Panisse.

With criticism aside, the book does offer an in-depth explanation on how we got our food habits. It shines with the anecdotes of the fabulous wine-and-pate-soaked gatherings of the Gourmet Elite. The novel helps us better understand why we care so much about how our food is prepared, and where it comes from. A great question is raised in the novel, albeit in the rushed, final chapters: How are we supposed to feel about the big-box companies like Wal-Mart trying to corner the market on organic and healthy foods? Should we be delighted that good eating is provided at small cost for the lower classes? Or should we fear for the death of the mom-and-pop shops and the local farmer? The novel leaves the answer up to you, but says we should all be for good food and good earth, within reason (using Alice Water's fanaticism as an example of "out of reason.")

It will be interesting to see how the book reads in a few years, now that high gas prices and food shortages will no doubt be affecting the ingredients we put together for our meals in the future.
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