Book: The United States of Arugula by David Kamp

Nifty history of recent American food

David Kamp
The United States of Arugula
Broadway Books, 2006
ISBN: 978-0-7679-1580-9
364 pages

Despite it hokey title, The United States of Arugula is a nifty book. Some months ago I had occasion to remark that the food even here in Minneapolis has gotten very good in recent years. Mr Kamp, writing in the book's preface says that that's true in general in America. He says, "It is, in short, a great time to be an eater" (p. xi). The book is a lively and readable history of how we came to this happy state of affairs.

Mr Kamp begins with some pretty early history of American food, pointing out that there was always some good food in America. But, reaching the late 19th century and then the early 20th pretty quickly, he also points out that it was sometimes pretty rare.

The, um, meat of Mr Kamp's history begins in chapter two with the restaurant in the French pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in New York and the chef there, Henri Soulé. After the fair closed, Mr Soulé remained in New York and opened a restaurant called Le Pavillon. People who worked there went on to work as chefs in a remarkable array of tony French restaurants in New York. Mr Kamp then brings us to some of the outsize personalities that food seems to, um, nourish. Among them are Criaig Claiborne, James Beard, and Julia Child.

Mr Kamp then turns his attention to California and, especially Alice Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse. California in the 1960s was not short of rebellious young people. But many of them had parents who had insisted that they eat "health food" diets of tasteless brown rice and tofu. So when those children rebelled, they often rebelled by insisting on good food. There follow chapters on "fusion" cuisine and celebrity chefs. Mr Kamp's prose is generally workmanlike and occasionally inspiring. It serves Mr Kamp's history well.

It is perhaps not surprising that that the people Mr Kamp tells us about make for interesting stories, but Mr Kamp provides numerous additional tidbits. Who knew, for example, that Humboldt County in northern California is famous for goat cheese in part because the former radicals who moved there found goats sufficiently low-maintenance that they could easily keep them. In all, Mr Kamp's story is broad, detailed, and satisfying.

The book design is, alas, poor. The type is too small and set too loosely. And the typesetter often uses en-dashes where hyphens are wanted. The book isn't unreadable, but the design needlessly detracts from the experience of reading a fine book.

Posted: Thu - December 20, 2007 at 05:56 PM   Main   Category: