Monday, March 12, 2007

Foodie Central II: Review of The United States of Arugula by David Kamp

Grade: B+
So when I was a child in the eighties, entering my teenage years or nearly so, I'd go every once in a while with my friend's family to a Polish Deli in New Britain, CT. They had all the coolest-looking cold cuts, stuff you couldn't buy in the regular supermarket, the assorted jars of preserved oddities that decorate any ethnic store, and some horrible, chalky-tasting eastern European candy. My friend's mother, in that time-honored immigrant fashion, loved nothing more than to cram food into me when I visited, so I tasted most of the stuff. The bread she bought stunk though, and if you're in those parts and you want good bread--fluffy authentic-tasting Italian stuff, with a fabulous thick chewy crust--it has to come from a certain bakery just off of I-84, still in operation today and delivering in small batches to the surrounding towns. (It makes such great toast.) I still can't get Asian ingredients in the normal markets, even here in the People's Republic, and every couple of months, when the jones strikes, we bundle up the family and storm the nearest Indian shop, a couple towns away. I love to pore over all of the unusual knobby vegetables.

In The United States of Arugula (he really should have thought of a better title), David Kamp covers the culinary awakenings in the U.S. over the past 75 years or so. It's a good popular history, but please do take the point above people have been eating wonderful traditional fare for as long as there have been immigrants. Kamp doesn't ignore this perspective, but even before he skims the nineteenth century, he counterbalances the food movement against the most ridiculous point of American culinary history, at the height of the marketing boom for awful, awful processed foods. And he's got a point: no amount of ignored immigrant communities can excuse the chemical horrors of Wonder Bread, Velveeta, and Spam. Though the U.S., late in its history, does get some credit for developing homegrown artistic cuisine,* Kamp's is less a history of the existence of good food, and more a history of its entry into popular (which is to say, marketed) culture. Or maybe it's just a history of culinary publications.

If you think about it, the colonials and frontiersman were unlikely epicureans, whether dour Puritanical sorts or rugged individualists, and with a mostly English cultural heritage, food was, without a plantation and a slave economy at least, an unenjoyed duty. We poor Yankees especially suffered through long winters of salted meat and withered root cellar fare, even if we still managed to invent chowda** somewhere along the way. Kamp breezes through a hundred fifty years of early food history, nodding briefly at Fannie Farmer, Gilded Age gentleman's clubs, Delmonico's, and W. K. Kellogg before taking a grand anticipatory gasp at the 1939 World's Fair, where (then-modern) French cooking was finally introduced with ceremony to the clueless American masses.

From there, The U.S. of A. grows into an entertaining history of the culinary movement, a series of miniature biographies basically, of seminal kitchens, restaurants, and writers. There are quite a lot of people in there, and too many footnotes, but Kamp's got a snappy style (he could almost be writing a good blog), an odd focus on sexuality (or maybe not, food is a sensualist medium too), and a refreshing optimism about our whole foodie culture. His basic point is that we're lucky to have all this good sensibility and good product available, catching up to western Europe after centuries of overcooked meat and potatoes, and if most of the country still eats the enriched, bastardized, processed schlock, then even that is more gastronomically informed, and there is, thank god, a viable alternative for people who care.

There are a couple of interesting trends that Kamp observes over the twentieth century. One is that, despite the fact that a number of women were influential in the movement, American conceptions needed to veer away from the female kitchen and get man-ified for epicureanism to take off as a cultural force. Another gradual trend that Kamp describes is a sense of quality that moved from (French) technique to (local, fresh, seasonal) ingredients.

Which isn't to say we didn't steal that idea from the Europeans too--pretty much every figure profiled in this book had a gastronomical awakening during a trip to France--but, though it kills me, you do have to credit those California boomers for stressing locally produced fresh ingredients (which, of course, is an easy pedestal to preach from where it's summer eleven months out of the year), and I think the seventies-vintage Golden Staters also deserve some credit for popularizing authentic American cuisine too, grown out of idealistic hippie enthusiasm, even though you'd think that the moldering ghosts of Battle Creek must have been casting some karmic shadows in that direction too.

[As an aside, I've been going on recently about the foodie-ism that I grew up with. My mom always called her cooking "gourmet," which I never really understood, as it wasn't really anything for technique. But man, it was always the best ingredients served at their most delicious. I had no idea--and I don't even know if Mom sees it this way--that the Keifus homestead was riding on a bigger natural foods movement. It's always annoying to discover you were part of a crowd. I think we just preferred stuff that tasted good.]

According to Kamp, we continued to steal classics from rustics throughout the seventies and eighties, as well as more urbane fare from France and, a little later, Japan, mixing and matching over the later years with wild and delicious abandon as chefs became celebrity cool. What's the future? Since the world doesn't have too many more peasant cultures to exploit (maybe east African food is coming up next), and since the days of terrapin and caviar (and Chilean sea bass and probably stuff like cod too) are behind us too, I fear, frankly, that it's going to be back to the lab (and callin' it haute--I think this may actually be the "past"), and an explosion of offal, and, depending on how things shake down with the oil and the topsoil in the next century, maybe it'll be anything we can get our hands on: fresh food by necessity.

*though he focuses on California as the origin of a gourmet movement, it's also unfair to assert that there were no good home-grown "peasant" food traditions that developed in the States, whether that's New England seafoods, Louisiana Creole, southern soul food, barbecue, or whatever.
**Say it, Frenchie!

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hipparchia said...

mmmmm. fried chicken livers! and gizzards ... and hearts ... all of which it's difficult to find these days.

i've always loved liver and some of the other organ meats. and oxtail soup is wonderful. and head cheese tasted fine till someone told me what i was eating.

i draw the line at tripe, though. i've bought it for the pets a few times, but the smell! ugh.

hvtkfo: have thankful food
rvvue: foodie revues!

[trying this again, blogger ate my comment last night]

Keifus said...

My grad school advisor liked going to the local (good) Chinese restaurant when we went anywhere, making sure to use any Chinese students to get the different menu. The most frightening thing I ever ate was jellyfish-it looked and tasted like fishy noodles, and not bad honestly, but ick! it was jellyfish.

Tried tripe at teh Polish friend's house (flaki, a traditional soup). Once was enough. Brains I've had, and once was more than enough of that too (and never mind the mad cow). I like chicken liver though, and some of the other stuff. Some of the psychological barriers make no sense at all.

(And you know what's irritating? I just wrote a post on Slate--topical-ish but certainly not trying too hard--referencing this post here. But I screwed up the link.)

K (excellent manipulation of the word game, btw)