Sunday, January 6, 2008

The United States of Arugula

I came across The United States of Arugula: The Sun-Dried, Cold-Pressed, Dark-Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution, by David Kamp, on a Border's sale table, and picked it up - food history is usually worth reading, especially on sale. And that is exactly what this was: gossipy and fun, but best at half price.

Kamp centers his tale on the people at top of fine-dining scene, primarily the chefs at the "great" high cuisine restaurants: the subtitle is a misleading, because although food is always the subject, the focus is usually on the people, the relationships, the arguments and foibles. A more accurate, although less catchy, subtitle would be something like "Great chefs and their careers". The food people he profiles come to life as he tells about them, with all their strengths and weaknesses; he is good at presenting both sides of a disagreement evenhandedly, letting each side retain its dignity. He makes a great gossip columnist for the resturant world.

But in the end, I found it an unsatifying book. Kamp is so focused on the restaurants and the chefs at the top of the foodie universe that he never gets around to discussing the rest of America, except for a few desperate pages at the end. As far as he (and undoubtedly most of his subjects) is concerned, the only good food is found in New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, with an occasional renegade in Chicago or Phoenix mentioned in passing. This leaves out a lot of America. There is little mention of how these top chefs have affected people who eat in less rarified circles (which they definitely have), or to what extent American food has seen a revolution, or what it means for American food to have changed so much in so short a time. It is much like telling the story of the American revolution with only the biographies of Washington, Jefferson, and the rest of the founding fathers, without reference to the pre-existing issues of colonialism. Kamp doesn't address the deeper story of WHY these chefs did what they did, the trends and underlying ideas that made it possible for them to succeed. And without that, there is still no real understanding of the sun-dried, cold-pressed, dark-roasted, extra-virgin American food revolution

No comments: