Last updated on February 9th, 2015
Although it came out in 2006, The United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution by David Kamp is an absolute must read for anyone interested in contemporary food culture and food politics. It spans nearly a century and highlights the pivotal figures and movements that brought French cooking to America, goat cheese and mesclun salad to your table, and sushi to your grocery store.
The book starts by introducing us to Henri Soule, a restaurant manager from France who operated a French restaurant at the 1939-40 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow, Queens and established French cuisine and service as the standard for excellence. We meet a young Julia Child as she learns how to cook in Paris as well as James Beard on a bumbling path toward food fame. We get to know Craig Claiborne, the writer who took food writing from small newspaper advice columns written for bored or busy housewives to the New York Times where he became a highly influential critic.
The processed ’50s gives way to the counter culture 60s and Kamp takes us to California to the opening night of Chez Panisse. The reader then goes on a romp through the rise of Alice Waters, Nieman Ranch, and Ben & Jerry’s. The book ends with the rise of celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse and the growing customer demand for “responsible” food companies like Whole Foods and Starbucks.
While this book is a detailed history (and chock-full of footnotes) it also reads like a fast-paced novel where I was turning the page to find out what happened next. Kamp is also careful not to ignore the fact that establishments like Taco Bell were growing their empires at the same time that sophisticated urbanites were falling in love with goat cheese.
This book is as much a cultural exploration as it is a chronicle of food trends. All the big names are in here: Rick Bayless, Thomas Keller, Rachael Ray, Dean and Deluca, Nobu Matsuhisa, Charlie Trotter…the list goes on and on. The United States of Arugula manages to be both a beach read and an important reference that has definitely earned a spot on my bookshelf.
The only thing that Kamp doesn’t address is the rise of food bloggers. I look forward to the follow-up!