Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Review - The United States of Arugula

The United States of Arugula/David Kamp
Broadway Books, 2006
Oversized Paperback
Why? ReadAlong with Andi @ Estella's Revenge
What Now?  a keeper for the glass shelves

Golden Lines:

Let Julia Child so much as mention vanilla wafers, and the shelves are empty overnight
Time magazine Nov. 25 1966 issue pg 96

While today "grass-fed beef" is a luxury product that sells at a premium, pretty much all beef was grass-fed beef until the middle of the twentieth century. pg. 174

And so the industry-standard beef steer was, and remains, a prematurely pumped-up, inhumanely raised adolescent animal that has an aggravated digestive system and drugs in its blood. pg 176

...massive, high-volume operations whose pen-raised chickens, like San Fernando Valley porn, offered consistency and enormous breasts but little in the way of lasting satisfaction pg. 272

one can only eat marvelously by respecting the seasons pg. 151

Short and Sweet Summary:

Kamp's history of the food "movement" begins with classic French cooking...wives in the kitchen led by Julia Child's pinnacle cookbooks for hours preparing elaborate meals.  Then the reader is led through the beginnings of the restaurant circuit, food journalism and critics, the emergence of processed food and the newfangled "supermarket."  
Kamp then takes the reader on a journey through the 70's led by radicals such as Alice Waters who encouraged Americans to think globally and eat locally.  The Back to the Land Movement saw a rise in local farmers taking back big cities (particularly New York City) and creating communities where the produce was raised locally and the ingredients were pure.  At this point American food begins to take on a whole new identity...with Japanese, Italian and Mexican influences.  As a result, a entire new array of chefs comes to light and they create their own style of restaurants based on their own personalities and food preferences.  Examples of the "absentee chef" (Wolfgang Puck, Emeril, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Rick Bayless, etc) who owns a restaurant but is very seldom on the premises are used to fuel controversy that the high profile chefs are in the business for the money, not to feed Americans better food.  Kamp lets the reader decide whether or not purists and progressives will ever be able to get along and whose benefits are really at stake in the controversy.
The Big Three, James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne are influences discussed throughout each time period...and how our food in America has evolved to what it is today.   

My Initial Response:

This book was right up my alley...We are neck deep in trying to improve the way we eat in our household; one of the most interesting things to me to find out is that eating fresh and down to earth aren't new concepts.  Like everything else I guess, we've come full circle...processed food didn't really come to be until after the Leave it to Beaver moms returned to the workplace.  Maybe I knew this but I really had just never thought about it.  This book was chock full of info that really challenged my a matter of fact, I could probably re-read this one and get all new info from it. 

What I Liked:

Getting to know the chefs personally...Kamp has enough connections and put in some serious research for this many places he actually interviewed the person he was talking about and got their response on his take of the information presented by Kamp.

The bibliography - oh my heavens...I don't even know how many books I added to my wishlist from the bib

Chuck Williams of Williams Sonoma -one of my favorite stores ever...I'm sorry that I didn't realize they were real people :/ (I'm so ashamed ;)

Major foodie Craig Claiborne was a foodie before foodies even existed...again I'm stunned to admit that I didn't know Claiborne was from MS... and he even attended my alma mater, Mississippi State.

learning about pinnacle restaurants -
Chez Panisse, Four Seasons, Spago, Moosewood  Restaurant, Tavern on the Green

learning the history of Whole Foods Market, Dean and Deluca, Ben and Jerry, and the connection between Peet's Coffee and Starbucks.

reading about cities I already love and learning about their influence over what the rest of the country eats still today...New York, San Francisco, Berkley, and Los Angeles specifically.

What I Didn't Like:

There were several places in the book, especially towards the end in the last sections where I would lose track of who it was Kamp was talking about...I backtracked and could always find it but if that gives you any idea of how packed this book is with info...this is not a quick read where you can pay half attention to what you are reading and do something else...

the fussiness between some French chefs and American chefs...what's real...if a recipe gets changed, what's the big deal?? 
One Italian chef remarked that in Italy olive oil is a "treasure"...Americans slather it on everything
The same chef used the pasta primavera recipe as an example of a recipe that is so "Americanized" it looks and tastes nothing like the original.


Anyone concerned about the quality of the food we eat in the United that food came to be what it is...the people behind the food evolution...and lots of information will enjoy this book.  If you're looking for a quick easy surface level jaunt through food history, you won't be happy here though.


  1. This does sound like a really interesting and instructive book, and like something that I might be interested in dipping in and out of. I also tend to make smarter eating choices for my family, and rely on little to no processed food, but I am sure I could do more, so this book might be the place to start. It sort of reminds me a little bit of Fast Food Nation in it's tone and subject matter. Great review on this one!

  2. I still haven't been able to finish this one, and I have to say -- for the first time ever! -- reading this one on an e-reader was a huge disadvantage. I also tended to lose track of who/what Kamp was writing about at times and it would've been great to easily flip back and forth a bit. Also, I wanted to explore the footnotes more which was another pain in the Nook.