David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula is a supremely engaging account of how this country, over the past 50 years, has been transformed from one that routinely touted artificial flavoring as food’s next frontier to one in which fast-food giants must offer fresh, exotic greens in their salads to keep up with consumers’ palates. As someone who has noted with wry amusement how specific ingredients (e.g., asiago, chipotle*, and pomegranate, in succession) have become trends everywhere from four-star restaurants to frozen-food aisles, and who has welcomed the presence of stores like Trader Joe’s that offer high-end fare at low prices, I found the subject especially compelling.
But Kamp structures his book almost exclusively around personalities within the food establishment (the first third focuses squarely on the strong-willed triumvirate of James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne), and while I don’t doubt his cavalcade of chefs, critics, and cookbook authors was highly instrumental in shaping American cuisine (and to be honest, all the attending backstage gossip is part of what makes it so readable), I sometimes wished more attention had been paid to the broader sociocultural changes that allowed for such figures to take hold. Things like the rise of the middle class in the post-WW2 period, the effects of globalization, etc.
One part that did strike a chord was Kamp’s mention of the emergence of “lifestyles” in the 1970s, i.e., individuals defining themselves more and more by their consumer tastes, which he notes as contributing to the yuppie interest in gourmet trends in the following decade. I’m sure that I didn’t think much about food until I converted to vegetarianism in 1998 and started shopping at co-ops and places like Whole Foods in part out of practicality (as they had friendlier selections of frozen and ready-to-eat foods) and in part out of a desire to be seen as socially conscious.
But lately, thanks to books like Kamp’s—and, to a greater extent, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I’ve been reading concurrently—I’ve been thinking more about the soy nuggets I consume. It’s amazing that I can get this sort of thing at my local grocery store, but when I note all the maltodextrin and other additives on the nutritional label, I wonder what kind of progress we’ve really made. Which is why one of the most attractive figures in the book is Alice Waters, the guiding light of Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse. While her history of serving rich French delicacies is not always compatible with my pesco-vegetarian palate, I admire what is perhaps her greatest contribution to the food world: an emphasis on keeping ingredients local and whole.
*which my mom still endearingly pronounces to rhyme with “total”