I just finished up a book that I read for my food book club with East Bay Dish called the United States of Arugula by Michael Kamp. I had been wanting to be part of a book club for a while and when I was presented with reading this book, I jumped on it knowing that I wanted to learn more about food, our culinary history and of course to read more books. The book discusses how the United States became a gourmet nation and when and how we started to become so obsessed with food, how we acquire it and the major players who helped to bring us to this current state.
The book starts out with introducing the three big players or also known as the “big three”. They consisted of James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Julia Child. I had already heard of Julia Child from my earlier years of watching PBS reruns of her cooking episodes, but the names of Beard and Claiborne were unfamiliar to me. So, knowing the likes of the aforementioned is almost a must in our current food world as they both helped to shape where we are as a gourmet nation. Beard was very well-known for many of his cookbooks as well as for helping to define “Americana” cuisine and Claiborne helping to establish one of the first food and restaurant reviews in the New York Times and also the emergence of the revered restaurant critic.
America, still being a fairly “wet behind the ears” country compared to some of the others was for a long time trying to define their food culture. Countries like France, Italy and other countries in Europe, Africa and Asia all have their cultural cuisine. But with the United States being a melting pot of many various and diverse cultures, there is no one central cuisine. As Kamp states later on in the book, cuisines such as Southwestern, was one such cuisine of one part of the country, but not much else. The book starts off pretty much in the 1940s and 50s where WWII was just ending and America’s emergence of French cuisine with their visits to France and French chefs visiting the United States. In addition to the end of WWII, it also brought about a lot of processed foods due to a new use of machinery and chemicals that were now in surplus from the war.
In a strange way, I felt a connection, kinship and certain amount of pride when Kamp wrote about the food culture in the Bay Area. The emergence of Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower helped to bring about the notion of being a locavore and consuming food locally through the restaurant Chez Panisse. There were many other luminaries abound during the sixties and seventies who helped to spur on the words we hear so often, local, organic and sustainable. I found it interesting how establishments such as the Cheese Board Collective and Peet’s Coffee and Tea came about during this time as there was a growing surge in community, collectivism and local foods.
In addition to the cuisine of the Bay Area and Northern California, he also touted the achievements of celebrity chefs, who weren’t celebrities at the time, such as Emeril, Wolfgang Puck and Batali. They, as well as many others, all made a name for themselves in locations such as New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Of course the dawn of celebrity chefs was another phenomenon that Kamp discusses with great clarity as to their quick rise in foodie fame.
Foods that we very much take for granted today, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and sushi, were all new revelations. And no, not within the last 50 years, but more like in the last 30! During the 80s and 90s, it was not yet customary in every part of the United States to see sushi restaurants, my how things have changed!
My biggest takeaway from this book was definitely wanting to visit French Laundry in Yountville. A quote from Thomas Keller, the chef who regalvanzied French Laundry, talks about the law of diminishing returns. With every bite you eat, there is a wow factor and with each subsequent bite, the surprise or wow factor begins to slowly diminish. Eating is definitely about sustenance, but also the pleasure of eating and enjoying every bite without your senses being dulled by the experience. I loved his take on food and it is something that I would like to recreate in my own kitchen and with my food.
Kamp ends the book with looking at our current state of food with GMO foods, sugar, obesity and diabetes and how they are all affecting this gourmet nation. Many of the chefs, food advocates such as Alice Waters and other national food aficionados are all taking up the cause. We have definitely come a long way but we still have a ways to go. Definitely a good read all around and would highly recommend for anyone wanting to understand the history of our current food culture.