Book Review: “The United States of Arugula” by David Kamp

us_of_arugulaDuring my first six weeks of culinary school, I spent many afternoons trolling the campus storeroom, trying to learn the differences between things like ginger and galangal or radicchio and red cabbage. The sheer inventory of the storeroom was impressive: a veritable dungeon, this area was stocked with foodstuffs ranging from the exotic to the mundane, all of which would become the raw food materials for 18 different kitchen-classrooms. As new culinary students, we were expected to visit the storeroom as part of a class called Product Knowledge — the class final would be culled from the storeroom’s very shelves.

One of the most challenging tasks was to identify the litany of salad greens in the walk-in: mache, shiso, watercress, mizuna, mustard, little gem, frisée, arugula. Depending on how far someone had lived from a decent farmers market, many of these items may have been completely foreign to incoming students. Fortunately for me, I did have the benefit of growing up in California, so I at least had some basic familiarity with arugula and frisée. Some of the other greens, however, were much more recondite.

After I finished chef school — just 21 months later — I hastened my retreat to the Napa Valley, where the produce became even more dynamic. I took a job at Auberge du Soleil, whose easy-going kitchen manager seemed to order the produce with free-wheeling abandon: we would have every type of heirloom tomato, every type of wild mushroom, every type of whatever was seasonal. That year, the hotel was making a killing on private banquets, and this highly-profitable income fueled a generous food budget for the entire restaurant.

In keeping with trends, Auberge embraced microgreens, those barely-sprouted versions of plants like arugula, spinach and beets (just to name a few). I had seen microgreens maybe once or twice in chef school, where they were presented mostly as a curiosity (in a small, plastic clamshell container, no less). In contrast, microgreens were the de riguer risotto garnish at Auberge du Soleil, where we carefully snipped them from large nursery flats every afternoon just before service.

Looking back, it occurred to me that in its basic, fully mature form, arugula had fast become the new iceberg lettuce: somewhat quaint in its ubiquity, an all-too-common garnish for a grilled chicken-breast sandwich. Yet, I can clearly remember a time when, not too long ago, arugula had plenty of novelty and cache, even here in California. Servers always used to describe arugula as “peppery” to those who inquired about it — these days, no one even has to ask anymore, do they?

In “The United States of Arugula,” David Kamp happens to use this leafy green as his metaphor, documenting America’s remarkable gastronomic shift over the last 70 years. The book explores our sociology to a large extent, drawing clear connections between our increased industrialization and our tendency to relegate eating as a necessity more than a pleasure. “The United States of Arugula” pinpoints where we had gone wrong and what ultimately inspired our steps in the right direction.

Kamp begins his food history at the very beginning, when pizza and sushi were still relative unknowns, long before they earned “comfort food” status here in America. The book follows the early days on the East Coast, when the “Big Three” of American cuisine — James Beard, Juila Child and Craig Claiborne — became the nation’s taste-makers. Naturally, during the latter half of the book, the focus shifts to the West Coast, with a detailed and frank history of Alice Waters and the many Chez Panisse alumni.

“The United States of Arugula” is resplendent with entertaining footnotes, and Kamp has clearly researched his topic thoroughly. Originally published in 2006, the book touches upon the recent rise of the Food Network, as well as the recent trend of celebrity chefs opening outposts in Las Vegas. In addition to exploring the relationship between chefs, critics and the media, “The United States of Arugula” also details the rise of the American specialty store, such as Dean & Deluca and Whole Foods Market.

In many ways, “The United States of Arugula” is yin to the yang of Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” — while the latter book reveals how everything in American cuisine seems to have imploded, the former book illustrates those things that have actually gone well (though on a much smaller scale). In short, “The United States of Arugula” is an extremely informative text and a tremendously insightful food history. Kamp brings all of the characters together in a comprehensive narrative that remains both lucid and humorous.

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