Monday, July 11, 2016

Review: The United States of Arugula

It's strange--looking back on our nation's history, we can collectively remember a time when TV dinners were new and exciting and frozen food was a miracle and SPAM was something to be lauded and celebrated. But somehow, it's difficult to connect our modern day Instagramming of "food porn", 24-hour food-based TV networks, celebrity chefs and McDonald's arugula salads to the days when the most exciting thing about food was how well it kept and how easy it was to make. What happened to bring us from food as a grim necessity to food as an epicurean delight?

That's not just the question I ask myself every time I walk past a Hungry Man TV dinner and wonder who still eats those, it's the basic premise of David Kamp's book 'The United States of Arugula'. The book starts in the 1950s, the era when fast food and processed food was at its ascendance, and introduces the key characters responsible for transforming our cultural understanding of food. He covers fine dining, cookbooks and cooking shows, and the process of food sourcing and how it changed slowly but surely over the decades.

There's a lot of interesting stories in the book, many of which show how the counter-culture movement of the 60s intertwined with the push for ethically-sourced and healthy cuisine, and he highlights a number of important figures in the history of the culinary arts that might otherwise have gone forgotten. In addition to obvious stars like James Beard and Julia Child, he covers Craig Claiborne, Jeremiah Tower, and a host of other people known primarily to foodies who he feels influenced the development of modern cooking and taste-making.

In a way, this is also probably the book's weakness. Because he wants to cover the breadth of the transformation of food culture as well as the depth of it, there's a lot of jumping around to focus on figures within the industry who play only a minor role, or who are more remembered for their influence on other famous chefs. Towards the end, without the organizing principle of "how did this person's legacy contribute to food culture as we know it?" (because as the book ably shows, it's hard to tell a food fad from a cultural contribution to our national cuisine right away) the book loses focus rather badly. The last few chapters are a dizzying leap from chef to chef to celebrity chef, with no real explanation given as to why some merit consideration within the book's pages and others are a mere footnote.

Still, the overall theme comes out very well despite that--the last fifty years have seen a national conversation about what we eat and how to make it better tasting and healthier. And while that's occasionally descended into faddishness, snobbery, scolding and absurd levels of bacon worship, it's still a conversation worth having. Kamp makes that case very well indeed.