Saturday, January 3, 2009

Weekend Reading Part I

There is a lot of attention focused on America's eating disorder in the media these days.  And while we do, as a nation, most certainly have some very serious issues with eating habits, agricultural practices and practices in the meat and poultry industry, there is a lot of good in this country when it comes to food.  And frankly, although I maintain that it is absolutely crucial to understand the bad in order to be an informed eater and informed citizen, I always enjoy learning a bit more about the good.

It is for this reason that I so thoroughly enjoyed David Kamp's The United States of Arugula.

This book was published in 2006, so if you are both an avid reader and an avid follower of food, I'm sure you've already read it.  But if, like me, your reading list tends towards the overly optimistic at various points, it may have passed you by.

The book is essentially a history of cuisine, restaurants, cooks, chefs and food personalities over the past fifty years.  It tends to bounce back and forth between New York, the Bay Area and Los Angeles (sorry midwest, I guess Chicago's extraordinary contribution to American cuisine and restaurants came a bit late to be included), which is probably one of the reasons I found the whole thing so fascinating.

I'm from the Bay Area, have lots of family in Los Angeles and currently live in New York, so I am intimately familiar with the places and personalities that Kamp discusses.  

I grew up listening to my parents talk about Chez Panisse when it was just a neighborhood restaurant, to my mom talk about how underrated a guy named Jeremiah Tower was (thanks to this book I now know who he is and kind of agree with her), and what a revelation Julia Child was to America when she burst on the scene in the 60s (although I imagine somewhat less of a revelation to my mom than to most American women, as she was living in France at about the time Julia was and thus was exposed to some of the same influences).

I recall when seminal New York restaurants such as La Cote Basque, La Caravelle and Lutece closed.  Now I know what they were and why they were a big deal.  And I also know how the extraordinary network of greenmarkets that we now have started (in midtown east by the way, by the father of our current Parks Commissioner!).

And perhaps most exciting, I got a burning question about Jacques Pepin answered.  I remember watching a cooking show of his, I had to have been about fourteen, and seeing him making a lobster roll, and hearing him remark that this was the way they did it when he worked at Howard Johnson.  Hold the phone, Jacques Poupou (as my sister and I used to refer to him as) worked at a HoJo's?!!  Turns out he was a corporate consultant for the company in the 60s.  It was apparently sort of the done thing at the time.  Who knew?

I'll admit, the book ended on a little bit of a mixed note emotionally, as the last topic was the modern "celebrity chef" and the conflict between purists who think a chef should be behind a stove and those who think they should be allowed to make some cash off of an empire.  But overall, a very uplifting, fascinating book if this is your bag.


Anthony James Barnett - author said...

Must admit I'm a sucker for books 'n cooks.Might just give this a try.


Laura said...

I'll admit I'm verging on the ridiculous with the number of food related books I've been reading lately, but this one really is worth the time.

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