Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book doesn't hold interest; realize I am not a "foodie"

I finally finished reading David Kamp’s book The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation.

Motivation for reading:
The United States of Arugula has been on my reading list for some time. When I heard it was the current selection for the on-line book club called BookClubSandwich hosted by Kim and Andi I decided it was time to read it.

Synopsis from the book's cover:
The wickedly entertaining, hunger-inducing, behind-the-scenes story of the revolution in American food that has made exotic ingredients, celebrity chefs, rarefied cooking tools, and destination restaurants familiar aspects of our everyday lives.

One day we woke up and realized that our “macaroni” had become “pasta,” that our Wonder Bread had been replaced by organic whole wheat, that sushi was fast food, and that our tomatoes were heirlooms. How did all this happen, and who made it happen? The United States of Arugula is the rollicking, revealing chronicle of how gourmet eating in America went from obscure to pervasive, thanks to the contributions of some outsized, opinionated iconoclasts who couldn’t abide the status quo.

My Thoughts:
This book was not what I expected. I thought it was going to be about “the food” behind the “American Food Revolution.” Instead it is about the chefs who created the movement: James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne and the food figures who came after them. At times, depending on whom Kamp was covering, the book was interesting and engaging. At others, I found myself bored and barely able to keep reading. This is not the fault of David Kamp. His depiction of the characters behind the American food movement is fair and comprehensive. It's just I am not a foodie (a person inordinately obsessed with restaurant going and cooking fashions (Pg. 63) and wasn't overly interested in the subject matter.

I did appreciate Kamp’s honest portrayal of the chefs he wrote about. He points out how James Beard swallowed his principles and learned to love Niblets. (Pg. 62). That Alice Waters who receives all the credit for Chez Panisse’s success was really just the salad girl and the real credit belongs to Chez Panisse’s first real chef Jeremiah Towers.
The presence of Jeremiah is what changed everything. Jeremiah really made the restaurant. (Pg.146).

I also enjoyed the discussions of food. Especially this one:
In the beginning the quality of American ingredients was pretty lousy. Andre Soltner unable to locate chanterelle mushrooms (girolles) had to order them from Germany. They arrived in a half-liter can. Wanting to only cook with fresh ingredients he didn’t do anything with girolles. Then 15 years later a farmer from Oregon came and offered him fresh girolles. Soltner didn’t understand. You’re telling me girolles just started to grow?

No we’ve always had tons and tons of girolles in Oregon. But we had no market. So we had a contract with Germany for tons of girolles. We packed them up and sent them over. The Germans, they were putting them in cans and sending them back to us. (Pg.116).

Then there was Paul Prudhomme who made blackened redfish so popular the redfish population in the Gulf of Mexico became depleted and regulatory action was required to protect the species.

Most importantly Kamp wrote about where we are today. This is my favorite paragraph of the book:
At its current juncture, the story of American food is dominated by two phenomena: the “national eating disorder.” to use a phrase coined by the food writer and UC-Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan, that finds many Americans obsessing about being thin while getting still fatter, lurching from one faddist diet to the next (such as the Atkins madness that demonized “carbs”), and eating too many processed foods; and the quantum leap forward in ingredient availability and culinary sophistication that is described in this book. The problem is that these two phenomena have been running on parallel tracks, with some segments of the population depending ever more on fast food, and other segments getting deeper and deeper into foodie connoisseurship and/or organic, biodynamic and “slow” foods. (Pg. 359)
Kamp offers a solution:
The trick, the task America faces, is to get these two parallel tracks to converge. For the solution to the national eating disorder lies in the advances and lessons of the American food revolution. The junk-food and diet-food people need to learn that natural and gourmet foods need not be flavorless, expensive or “elitist”; the foodie sophisticates need to lose their smugness and patronizing tone and embrace capitalist enterprise and engagement with big companies as a good thing, the most effective means of proselytizing on behalf of real, healthful foods. (Pg. 359-360)
In the end despite realizing I am not a foodie, I am glad I read the book. It influenced me to think more about my own food choices and the food choices of others. I plan on writing more about foodies, the American diet and the politics of food in the future.


  1. Does he address the lack of access to fresh foods experienced by the poorest - and often most overweight - citizens of the US? Until we address that part, too, we aren't going to solve the obesity problem.

    sounds like an interesting read (sometimes!)

  2. This book wasn't really what I was expecting either -- more people and less food. But, I am glad I read it because most of the other books I read on food are so current. I think it's important to know where we've been to give some current debates context. I loved the last two excerpts you included too.

  3. Glad I'm not the only one who thought this title was a bit dull--and I do think it was Kamp's fault. I didn't find his writing engaging at all, and in my opinion, the book was too long!
    Thanks for the great review; I look forward to more of your writing on "foodie" issues, even if you aren't really a foodie!

  4. Webb,
    Kamp does write about A&P’s new focus on fresh foods, Wal-Mart’s push to get into the organic market and McDonald’s offering apples as an alternative to french fries in their Happy Meals. These may be small steps inspired by profit and public outcry, but as they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

  5. Kim,
    I think both the book's title and synopsis were deceiving which is why most of the readers of BookClubSandwich thought the book was about food. I like your attitude, “It's important to know where we've been to give some current debates context. Perhaps I should just focus on that and move on.

    Funny you should say the book was too long. I read a review on a website yesterday that said it was too short. Kamp is a highly respected author in “Food” circles. I also read an interview of a chef who said her favorite book is anything written by Kamp. I have to agree with you though the book was too long and Kamp’s writing is “dull.”

    When I said I am not a foodie, I hadn’t realized prior to reading the book how little interest I have in the “celebrity chef” or the latest new restaurant.