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These Delicious United States

April 1, 2011

The United States of Arugula
David Kamp
(library book)

“I remain convinced that there are more people interested in knowing where to buy the best bagel than about the latest act of political or corporate corruption, primarily because they personally can do something about the bagel but feel powerless against the rest of the world.”- Mimi Sheraton, from her memoir Eating My Words, quoted in The United States of Arugula

The United States of Arugula is a meticulously researched, fun, gossipy and informative look at the way eating well and cooking became a cultural marker, and culture in itself, in the United States. While stepping through a food driven social history of the United States, from Thomas Jefferson (had a garden any farmers’ market would envy) to the first cookbooks (mostly written by women) to the era when science and cooking got muddled together and spawned an unholy union of convenience foods (otherwise known as Bad Things With Jello And Soup) all the way to the present: artisanal cheese, celebrity chefs and heirloom fruits and vegetables.

In some ways, the combination of densely packed information with a highly readable, almost gossipy tone, reminded me of Gail Collins’ America’s Women. Reading provided the same experience of getting fascinated with a deep look into a particular subset of history.

Much of America’s food culture owes a debt of influence to the French style- Escoffier’s rich sauces and complex preparations for example. Julia Child certainly gets her due in this volume. But, having grown up in a big city in the later part of the 20th century, some of the descriptions of French dishes drowned in buttery sauces were almost too rich and evocative to read. Say what you want about the modern approach to super sized gluttony, that much bearnaise is a little alarming.

For all the ground Kamp has to cover, he takes his time exploring most of the key names in food history- Julia, of course, and James Beard, but also Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Rick Bayless, and a host of other boldface names of the foodie world. It’s a fairly evenly told story– if some of these chefs, critics and resterateurs get put on a pedestal, it’s because they made a name and a reputation for themselves, not because Kamp is getting excessively worshipful. When his research reveals some of what he delightedly calls “bitchery,” or moody infighting, he lets these food personas have their moments of grudges, shortsightedness and petty tantrums. They may be part of America’s social history and culinary dynasty, but they’re human too.

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