Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.
This is one of those non-fiction books that take on the feel of a novel as you progress through the chapters. You become involved with the characters and turn pages quickly as the action unfolds. If you must put it down, you find yourself thinking about what might happen next and wishing you could get back to reading.
The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation (Broadway Books, 2006) is written by David Kamp, a writer and editor of Vanity Fair and GQ. Kamp lets us know that he is a food fan right from the beginning. "I love the speed with which the food world moves, ushering forth new taste sensations and better ideas with the let's-top-ourselves alacrity of Apple Computer and the anything's-possible ambition of 1960's NASA," he writes in the preface.
The book covers a period of United States history that begins around 1940 and continues today. We follow a well-documented trail of enlightenment that was blazed by James Beard, widened by the television cooking show, redefined by the "countercuisine" of sixties, paved with global awareness and finally turned into a highway by celebrity chefs.
I have long been intrigued by that time when the US food scene was small enough to be defined by "the big three:" Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne. In reality, of course, there were many other players. Among them were a cadre of French chefs, now-familiar publications like The Joy of Cooking and Gourmet magazine and a certain portion of the American public poised to become "foodies."
It is great fun to read about this era. The term foodie was actually coined during this time, in the early 1960's, by New York restaurateur Joe Baum. We see a small kitchenwares store run by one Chuck Williams begin to blossom in Sonoma County while the first manuscript of Mastering the Art of French Cooking is rejected by its intended publisher for being too big. Restaurant reviews became a regular weekly feature in The New York Times and, in Kamp's words, "…mass-market American food companies subjected themselves to the intriguing experiment of letting trained French chefs tell them what to do." (They were a bit ahead of the times on that idea.)
Throughout The United States of Arugula Kamp gives us juicy background gossip of events and people that did indeed make us a gourmet nation. He reveals the vicious nature of the food establishment as considered outsiders like Graham Kerr, early television's Galloping Gourmet, and today's popular Emeril Lagasse make good. Kamp's recounting of the early days for Eli Zabar and Giorgio DeLuca is delightful reading that gives personality to these famous names.
On the other hand, devoting an entire chapter to Alice Waters and Chez Panisse seems like overkill. Yes, Waters is credited for pioneering the "eat local" movement and the landmark restaurant has served as a launching point for countless American chefs, but I imagine that the development of the Celestial Seasonings tea company, given less than a page in this book, was colorful as well.
I must admit, I had no idea the importance that French food played in the early days of American food history. My awareness of the culinary world started at a young age but it coincided with the time that Kamp points to as when food began emerge as a lifestyle and also as entertainment. This is the same time that France gave way to Italy on the American dining scene and single-item trends came screaming onto the market.
It's interesting to see how various trends that we can't forget were introduced. Italian cook Marcella Hazen recalls proffering balsamic vinegar to Williams-Sonoma. Dean DeLuca made a deal with a San Remo olive producer, Livio Crespi, for exclusive rights to his sun-dried tomatoes. Hollywood restaurateur Patrick Terrail takes full credit for popularizing bottled water. Perhaps the most fascinating is the way the term "free-range chicken" entered into our vocabulary. You'll have to read the book, I don't want to spoil it.
While Italian imports took the US by storm, another movement was also gaining ground. The countercuisine of whole foods and organic everything merged with a sort of wacky experiment into nouvelle cuisine to give way to true American cookery. Watch as natural meats and poultry make their ways onto menus. An upsurge in farmers' markets reminded us what the term "local food" really means. Home cooking becomes popular but people are eating it in restaurants.
And then Kamp walks us through The Magic of Thinking Big, chapter 11. "The nineties were when the entrepreneurial spirit took hold of the food world…" The Food Network is a fledgling start-up and chefs are showing up on People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" lists. These are the days most of us know but Kamp again fills us in on the behind the scenes details of even more trends.
Kamp wraps up The United States of Arugula with a thoughtful commentary on the current and often controversial aspects of the food world. As he points out, American tastes run on two tracks: fast food devotees and culinary sophisticates. Can the two meet? Will McDonald's ever dump the trans-fats and the high fructose corn syrup? Might the culinary "elitists" drop "their smugness and patronizing tone?" Kamp is optimistic.
The United States of Arugula is a must-read for any food lover. It is a shining example of how far we have come and it's also heartening to see that there have always been people like us that consider food more than sustenance, it's a lifestyle.
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Editors note: This review was written based on an earlier version of the book that was titled The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation
Here's one that's full of our favorite recipes because we wrote the book! It is also full of information, helpful hints and ideas for using herbs and spices in your kitchen.