Life as an Extreme Sport


A couple of years back, while I was attending an undergrad conference at Penn, Art Caplan stated to a group of students (for reasons I totally don’t remember) “I like all kinds of food ”” immobile, slow, accelerating and fast”, and it cracked me up, and stayed with me. It’s one of those quotable quotes he’s known for, and I’ve done more than my fair share of quoting it. But, it’s true – I like all kinds of food, too, and I especially like reading about food. Just as an example, I’m currently at my parents house, 3000 miles from my home, and yet within arms reach I have three books on food (Mark Kurlansky, known for the brilliant Salt, collected a bunch of food writing from, oh, the second century BC to now, into a volume known as Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World, a book on the history of vanilla, and the reason I’m writing this, The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation). It’s a rare week my desk doesn’t see a book on some type of food, be it Steingarten collecting his latest batch of Vogue writings into a book, or analyzing a recipe and accompanying facts in an Alton Brown cookbook (both of which are also here, although not within arms reach – they’re in the kitchen, covered in flour from a failed scone attempt).

Over the summer I read Michael Pollan’s amazing Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I keep saying that I’ll write about some time and never get around to. But basically, Pollan follows four “types” of meal from farm to table, and the sometimes circuitous route the food takes to get there. A hunter/gatherer meal, fast food, organic, and so forth – and he explains a lot about the history of how Americans eat in the process. He also, and perhaps more significantly for at least me, put the fear of God, or at least famine, in me. I had no idea, before reading this book, just how heavily our food supply relies on corn, and just what it would do to us to lose it. I also had never really stopped to look at just how much high fructose corn syrup is in just about everything we eat. More than anything I’ve read in the last couple of years, (or seen, if we want to include Morgan Spurlock’s great documentary, Supersize Me), this book impacted how I eat.

David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation is almost the flip side of Pollan’s book. Instead of looking at how our food is grown, manufactured, and made into tablefare, Kamp looks at just how we moved from pressed jello molds to baby green and chevre salad. And for those of you who, for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom, want to ditch nouvelle anything and go back to the days of canned salads and potted meat, you now have a pre-Julia Child scapegoat: the French themselves, and their export of Escoffier and the impact this had on the American culinary institution.

Kamp’s book is a rollicking and entertaining romp through American, specifically New York and LA, food history, starting with the seemingly omnipresent media chefs like Lagasse, Flay, Batali and others in the Food Network stable (as well as those who just occasionally stop by for a visit, like Bayless), and then backs up to the world wars, the French exodus, American GI’s in Paris, and the cannot-talk-about-American-chefs-without-mentioning James Beard. He weaves the story well, rarely dipping into sensationalism or lingering too long over tabloid-style gossip, but instead looking at how the influence, passion, drive and growing star-power of the folks behind some of the biggest restaurants changed our individual eating habits – and hopefully, you’ll agree, for the better.

The United States of Arugula is similar to Pollan’s book, in that it gets you thinking about what we eat and why we eat it – why French cooking is so revered, how revolutionary the idea of sun-dried tomatoes were, why we have Williams-Sonoma and just how radical radicchio is. The way of life Kamp takes on is one Pollan skipped – the one of the celebrity chef, with their audience of fans flocking to the nearest Dean and Deluca the day after their favourite chef used this great new gadget, be it a new way to measure or a certain twine to tie pork, and who demand the exact product being shown. It’s not full of any shocking revelations, not the way Pollan’s might be, or Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm is, but it is certainly full of quiet realizations of the power a small group of determined people can have, and the impact they can have on us all.