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The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution

Written by David KampAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David Kamp

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On Sale: December 16, 2009
Pages: 416 | ISBN: 978-0-307-57534-0
Published by : Broadway Books Crown Trade Group
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Synopsis

The wickedly entertaining, hunger-inducing, behind-the-scenes story of the revolution in American food that has made exotic ingredients, celebrity chefs, rarefied cooking tools, and destination restaurants familiar aspects of our everyday lives.

Amazingly enough, just twenty years ago eating sushi was a daring novelty and many Americans had never even heard of salsa. Today, we don't bat an eye at a construction worker dipping a croissant into robust specialty coffee, city dwellers buying just-picked farmstand produce, or suburbanites stocking up on artisanal cheeses and extra virgin oils at supermarkets. The United States of Arugula is a rollicking, revealing stew of culinary innovation, food politics, and kitchen confidences chronicling how gourmet eating in America went from obscure to pervasive—and became the cultural success story of our era.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

AMERICA'S DYSFUNCTIONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH GOOD FOOD

"Hogs are in the highest perfection, from two and a half to four years old, and make the best bacon, when they do not weigh more than one hundred and fifty or sixty at farthest: They should be fed with corn, six weeks, at least, before they are killed . . . "
--prepping instructions for curing bacon, The Virginia House-wife, Mary Randolph, 1824


SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM / Hormel's new miracle meat in a can / Tastes fine, saves time / If you want something grand / Ask for SPAM!

--radio jingle for Spam, sung to the tune of "My Bonnie," 1937


"In the beginning, there was Beard," Julia Child famously said, in a characteristic display of generosity. But precisely what Beard began bears some explaining. Though she's among the foremost of Beard's protégés, the cookbook author Barbara Kafka can't contain her exasperation at the received wisdom that there were no good meals to be had in America until her mentor reared his enormous head. "It's like there was no food in this fucking city, or this country, until this miraculous apparition came along!" she says. "Or there was no cooking at home until Julia. Don't tell me this kind of nonsense! I think that Le Chambord,* which I went to as a child, was probably the best French restaurant that New York has ever seen and will ever see. And in the West Forties, way over, there were bistros lined up and down. Guys got off the ships right opposite the biggest harbor, practically, in the world--off the Normandie and the Ile de France. And they were French guys."

So, yes, it is wrongheaded to presume that Americans did not eat well until the Big Three became big. The very first American cookbook, American Cookery, written by a Connecticut woman named Amelia Simmons and published in 1796,* demonstrates that there were both cooks and eaters in those days who appreciated fine ingredients and flavorful food. American Cookery is considered the "first" American cookbook because, though several cookbooks had been published before it in the colonies and the young republic, they were adaptations or reprints of European cookbooks, mostly British. Simmons's book, on the other hand, was expressly aimed at born-and-bred Americans who used ingredients not available in Europe, such as the "pompkins" she used in a "pudding" recipe that differed very little from our current ones for Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. Her "Indian Slapjack," a cornmeal pancake of the sort now found on the menus of upscale Santa Fe bruncheries, would have gone very nicely with her "Beft bacon" (printers had not yet sorted out their use of f's and ornamental s's), which, in a manner that would excite today's aficionados of artisanal foodstuffs, was cured in molasses, sea salt, and saltpeter for six to eight weeks and then smoked over corncobs.

Further evidence of a culinarily attuned America comes in the most celebrated cookbook of the nineteenth century, The Virginia House-wife, by Mary Randolph, a pillar of late-eighteenth-century Richmond society (her brother was married to Thomas Jefferson's daughter), who, after her husband experienced some reversals of fortune, ran a boardinghouse and collected her recipes into a book, published in 1824. Not only was The Virginia House-wife a work of astonishing breadth and worldliness--Mrs. Randolph knew how to cook everything from the expected Ye Olde dishes like roast goose and Indian-meal pudding to seemingly very contemporary offerings like polenta and ropa vieja (Cuban- or Spanish-style shredded beef)--but her respectful use of vegetables was downright Alice Waters-ish. Randolph cautioned against overcooking asparagus, and advised that a perfect salad should have "lettuce, pepper grass, chervil, cress &c.," which "should be gathered early in the morning, nicely picked," and served with a lovely tarragon vinaigrette.

President Jefferson was himself quite the epicure and procurer of exotic foodstuffs, importing seeds from Europe to plant in his garden and cultivating Mediterranean fig, olive, and almond trees at Monticello. In his personal "Garden Book," he kept records of what produce was available at Washington's vegetable market during the years of his presidency, 1801 to 1809, and the sheer variety sounds much like what a latter-day foodie might gush over at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on a bountiful summer day: sorrel, broccoli, strawberries, peas, salsify, raspberries, Windsor beans, currants, endive, parsnips, tomatoes, melons, cresses.

All this said, not for nothing is the United States known as a meat-and-potatoes kind of place. In the early years of the republic, it wasn't uncommon for Americans to have beefsteak not only for dinner, which was consumed at midday, but for breakfast--a habit only exacerbated as the country expanded westward, opening more land for ranching. Foreign visitors to the United States in the nineteenth century routinely expressed their shock at the huge, meaty smorgasbords set out on groaning boards in the public rooms of hotels at all hours of the day, not to mention the joyless, gluttonous dispatch with which the natives went about the business of eating. Charles Dickens declared that Americans ate "piles of indigestible matter." Thomas Hamilton, another Englishman, wrote an account of his journey to the United States in 1833 called Men and Manners in America, in which he observed, "In my neighborhood there was no conversation. Each individual seemed to his food down his gullet, without the smallest attention to the wants of his neighbor." The food in these places wasn't of high quality, either, with vegetables boiled to a fare-thee-well and starchy potatoes and puddings served in great quantities. The Canadian historian Harvey Levenstein, in a droll study of early-American dietary habits called Revolution at the Table, notes that "the enormous amounts of meat and starch and the short shrift given to fresh fruits and vegetables made constipation the national curse of the first four or five decades of the nineteenth century in America."

It's hard to square this bleak picture with the Edenic one painted by Mary Randolph and Thomas Jefferson, and, indeed, the feisty old culinary historian Karen Hess, who edited and wrote the introduction to the facsimile of the first edition of The Virginia House-wife, dismisses the work of Levenstein, her rival, as that of a "stupid idiot." (As she points out, the Randolph cookbook alone presents clear evidence to refute Levenstein's assertion that in the nineteenth century "herbs were used mainly for medicinal rather than culinary purposes" in America.) Still, it's possible for an unbiased observer to use Hess's and Levenstein's works complementarily and draw the conclusion that while the United States had some terrific cooks, cornucopian markets, and an abundance of wonderful homespun culinary traditions, it also had some serious food issues. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, spent several years in France as a U.S. consul, living in Lyons, the nation's gastronomic capital. Upon his return home in 1833, he recorded his horror at the state of American food, calling his fellow Americans "the grossest feeders of any civilized nation ever known," a culinarily clueless people who subsisted on a diet of "heavy, coarse, and indigestible" fare. The chasm between French and American food was all the more appalling to Cooper because he grew up wealthy in the woodsy hinterlands of upstate New York, where all manner of wild game roamed and edible plants grew, and knew that his country could do better.

But the United States, a country wary of elitism and susceptible to populist, xenophobic demagogues, would always have mixed feelings about taking culinary cues from the French. Long before the age of "freedom fries" and the efforts by an adviser to George W. Bush to damage John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign by saying the Massachusetts senator "looks French," the advisers to the Whig presidential candidate of 1840, William Henry Harrison, tried to smear the Democratic incumbent, Martin Van Buren, as a fey monarchist aristocrat--on the evidence that he drank champagne and had hired a Frenchman to be White House chef. The scrappy old soldier Harrison, on the other hand, subsisted on "hard cider" and "raw beef and salt," and won the election.*

Whether it was a matter of this country's Puritan origins, its early inheritance of British culinary stodginess, or just a general don't-tread-on-me stubbornness, America would always have a dysfunctional relationship with the idea of culinary sophistication. A strain of the Harrison campaign's plainspoken beefy populism persists to this day: in 2004, the CEO of the fast-food chain Hardee's, Andrew Puzder, touted the company's Monster Thickburger--a 1,420-calorie sandwich composed of two one-third-pound beef patties, three slices of cheese, and four strips of bacon on a buttered, mayonnaise-spread bun--as "not a burger for tree-huggers." (Many of whom, presumably, look French.) Similarly, the thickset founder of the Wendy's chain, Dave Thomas, did a commercial in the nineties in which he addressed a grateful roomful of 300-pounders who called themselves the "Big Eaters Club." In another spot, Thomas portrayed himself as being trapped at a pretentious cocktail party where a mincing waiter offered him a dainty, absurd-looking hors d'oeuvre and said, "Crab puff, sir?" Cut to a shot of a relieved Dave back at Wendy's, sinking his teeth into an enormo-burger.*
 
On the other end of the spectrum were those who shied away from fancy feeding for ascetic or religious reasons. Many preachers, such as the Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham (1795-1851), inventor of the graham cracker, inveighed against spicy and heavily seasoned foods because of their supposed aphrodisiacal qualities. (Despite this, Graham was later embraced as a hero by sex-mad 1960s hippies for his advocacy of vegetarianism and early opposition to refined white flour, which, he sensibly argued, had less flavor and nutritional value than whole wheat flour.) Even when the robber barons of the Gilded Age did embrace the sophistication of French cuisine in all its glory, hiring French chefs for their New York mansions and Newport cottages, they were countered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by quack food faddists who were suspicious of pleasurable eating. Among the most famous was Horace Fletcher (1849-1919), a retired businessman with no scientific background who developed a huge following by advocating that all food be "thoroughly masticated"--chewed and chewed and chewed until it became flavorless and involuntarily shushed its way down the esophagus, thereby aiding the digestive system. (In fact, the probable health benefit from Fletcherizing, as this chewing process came to be known, was that it took so long that it made overeaters eat less than they would have otherwise.)

Marginally more credible was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), who, in addition to developing a breakfast-cereal empire with his brother, Will, ran a "health resort" in Battle Creek, Michigan. Though he later rescinded his 1902 endorsement of Fletcherizing, Kellogg had his own peculiar thoughts on food, arguing that eating meat encouraged masturbation (a bad thing) and urging his guests to take yogurt enemas, the concept being that the active cultures in the yogurt would provide healing benefits to bowel walls aggravated by a lifetime's worth of steak-eating and boozing.*

In a sense, the home economists and food-company executives who held sway over the women's pages at the time of Beard's move to New York were quacks in their own right. As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, and as the United States grew more industrialized and urbanized, the sensualism and agrarian seasonality of home cooking gave way to the rise of processed foods and rigorous, supposedly scientific methodologies in the kitchen.* Even Fannie Merritt Farmer, whose 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook is still considered a lodestar of honest American home cookery (and was renamed for her in subsequent editions), was a humorless home-ec lady, inordinately obsessed with couching her instructions in laboratory-speak. The first edition of The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook kicked off with, "Food is anything that nourishes the body. Thirteen elements enter into the composition of the body: oxygen, 62 1/2%; carbon, 21 1/2 %; hydrogen, 10%; nitrogen, 3%; calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, chlorine, sodium, magnesium, iron, and fluorine the remaining 3%"--not exactly a mouthwatering lead-in. Farmer also expressed her hope that the day would come when "mankind will eat to live," the implication clear that doing the opposite--living to eat--was reprehensible. On and on she went in this dour, lab-coated way, defining ingredients in terms of chemical compounds--for example, sugar as "C(12)H(22)O(11)"--and describing buttermilk, rather disquietingly, as "liquid remaining after butter 'has come.' "

While Farmer, at least, was well-intentioned in her commitment to nutritionally correct (if not particularly palatable) food, the new wave of big food companies cynically used pseudoscientific claims of healthfulness to appeal to customers. General Mills, the food conglomerate responsible for the creation of the fictional homemaker-sage Betty Crocker, launched an offensive to proclaim the "wholesomeness" of white flour and white bread, even though the very advances in industrialized milling that made white flour possible were the ones that removed the germ and the bran from a wheat kernel--and therefore, most of the nutrition. C. W. Post, the main competitor of the bowel-obsessed Kellogg brothers, plugged his first ready-to-eat breakfast cereal, which he called Grape-Nuts, as "brain food"; taking his chutzpah a step further, he intimated that Grape-Nuts were also effective in fighting malaria and consumption. After chemists in the 1910s and 1920s discovered vitamins--naturally occurring nutrients in foods that aid in metabolic processes--Post's company seized upon the opportunity to play up the cereal's calcium and phosphorous content in magazine ads that portentously asked readers, "Are you bringing up your children properly?" Even the Schlitz brewing company got in on the "health" act, boasting, oddly, that its beer was so pure that "when your physician prescribes beer, it is always Schlitz beer."

James Beard had no time for factory foods, health fads, or pseudoscience. Well before he became a professional food person, he was reveling in the pure, the regional, and the homemade, even as his country's cuisine, if it could even be called that, became ever-more processed and standardized. His unbridled enthusiasm, his pure love of taste, was so infectious that he could excite people even when he was describing eating experiences that, frankly, sound repellent. In his 1964 memoir, Delights and Prejudices, he documents his earliest "taste memory"--a phrase he is credited with coining--as he recalls being bedridden with malaria at age three. His family's male Chinese cook, Jue-Let, who worked in tandem with his mother, Mary, in the kitchen, spoon-fed him a cure of chicken jelly: chicken broth with the white of an egg and its shell mixed in, then strained, then chilled into quivering blobs. To Beard, this icky stuff was "superb . . . magically good," and "the true essence of chicken . . . [with] a texture that was incredibly delightful." Likewise, the slightly older Beard reveled in shopping with Mother in a fine-poultry shop where "I would come away with two pounds of gizzards and hearts for myself." Few people today would ever want to eat chicken jelly or chicken hearts--or, for that matter, the raw onions that Beard so adored--but fewer still could remain impervious to the sensual joy he took in eating these things, or to his conclusion that "the flavor of perfectly prepared chicken [has] remained a stimulant to my palate ever since."


From the Hardcover edition.
David Kamp|Author Q&A

About David Kamp

David Kamp - The United States of Arugula

Photo © Gasper Tringale

DAVID KAMP has been a writer and editor for Vanity Fair and GQ for more than a decade. He lives in New York.

Author Q&A

Recently, David Kamp took time to tell Broadway Cooks more about his book.

Broadway Cooks: What makes this an unprecedented time for the American food world?

David Kamp: If you think about it, you go to France and you don’t just see the museums, see the Louvre; you also make a big deal of eating and the food. The same goes for Italy; you don’t just go to the Spanish Steps; you go to the restaurants, you go to the markets. And we’ve finally reached that point in America–where food is a cultural pastime; where it’s actually something we take as seriously as we take the movies, the sports teams we follow, and the books we read.

What are some examples of how the American culinary revolution has shaped our lives?

Anyone who is currently an adult can think back to their childhood and say ‘So much has changed!’ There are so many things out there that we didn’t have when we were children. Whether it’s going to a farmer’s market in your city–which your city didn’t used to have–or going to your regular supermarket in the suburbs and seeing goat cheese and arugula in the cheese and produce sections. Even croissants, which are ubiquitous–you can get them at gas-station convenience stores–were exotic until about the mid 70s in most places.

Who are some of the major figures in your bookand in this movement?

American food has a long history, and I don’t pretend to tell the whole story. My starting point is James Beard, who moved to New York in the 30s with the dubious intent of becoming an actor or theater person even though he was a big fat guy with not a whole lot of acting talent. But he was an excellent cook and a charismatic teacher, traits he inherited from his mother, who ran a hotel in Oregon. And the story really begins with him giving up his theater career, reluctantly taking on food and cookery and teaching cooking as a career–and this being a very reluctant decision, because it didn’t seem like an honorable profession to him. And yet he did as much as anyone to turn that tide and change cookery and food and eating into cultural pastimes, not just something you did out of obligation, or out of the biological imperative of fueling yourself.

Apart from Beard, the other two who make up what I call the Big Three are Craig Claiborne and Julia Child. Pretty much everyone knows who Julia Child is. She co-wrote the epic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which came out in 1961, and then a little after that had her TV show on public television, The French Chef. And she was really the one who demystified the idea of ambitious cooking. Americans were already enthusiastic home cooks, but it was more to do with cakes and pies and pastries, or simple, everyday fare like meat loaf. She was the one who said it was okay to aim high once in a while, to try to do things that French chefs do in restaurants. And she just brought such humor to what she did—she would laugh at her own mistakes, which took away the intimidation factor. She enchanted America. By 1966, she was on the cover of Time magazine.

Craig Claiborne, like James Beard and Julia Child, came to the food world relatively late in his life—already in his mid–to late 30s, having failed at pretty much everything else he tried to do, whether it was being in the Navy or going to hotel school. (He went to hotel school but realized he was never going to run a hotel.) In 1957, he became the first male food editor of The New York Times. Food writing in the newspapers had always been the province of what was called the “women’s page,” which was basically a home–ec ghetto, and kind of patronizing to housewives. It was a gutsy move for the Times to put him in this position, and a gutsy move for Claiborne to say, ‘Hey, this is where I want to be. This is where I think my journalistic instincts are most applicable.’ He invented the idea, really, in America, of food journalism: of taking food seriously, writing about it in a way that wasn’t piffley or purely for housewives, and not condescending to housewives who happened to cook seriously. He invented the starred restaurant review in America, the idea that, “Oh this restaurant got three stars in the Times, so we need to check it out.” He also created the notion of food journalism as a legitimate journalistic beat for a newspaper. He would go out and cover what was happening in people’s kitchens and restaurants. Were it not for him, there are a lot of people we might not have heard of otherwise, such as Marcella Hazan, who is now America’s great authority on Italian food and has published a lot of books; and all the French chefs who came to America after World War II, especially Pierre Franey, who became Claiborne’s friend and collaborator.

Haven’t Americans always liked to eat? What’s different about the interest in food that you’re exploring in The United States of Arugula?

I am not arguing that there was no American cookery until the last few decades, nor am I arguing that there was no good food. But the breadth and scope of it really started to change in the last few decades. As long as there’s been a United States of America, people have been able to eat well if they choose to. But in truth, American eating habits was pretty disgusting for the majority of people in the 18th and 19th centuries. And really, it was in the 20th century, with the advent of such popularizes such as Child, Beard, Claiborne, that we suddenly could eat well in a way that we couldn’t have before. It crossed class lines. In the 19th century, dining out was for rich people, Gilded Age robber barons like Diamond Jim Brady, who went to places like Rector’s or Delmonico’s and ate enormous, multi–course meals of terrapin and canvasback duck and oysters; that’s changed. Food also changed in terms of crossing ethnic lines. In the old days, if you weren’t Italian or Italian-American, it was borderline scandalous to eat garlic, let alone something more progressive like pesto or arugula; in It’s a Wonderful Life, mean Mr. Potter chides good-hearted George Bailey for giving loans to Italian immigrants and says George is “frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic–eaters.” We were walled off from other cuisines by out own ethnic and cultural biases. But that’s all changed because the food world got democratized and more polyglot in the mid-20th century, and has only become more so.

Are the foodies accessible as interview subjects? How are they different from the other celebrities you’ve interviewed?

My day job is as a Vanity Fair writer, which has given me an opportunity to write about a lot of famous people in the realms of film, music, and so on. One thing you discover—one of the nice things—in writing about the food world is that the crème de la crème are still very accessible, A) Because they still haven’t been written about in great depth. They’re mostly written about in newspaper food–section terms or magazine terms, where the discussion is pretty superficial. So they’re flattered to be engaged in a deeper discussion of what makes them tick. And, B) they’re in the hospitality business, so, inherently, they want to talk, they like shooting the breeze, they like other people—with a few exceptions. There are a lot of great raconteurs out there, like Jeremiah Tower, who was the first well–known chef the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. And Mollie Katzen, who wrote the vegetarian standby The Moosewood Cookbook and has a great sense of humor and perspective about how naïve her cooking was in the 1970s. And the other good thing is that these people often cook for you while they tell you stories — which is no small fringe benefit! André Soltner, who for years was the chef-owner of Lutèce in New York, made me the best omelet I’ve ever eaten in my life.

What do you make of the celebrity chef phenomenon and the emergence of Las Vegas as a one-stop shop for fine dining?

The celebrity chef phenomenon is a double–edged sword. Some see it as a violation of the code of honor that Andre Soltner represented. Soltner lived above his kitchen, worked at his restaurant six days a week, and closed the restaurant on his day off and when he went on vacation. He was the purist ideal. Yet a lot of younger chefs now say, “Yeah, but he never made any serious money. He might be happy with his life, but that’s not how I want to live.” Also, some chefs, like Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck, make the point that opening more restaurants gives them an opportunity to nurture and promote all the younger staff they’ve trained. Now, what can happen is that a celebrity chef can suffer as a result of his celebrity. Emeril Lagasse is a good example of this. Anyone who’s a chef, whether it’s Batali or Puck or Chicago’s Charlie Trotter, will tell you that he’s one of the best chefs in America, period. But TV is inherently reductive and about entertainment values, so Emeril’s TV persona is kind of simplified and goosed up. If the guy cooks for you, his skills and creativity are unimpeachable, but because of that “Bam!” and “Kick it up a notch,” lots of people think he’s a cheeseball or a hack. I asked Emeril if that’s a problem and he said yes, it is. He said that Tim Zagat of guidebook fame confronted him at the James Beard Awards one year and said “You’re like a used car salesman. You’re bringing shame to our industry.” Emeril got really emotional about this, on the verge of tears. And that kind of dynamic is fascinating to me, and it’s something I get into in the book. In the later chapters, I talk about how the celebrity chef phenomenon is something the food world is still grappling with. There’s a lot in this book about who these people are, behind their public images. For too long, we’ve imagined the food world as this twee, precious little place that no one takes seriously. But it’s a world of big ideas and crazy ambition, and of real talent and real passion. Food people are as fascinating—and brilliant, and contrary, and rivalrous, and inventive, and compelling—as rock musicians, politicians, novelists, and movie directors. This book pulls up the curtain on that.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“With the sweep of an epic novel, David Kamp takes us behind the scenes and into the sweaty, wacky, weird trenches of the Great American Food Revolution. His reporting is solid, his storytelling magnificent, and his good humor is seemingly inexhaustible . . . . a terrific book.” —Molly O’Neill

“Culturally aware and cleverly written, this anatomy of the French-fried versus sun-dried tension at the heart of American gastronomy is refreshingly non-snooty.”
Atlantic Monthly

"A page-turner filled with fascinating footnotes, a delicious dish about bold-faced names, and an in-depth look at the ways in which a series of food pioneers touched off a revolution." —USA Today

“Juicy, irreverent, and full of bite.” —Gael Greene

Reader's Guide|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

“A page–urner filled with delicious dish about bold–faced names and an in-depth look at the ways in which a series of food pioneers touched off a revolution…Kamp is an excellent writer. He uses prodigious research, sly humor and storytelling skills to illuminate the back stories of well–known food–centric businesses.”—USA Today

“With the sweep of an epic novel, David Kamp takes us behind the scenes and into the sweaty, wacky, weird trenches of the Great American Food Revolution. His reporting is solid, his storytelling magnificent, and his good humor is seemingly inexhaustible. I can’t imagine a better guide. This is a terrific book.”—Molly O’Neill

Introduction
The United States of Arugula is the story of an American revolution—the dramatic culinary changes that brought robust international flavors to a table formerly piled high with bland meat and potatoes. Who was behind this transformation, bringing salsa to the typical American pantry and sushi to chain grocery stores? When did macaroni become “pasta,” while celebrity chefs and organic produce became part of our household vocabularies?

A thrilling ride through decades of innovation and food politics, The United States of Arugula delivers a wickedly entertaining history of these cultural sea changes, from the emergence of Julia Child’s beloved but often–spoofed television breakthrough to the rise of West Coast gourmet vegetarianism, and the contemporary lodestars who now heat up the Food Network around the clock. Brimming with insider details and rarely reported anecdotes, this is a cultural history that every book club can savor.

About the Author

David Kamp has been a writer and editor for Vanity Fair and GQ for more than a decade, specializing in writing about the arts. His 2004 Vanity Fair article about Johnny Cash’s final years was nominated for a National Magazine Award, and his work has appeared in Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001. Also the co-author of The Rock Snob’s Dictionary and The Film Snob’s Dictionary, he lives in New York with his wife and two children. For more information, visit www.davidkamp.com or read an interview with the author on the Broadway Books website.

For free supplementary materials including information on book groups, suggestions for further reading, chances to win books, phone-in author appearances, and much more, email BroadwayReads@RandomHouse.com.

Discussion Guides

1. What are your best and worst childhood memories of food? Are your eating habits better or worse than those of your parents? Which of the transformations described in The United States of Arugula has been most relevant in your lifetime?

2. What aspects of the Big Three—James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne—made them unlikely figures in launching America’s culinary revolution? At the same time, what made them perfect for this role? How would they fare if they arrived on the current food scene now and tried to launch their careers?

3. What discoveries did you make about early American cookery, and the palates of nineteenth–century Americans? What does the history of a nation’s food indicate about the history of its populations?

4. Discuss the counterculture movements of the food world described in chapters five and six. What did the stars of this show—including Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, and Mollie Katzen—prove to East Coast gourmands about American palates? How did the West Coast revolutionaries manage to sway food dialogues nationwide?

5. What is distinctly American about the success of smaller venues that grew to have broad appeal—such as Dean & DeLuca, or ice cream shops like Steve’s or Ben & Jerry’s? Can such companies grow infinitely without reducing quality and without giving frontline employees an unfair deal?

6. Discuss the ways the food revolution has led to markets for products besides food, such as the wares sold in stores like Williams–Sonoma, or the craze to remodel kitchens with restaurant-quality appliances. Have you made any kitchen purchases that would have been unheard of in your family in previous generations? To what extent does quality home cooking truly rely on tools of the trade?

7. What did America’s early resistance to ethnic cuisine say about American society? What did it take for Italian restaurateurs such as Sirio Maccioni to transform the Francophile definitions of haute cuisine? What international flavors proliferate in your community? Can you trace their arrival, and the way such restaurants were initially received?

8. The United States of Arugula clearly demonstrates the power of food critics in shaping our attitudes about various cuisines, but do you believe they are the power brokers in this story? Who ultimately is at the helm of these transitions: Chefs? Restaurateurs? Reviewers? Highbrow consumers? Average home cooks?

9. Why do you suppose the history of America’s culinary transformations volley from the East Coast to the West Coast, with Charlie Trotter in Chicago as a rare Midwest voice? What is it about these two coastal populations that placed them at the forefront of change? Do they have a monopoly on the food world’s palate?

10. What has been the effect of television in changing the way we understand culinary trends? Discuss the evolution represented by the span of “The French Chef” to “Emeril Live!” What is your reaction to cooking shows? Do you actually write down the recipes and try them out, or is it simply entertaining to watch the act of cooking?

11. Do national chains such as Starbuck’s and Whole Foods make it easier or harder for independent food start–ups to thrive? Has their presence had any impact on your cravings, or on the way you shop?

12. Do you consider yourself a foodie? Does the existence of a “foodie” culture reassure you or irk you?

13. What differences did you detect between notions of culinary arts as a man’s world or as a woman’s world throughout the decades covered in the book? Whose domain does it seem to be now? Has this always been the case?

14. In a recent interview for the Broadway Books website, the author observed that “food people are as fascinating–and brilliant, and contrary, and rivalrous, and inventive, and compelling—as rock musicians, politicians, novelists, and movie directors. This book pulls up the curtain on that.” In your opinion, why does the food world receive less media attention than other aspects of America’s cultural innovation? How would you characterize the key players David Kamp describes, and the world they inhabit? Which of the contemporary celebrity chefs named in the book were you most familiar with?

15. What class wars seemed to be simmering behind the transitions described in The United States of Arugula? What aspects of the story demonstrate the power of the elite, and which aspects are populist? What separates the arugula consumers from the fans of iceberg lettuce?

16. What do you predict the next chapter in this saga will be? How will the showdowns between industry advocates of processed food and crusaders for the organic movement end? What will the next American culinary trend look like, and how will it taste?


  • The United States of Arugula by David Kamp
  • July 17, 2007
  • Cooking - American; Social Science
  • Broadway Books
  • $15.99
  • 9780767915809

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