- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2006


By David Kamp

Broadway Books, $26, 392 pages


“The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation” isn’t a book about just salad greens. According to author David Kamp, it’s about “how food in America got better, and how it hopped the fence from the ghettos of home economics and snobby gourmandism to the expansive realm of popular culture.”

Mr. Kamp has chosen to tell this story by focusing on the larger-than-life personalities who made dining out a serious sport on the East and West coasts (the heartland by and large has resisted trendy restaurants) and changed the way legions of Americans cook and shop for food.

In the beginning were James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Julia Child, who independently discovered that the preparation of food, far from being a disagreeable chore, could actually be enjoyable — even fun — and that dining, as opposed to merely eating, was one of life’s repeatable pleasures.

James Beard, the 6-foot-4-inch Oregonian who learned about food in his mother’s boarding house and who could bake bread by the time he was eight, made the case for American regional foods. Craig Claiborne started his own mini-revolution by reviewing restaurants as if they were theater, and covering gastronomy as a regular news beat for the New York Times. Julia Child fell in love with French food and shared her consuming passion with Americans in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and in her television show, “The French Chef.”

Not much new here except more than one needs to know about the sex lives of Beard and Claiborne and Claiborne’s miserable decline and death. The author even dug up a racy quote concerning hot Italian beans (that, alas, cannot be printed in a family newspaper) from Child, America’s culinary sweetheart.

But behind-the-scenes gossip about the Big Three of the food establishment is mild compared with Mr. Kamp’s dish on those who came after — an unruly bunch of celebrity chefs and their acolytes whose adventurous cuisine thrived (and sometimes dived) in a workaholic world of adrenaline-driven restaurant kitchens and an after-hours culture of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Nowhere was this culture more in evidence than at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, founded in 1972 by Alice Waters, the leader of what Mr. Kamp calls the “countercuisinists,” who believed that cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients — the way the French and Italians do — could be viewed as a protest against the bland, processed American diet.

In the early years the brilliant, ambitious chef Jeremiah Tower was as important as Ms. Waters in putting Chez Panisse on the map. To attract more diners, Mr. Tower dreamed up themed menus like a Gertrude Stein-Alice B. Toklas dinner and a week of Salvador Dali-inspired fare, such as l’entre-plat drogue et sodomise, (a leg of lamb “drugged and sodomized by a mixture of Madeira, brandy, and tangerine juice injected through a syringe”).

Such promotions were a huge success — the restaurant was packed and frequently overbooked by a disorganized Ms. Waters. To keep up with the heavy work load, Mr. Tower and others were doing cocaine in the kitchen, and after hours the atmosphere, writes Mr. Kamp, was “positively Caligulan … Waters frowned upon the drug scene, but she imbibed as freely as anyone.”

Quoth a former Panisse staffer: “It’s after work, the customers are gone, the drugs come out, everybody starts drinking, the tango music comes on. Alice would get drunk, her incisors would show, and she would attack some poor innocent person and bed him.”

Meanwhile in Los Angeles hyperactive Wolfgang Puck opened a string of glitzy dining spots and cafes including Ma Maison, the first restaurant with an unlisted telephone number; his luxe pizza place, Spago, broke new ground with its then revolutionary open kitchen and a wood-burning pizza oven. New York’s David Bouley and Chicago’s Charlie Trotter flourished despite their abrasive “the customer is always wrong” philosophy, and Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray strutted their stuff on the Food Network.

David Kamp isn’t the first writer to try to wrap his arms around the great American food revolution — a lifestyle change that’s been hailed for decades and continues still. But all the buzz about celebrity chefs and restaurants, while vastly entertaining, may leave some readers hungry for more substantial fare about the American food scene. One wonders who will buy “The United States of Arugula” besides the parade of celebrity chefs, restaurant entrepreneurs, cookbook authors, food journalists and owners of posh food emporiums who crowd its gossip-filled pages?

Foodies who want to know more about their favorite chefs and restaurants certainly; history buffs maybe. But those who buy this book to find out how Americans became a nation of gourmets, as promised in the subtitle, will be disappointed. Although Mr. Kamp poses pertinent questions about the meaning of the word “gourmet” — “Is brie really gourmet anymore, or extra virgin olive oil, or prosciutto, or fresh pasta? Is it gourmet to use fresh herbs or dried ones from a McCormick tin?” — he doesn’t answer them.

He does chronicle — in a lively, anecdotal style — some of the important changes that have taken place in the food world. Restaurants have improved, particularly those with American menus featuring fresh, seasonal ingredients prepared in imaginative ways. Salsa has outstripped ketchup as America’s most popular condiment.

You can find organic fruit and vegetables, along with walnut oil and balsamic vinegar, fusilli and farfalle, sushi, Indian curries and jalapenos in mainstream supermarkets. Upscale markets like Whole Foods offer all of the above plus lemongrass, couscous, free-range chickens, pricey, out-of-season asparagus and raspberries flown in from unspecified foreign parts, and more.

People who care about food welcome these improvements, but others are still filling their shopping carts with the processed convenience foods, sugary cereals and chips ‘n’ dips that help fuel America’s obesity epidemic. Overeating combined with lack of exercise has resulted in 64 percent of Americans being classed as overweight or obese.

It’s debatable whether a nation of fatties where one out of four Americans eats at a fast-food restaurant on any given day, where fad diets proliferate and few people cook at home is the “Gourmet Nation” of Mr. Kamp’s title or closer to the “Fast Food Nation” of Eric Schlosser’s 2001 bestseller. You might want to read both.

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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