David Kamp will read from The United States of Arugula at the University Bookstore (4326 University Way N.E.; 206-634-3400) on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 7 p.m.
"This is a book about . . . how food in America got better," writes David Kamp in the introduction to The United States of Arugula (Broadway Books, $26), "and how it hopped the fence from the ghettos of home economics and snobby gourmandism to the expansive realm of popular culture."
Kamp, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and GQ, and the co-author of The Rock Snob's Dictionary and The Film Snob's Dictionary, barrels through the history of good food in America, taking as his starting point 1939, the year future restaurateur Henri Soulé sailed from France to the United States. Kamp briskly charts the waxing of Julia Child's popularity, the spread of California cuisine, and the birth of the celebrity-chef franchise, examining how we fell in love with French food and how we then grew up and moved on. Niggling questions answered along the way: Who first poured extra-virgin olive oil onto a plate for diners to dip their bread in? (Sirio Maccioni at Le Cirque.) Who imported the first sun-dried tomato (Georgio DeLuca, of Dean & DeLuca)? Kamp can't resist including every food-world dust-up—Julia Child vs. Madeleine Kamman! Everyone vs. the Galloping Gourmet!—but he does refuse to take sides.
The author's wry (but not snarky) conversational narrative is rife with commentary, for example, describing James Beard's memoir as "slender and afflicted with a slight touch of the twees." Though Kamp's humor isn't forced, he does play up the private eccentricities of prominent foodies—Beard comes off as a rotund, kaftan-wearing Mary and young Alice Waters as a baby-voiced maneater—instead of probing more deeply into why they became so influential to the American public.
Some of the levity drops away when Kamp moves from profiling the prime tastemakers of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s to tracking the broader issues shaping America's deepening understanding of good food. He reports more serious rifts in the restaurant community with the same even-handedness he does personal spats. Yet, by condensing such a broad topic into a cogent tale, Kamp ends up with a history of the food media and its coverage of A-list restaurateurs in New York, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles. His trickle-down theory of gourmandism doesn't provide for a satisfactory explanation for why people in, say, Tucson began substituting New York farmhouse cheddar for American cheese in their sandwiches, or what drove them to become conversant in sashimi, free-range chicken, and fleur de sel.
But in an era when foodies duel over whether food should be ethically sourced or immaculately cooked, Kamp's story convincingly shows that, from Soulé through Emeril Lagasse, the folks who have helped us eat better have cared—passionately—about both ingredients and technique. And if we're able to look beyond green ketchup and passion fruit–truffle foams, Kamp congratulates us, it's not hard to see that American food has improved, and will only get better.