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The United States of Arugula – Book Review

Written by: David Kamp
Published by: Broadway Books

One of the biggest trends in American food today is the trend towards slow food, or trading speed of preparation for quality and a deeper understanding of where the food came from and what it’s doing to your body. In addition, chefs are now using as commonplace ingredients that a mere decade ago would have seemed exotic, and there are sushi restaurants in the smallest backwater towns. But what made this sea change in American food? The United States of Arugula looks at this phenomenon and tries to trace the changes and even guess where we’re going.

The book is primarily a series of biographical praises to the chefs and gourmands who, in their turn, created and nurtured the burgeoning American foodie culture. It begins with a look at American food “before”…a rather frightening wasteland of condensed soup casseroles and beef with a side of beef. And then the French chefs came and James Beard started writing cookbooks. Author Kamp traces the origins of the “American food revolution” to a handful of luminaries, including Julia Child and Craig Claiborne, but does little to explain why the country was ready to accept them. Certainly the historical Great Man theory is interesting, but most historians will tell you that the times must be ready to accept and aide the Great Man, or he will pass into obscurity, his ideas with him.

[ad#longpost]This book is must-read material for anyone who considers him- or herself a “food snob” of any kind. Readers learn a great deal about the history of food luminaries, from Francis Moore Lappé to Thomas Keller. To Kamp, because of the American cult of personality and the love of fame, the “celebrity chef” syndrome that some gourmands lament is a good thing, allowing chefs and their love of food to permeate and affect American culture in a way that a non-famous person would never be able to do.

The United States of Arugula provides an interesting, if occasionally depressing, look at the inside workings of the food and entertainment industries, including the back-biting and personality clashes. For example, we are “treated to” a look at the rather harsh things said about Graham Kerr, due mainly to Kerr daring to achieve popular success. The inner workings of Alice Waters’ famous Chez Panisse are also interesting, if only for proving that hippies can be snobs, too.

Certainly read this one if you’re interested in sociology and how sweeping cultural changes are accomplished (or failed to accomplish) or if you want to know how a country farmer’s market came to be a place where you’d see Mercedes SUVs alongside the beat-up pick-up trucks. Foodies and fans of the Food Network will want to check this one out, as will modern historians and cultural theorists. A fascinating and well-researched look at an interesting phenomenon, The United States of Arugula is a smart, engaging piece of research that reads well and is guaranteed to help you while away a few afternoons actually learning something.

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