Book review: “United States of Arugula”

Since I’m teaching a cookbook-memoir class right now, I thought I’d background myself with a dip into David Kamp’s book The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. 

It was a fun read–a tour that took me from the birth of foodie culture under culinary celebrities like James Beard and Julia Child, through the crunchy 1960s-70s that brought Alice Waters and Odessa Piper to fame, to arrive at today’s world of Whole Foods megastores and backyard chickens.

This is the story of a tug-of-war between Industry–with its desire to reduce all food to an assembly-line centralized system of nutrition based on the latest scientific findings–and what I’ll call “Gourmetism”–with its celebration of the local, the seasonal, and the traditional. You know, the world of Michael Pollan’s “don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize” and your neighbors plowing under their lawns to grow heirloom vegetables.

The book is way too detailed–Kamp never met a fact he wouldn’t try to shoehorn in somehow–and that marred this reader’s experience. Even so, it was fun to see MY world held up for inspection, and to see how the pieces of the puzzle of “what’s for dinner” began to fall into place as people gradually lost interest in the whiz-bang wonders of processed food (Tang! Lunchables!) and began to demand REAL FOOD, DAMMIT.

I’ve been an interested bystander through a lot of this. My mother, a working mom without an ounce of interest in food herself (suspiciously sinful in its sensuality) embraced every innovation that reduced her need to think about What’s For Dinner or to spend time in the kitchen making it happen. I learned nothing at her elbow but a distaste for pea soup and pot-roast. I lived on rice and eggs and roommates’ superior kitchen skills until aligning my stars with my chef-husband, who remembers everything he ever ate and can ponder What’s For Dinner before he’s finished Lunch.

The best part of the book for me was the two pages concerning Madison’s own role in the Food Revolution when the back-to-the-land movement met up with the growing interest in fine dining spurred by Julia Child’s popularization of French cuisine. JoAnna Guthrie, a wealthy Chicago eccentric with an interest in farm-to-table philosophy,  brought her Phoenix Fellowship to Madison–a group that went on to create the Ovens of Brittany and change the landscape of food in Madison. Odessa Piper left its employ at 23 to start L’Etoile. Many chefs who got their start at Ovens went on to bring fine dining to 1980s Madison. Ah the memories… Cafe Palms, Ovens, or Fess Hotel for brunch? An embarassment of riches!

It’s just good fun to see your own town’s history on the pages of such an authoritative book. Check it out! (of the library. It’s a read-once.)

p.s. All those factoids and footnotes and no mention of the Dane County Farmers’ Market, “The Largest Producer-Only Farmers Market in the Country.” What are we, chopped foie gras here in flyover country?

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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