Nov 162020

The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation by David Kamp is a 2006 book about American eating habits. In particular, how we went from a dull meat and potatoes country that valued TV dinners over cooking, to a society that eats sushi, organic meats and arugula. It places the credit at the feet of chefs and the food celebrities in a book that is remarkably breezy for such a big topic.

Kamp starts with the big three, Julia Child, James Beard and food critic Craig Clairborne. He details how these three dropped into the culinary scene with a splash that was powered primarily by newspaper articles and cookbooks. From these three he moves on to Alice Waters and the organic movement in California, and then onto other celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck. He details the challenges people had about cuisine and the massive force of will it took to get farms and growers to create the produce and meats we take for granted today. It is a fascinating story.

I had a lot of fun reading this book. It is a gossipy affair, detailing the rise of cooking cultural icons with plenty of snark and backhanded compliments from friends and foes alike. Every other page has a great story that says so much about the large personalities involve. I lost track of how many times I would seek out my wife and read her a passage because it was too funny not to share.

If I had one criticism, it is that I think the impact of the Food Network, as well as dozens of PBS chefs is underplayed. Growing up in the south, I has no interest in a lot of food until I saw it on television first. The original iron Chef demystified a lot of Asian cooking and shows like Good Eats and Yan Can Cook encouraged me to dip my toes where I would normally be afraid to go.

Still, it is a minor complaint about a book that had me laughing for days. I highly recommend it.

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