Friday, April 20, 2007

The United States of Arugula not for the discerning palate

Books now read in ’07: 32
Title: The United States of Arugula
Author: David Kamp
Genre: Non-Fiction
Date Completed: 4-18
Pages: 364

In assembling The United States of Arugula author Dave Kamp has a great recipe – write a book about the men and women, the chefs, cooks, authors and TV personalities, who have influenced American eating habits over the last half-century. But bringing a great recipe to completion requires the right ingredients and the right execution and it’s on those two points that Kamp, a writer and editor for Vanity Fair and GQ, stumbles.

Keeping with the food analogy for just a little longer, all Kamp needed to produce a delicious repast was to assemble the finest ingredients – focus on say a half-dozen of the most influential men and women – and whip that into a pleasing, coherent whole that helps explain why sushi, baby greens and fancy fridges have become commonplace. It’s on exactly this point that he stumbles—Kamp throws too many ingredients into the pot and what should be an intoxicating stew is, well, an unsavory hash.

It seems every restaurant has a swinging door and Kamp wants to recount every man and woman who goes through those doors. The reader can’t keep up. Additionally there is his unfortunate inclination to fall back on breezy, unappetizing gossip – the sex life of James Beard or the recreational drug use of celebrity chefs. The United States of Arugula isn’t intended as a tell-all, but a serious examination of American dietary habits. Kamp should have remembered his thesis because in straying from it he undermines his work.

Still, it’s interesting enough. James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne are here. As is Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Emeril and Wolfgang Puck. And we do come to understand a little about how baby greens and sushi entered the American diet. Here’s the approach I recommend you take to The United States of Arugula. If you’re inclined to nibble on only one such book a year then devour Michael Pollan’s excellent, thoughtful The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But if you wolf down books on food like they were M&Ms then definitely add Kamp’s book to the menu.

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