When a publicist asked to send me The United States of Arugula by New York magazine journalist and editor David Kamp, I said sure. I’d been meaning to read it, just never had. Another story of America’s food revolution with a silly title, yawn. So, receiving the paperback, out a few weeks ago, I plowed diligently into it (when did I find the time? Airline travel this summer. I need say no more.). It opens with a pro forma intro about how things have changed in America and the reason for this story’s being told, and then, after the preface, an Intro. I hate that. Preface, then intro—get on with it! But THEN, his first chapter is about Julia, Craig Claiborne and James Beard, three food giants—stories that were told well by Betty Fussell in Masters of American Cookery, and that everyone already knows! That combined with Northwest airlines would make anyone cranky.
But this is a fantastic book. I didn’t want to like it, I knew half the stories already, and much of it is my territory so I’m hypercritical. But Kamp’s reporting is so good, his pacing so assured, his tone so appropriate and compelling (not the snarky New York journalistese I expected), his story telling so engaging, that every time I put the book down, I looked forward to picking this book up again.
Kamp seems to hit everything in the big sprawling mess of American food culture during the last five decades, from the sad descent of Craig Claiborne, to nouvelle California cuisine, the Chez Panisse story (about which I knew considerably less than I thought—though I’m still wondering if I know the entire Jeremiah Tower-Alice Waters saga), to Zabars, Niman Ranch, sushi and radicchio, Vegas, the Rick Bayless-Burger King fiasco, celebrity chefs and celebrity chef take downs.
Why did I like it so much really? The stories and characters were so good, which is ultimately why a book grabs me. What’s the worst part of the book? The footnotes—soooo many footnotes, which were annoying because the type is so small and they were too interesting to miss. Highly recommended.
I’ve never met Kamp, and hadn’t heard of him till I was having lunch with my mentor at The Times, Arthur Gelb, a beacon, and Gelb asked me if I knew this guy Kamp because he’d been in interviewing Gelb for this book (Gelb has great detail on the Claiborne story). Gelb said he seemed like a decent guy. But I was not prepared to like him mainly for his snob dictionaries—not that I’d read anything, I just find the glorification of snobbery, well, let’s just say there are better things to do (Velvet Tango Room, for instance). When a friend gave me the galleys for The Food Snob’s Dictionary , I thought this is all we need, more food snobs. I read the entire thing before we were off the tarmac, and it’s funny and accurate and fairly random in what it includes, it’s cute, I’d guess you’d say, and yes, the tone is snarky. (“Mise en place: Fancy French term for doing all one’s food prep before actually cooking—chopping, measuring, arranging, cleaning up, and so on. Especially Snobworthy when shortened to meez and used as a verb. Honey, I’ve meezed everything for Julia’s supreme de volaille a blanc, now all we need is for our guests to arrive.”) I even get a nod in the “forcemeat” entry for having featured forcemeat in what is called a “rhapsodic Snob-lit classic.” But again, Kamp, who wrote the book with Marion Rosenfeld, here as in Arugula seems to be battling the snark factor despite himself, actually taking his subject seriously without losing his sense of humor and style. A year in Cleveland and he’ll be completely cured.