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A Tart, Puckish History of Modern American Eating

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 17, 2006 2:21pm ET

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?

Rick Kirgan
Mexico —  November 20, 2006 12:56am ET
I am anxious to get a copy of David Kamp's book. The trend toward better eating and drinking that we are seeing in the U.S. also seems to be occuring in developing nations as well.Last night at our local grocery store here in Mexico City, we picked up a bottle of Malbec from Mendoza (Trumpeter 2005) and I remarked to my wife that not 5 years ago we were lucky to find ANY wine at all on the shelves of this store, let alone a WS pick of the week. From the wine section, we continued to the dairy aisle where our little "Commercial Mexicana" has an impressive array of all our favorite stinky cheeses from around the world, whereas only a few years ago Kraft Singles seemed to be the top choice of imported cheese. A welcome trend indeed...
Robert Fukushima
California —  November 20, 2006 7:12pm ET
I should certainly read the book prior to commenting, but, some of your comments certainly toush a nerve in that I don't really care about whether or not a chef or reviewer is gay, or a chef is involved in personal behavior that I might not agree with. I grew up in the time of the 70's and 80's when people such as Alice Waters, Laura Chenel and Bill Niman and many others were revolutionizing the approach many take to food. And I will throw in Kermit Lynch and his approach to wine here also. I wonder if we, as a society pay too much attention to 'soap opera' journalism and miss what is truly interesting, the food and wine revolution.
Mark Mccullough
GA —  November 20, 2006 8:33pm ET
Sounds like too much insider trivia to keep my interest. And the premise may be entirely false. The rise in wealth and disposable income probably has more to do with the rise in fine cuisine and fine wines than the personalities involved.
Robert L Schmitt
Encinitas,CA USA —  December 13, 2006 3:53pm ET
Mr. Steinman,I have been drinking wine and have been fortunate enough to have traveled all over the civilized world for 45 years. I have the first issue of the newspaper Wine Spectator and have subscribed off and on to the magazine for several years. Ever since your article on tasting Australian wines, I look for anything that you have written in the magazine right off the bat because I agreed with everything that you wrote about the differences in the wines in various regions of Australia. I also have been all over Australia and your assesment of the aromas and flavor differences from the south east and west were precisely what I found to be the case. I would be very interested to hear what you think about the wines of the Paso Robles, CA area as that has become my new favorite wine area domestically. There are a few great wines from there, but many poor ones also showing what I believe to be a lack of growing and vinification knowledge in that relatively new wine producing area.Keep up the excellent work!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 13, 2006 8:44pm ET
I have limited recent experience with Paso Robles wines, but I have liked wines from this part of California for many years. My memories go back to Gary Eberle's early Estrella River wines (some of California's best Syrahs in the early going), Ridge's Paso Robles Zin and (although Paso Robles did not turn out be a great place for Pinot Noir) a legendary 1976 Hoffman Mountain Ranch bottling.

I still like the Ridge Dusi Ranch Zin, when I get a chance to drink it, and I am fond of the Tablas Creek wines. Justin's Isosceles and Syrah have impressed me in some years. But I am not exposed to the wines of that area all that much. That's my buddy Jim Laube's beat.

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