October 5, 2006


America's conversion to gourmet grub makes for tasty reading: a review of THE UNITED STATES OF ARUGULA: How We Became a Gourmet Nation By David Kamp (John Marshall, September 29, 2006, SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER)

Kamp's delightful book, subtitled "How We Became a Gourmet Nation," is a serious-minded examination of the flowering of food culture in this country, a thorough and engrossing history, complete with exhaustive bibliography and index.

But this longtime editor and contributor to Vanity Fair covers the vast culinary territory in a deliciously entertaining fashion, with marvelous profiles of celeb chefs and other luminaries that capture their outsized egos, competitive natures and bitchy relationships with others in the kitchen trade.

They celeb food gang's all here, from James Beard to Julia Child to Alice Waters to Wolfgang Puck to Emeril Lagasse. And Kamp provides tasty behind-the-scenes dish on one and all.

He even tackles the widespread perception that Child may have enjoyed the vino a tad too much during filming of her various TV series: "Child was anything but sauced on the show. Due to budget constraints, she and the program's producers couldn't afford drinking wine for her closing toast of 'Bon appetit!' She saluted her audience not with a real glass of wine but with a glass of water darkened with GravyMaster, a coloring agent."

The Hunger Artists: a review of THE UNITED STATES OF ARUGULA: How We Became a Gourmet Nation By David Kamp (A. O. SCOTT, NY Times)
Not so long ago, Newsweek magazine ran a cover story calling attention to a fascinating trend: “In a burst of new interest in food,” the article observed, “U.S. chefs and home cooks are grappling with today’s mounting concern for health, lower calories and higher nutrition. Americans are demanding — and paying for — the freshest and least chemically treated products available. The new gusto for experimenting with food ... stretches from the back-to-basics passion for organically grown vegetables to a boom in arcane ... food processors, from a surge in restaurants stressing regional Yankee cookery to cooking schools of every conceivable ethnic persuasion.”

By “not so long ago,” I mean in 1975, roughly the midpoint in the postwar transformation of American gastronomy, a revolution that is the subject of David Kamp’s lively, smart, horrendously titled new book. (The cover depicts Lady Liberty clutching a bunch of greens in place of her torch, proving that Kamp’s publishers have turned a deaf ear to the wisdom of a leading American gourmand, Homer Simpson, who once observed that you don’t win friends with salad. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, the Lisa Simpson of American cooking and a central figure in the book, would obviously disagree, but that’s between her and Homer.) Revolution is not, in Kamp’s account, too strong a word, though it does suggest a suddenness, a punctuality, that his narrative does much to contradict. He traces a gossipy, richly detailed path from Le Pavillon, James Beard and curry powder in the late 1940’s to Mario Batali, Thomas Keller and cryovacking in the mid-aughts, stopping along the way to kibitz with Julia Child in the WGBH greenroom, blow a few rails with Jeremiah Tower and company in the hectic kitchen of Chez Panisse and herald the opening of Dean & DeLuca in SoHo. [...]

[Y]ou can hardly dispute the influence of the three giants who dominate Kamp’s early chapters: James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Julia Child, pillars of a nascent “food establishment” who served as mostly benevolent authority figures for the generations to follow. Outsiders with respect to the Eastern social establishment — Beard and Child were Westerners, from Oregon and California respectively, while Claiborne hailed from Mississippi — they made their careers, as it were, from scratch. The idea of a rotund, gay epicure instructing the middle-class masses on the finer points of taste must have seemed as bizarre as the notion of a tall former United States intelligence officer with a funny voice becoming the nation’s first culinary television star, but that is just what Beard and Child accomplished. For his part, Claiborne, The New York Times’s first restaurant critic, turned its dining pages into a weekly codex of emerging taste. He not only reviewed the important dining spots in Manhattan, but also profiled home cooks and, with Pierre Franey, an impeccably trained, supremely talented (and very patient) French chef, provided readers with new and intriguing recipes to try.

By now, three or four generations have come up under the indirect tutelage of “the big three.”

I'm reading this one now and while Julia Child is a hoot the rest are rather tortured souls, none more so than Claiborne, whose relationship with his father will kill your appetite more effectively than the rest of the book can stoke it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2006 2:00 PM

Jacques Pepin's recent memoir covers some of the same ground. Lots of Claibourne and Julia, tho, apparently, much sunnier.

Well worth reading if you haven't already.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at October 5, 2006 10:57 PM
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