We take a lot for granted. Grocery stores virtually anywhere in America sell fresh cilantro, heirloom tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Restaurants across the land cook fresh food well and serve an amazing array of vegetables. Sushi is comfort food and salsa, I read the other day, outsells ketchup.
Anyone over the age of 30 knows that this is a recent development. In his book The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation (Broadway Books, $26), author David Kamp takes us on a wild ride through the formative years that brought us to this point. Call it "Sex, Drugs and Rocky the Free-Range Chicken."
It's a good read, full of gossipy behind-the-scenes tales of famous figures in the food world, especially the holy trinity of James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne. We also learn the origin of the California roll (an early Los Angeles sushi chef) and how the '60s counterculture led to Chez Panisse.
Aside from Beard, Claiborne and Child, Kamp also looks at such latter-day saints of gastronomy as Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Pierre Franey, Marcella Hazan, Chuck Williams (of Williams-Sonoma), Laura Chenel (of goat cheese fame) and Bill Niman (of Niman Ranch). Although the overall message is positive—"We're eating better than ever"—the author seems to take special glee in finding clay feet under these idols where he can.
Beard, whose cookbooks and cooking classes championed the possibility of an American cuisine before it was fashionable, comes off as a lovable leech, selling out his gourmet principles and sponging off of friends while mentoring some of the key players in the food revolution that began in the 1970s. Kamp portrays Claiborne, who literally invented modern food journalism at the New York Times, as irascible, bitchy and, late in life, an unpleasant drunk. The worst he can come up with on Child is to describe her as a "giantess" (she stood over 6 feet tall) who didn't get Italian food and resisted for years the idea of America having its own cuisine rather than emulating France.
The stuff about their sex lives makes juicy reading, and yes, Beard and Claiborne were gay men and therefore outsiders, which paralleled the outsider status of chefs before the 1990s, when food became chic and "star chef" was no longer an oxymoron. And yes, it says something about Waters that Chez Panisse overcame its drug-besotted beginnings, and that her series of men remained friends and helped spread the word about her restaurant and her politicized approach to food. I only wish that Kamp had done a better job of explaining just how these individuals, and the others he spotlights, changed the way we think about food.
In describing the food he mostly seems content to list dishes as if they were on a menu rather than take the extra step to explain just how each chef's cooking mattered. For example, he provides an extensive list of the ingredients on Wolfgang Puck's pizzas when Spago opened in Los Angeles, but never says that they were smaller and crispier than the pizza most Americans knew and not at all gloppy. That's as important as all the fancy toppings.
Maybe it's the foodie in me, but if you're going to subtitle a book "How we became a gourmet nation," shouldn't the food take center stage?
Another problem with the book is that it is far too New York-centric. As America's most populous city and media hub, New York played a key role in developing cutting-edge restaurants and disseminating the news about what was happening. But time and again Kamp's New York-centric attitude makes it seem as if it had to happen in New York before it mattered at all.
Here's just one example: No doubt the opening of Dean & DeLuca was a seminal moment in the New York intelligentsia's acceptance of foods and ingredients from around the world, but to say, as Kamp does, that in the 1970s the grocery's owners were responsible for farming the first radicchio and arugula in America is nonsense. I grabbed my copy of Angelo Pellegrini's wonderful book The Food Lover's Garden, published in 1970, just to see. The Seattle-based writer devotes five pages to arugula. Italians were growing it for themselves (and selling it in their markets). Dean & DeLuca brought it closer to the mainstream.
The point is that things were happening all over the country. To his credit, Kamp interviewed chefs and other important food figures in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He also makes brief references to Texas and New Orleans. But what of the gangs of hugely talented chefs in Chicago, in Florida, in Hawaii, in the Pacific Northwest? A brief mention of a few, and an apology in the preface.
One can also quibble over Kamp's basically sunny assessment of the American food scene, especially after reading Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore's Dilemma, two recent books that focus on the down side.
Finally, Kamp cops out on wine's role in all this, calling it "a subject that really deserves a book all to itself." Well, yeah. The rise of high-profile wineries in California in the 1970s profoundly affected how well Americans can dine today. How can anyone write a book on this subject and not address wine at all?