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Powell's Q&A

David Kamp

Describe your latest project.
The book is called The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. It's a nonfiction book with a fundamentally positive, uplifting premise. Isn't that a lovely change of pace? The premise is that, in the last half-century or so, American food has undergone a tremendous change for the better — we as Americans are more food-savvy, and shop better, and cook better, and eat out better, and have better ingredients available to us, than ever before. Food is finally taking its place as a fundamental part of our cultural life, as big a preoccupation and pleasure as movies or sports or music or books. While this has long been the case in such countries as China, France, and Italy, it is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States.

My book is a character-driven narrative detailing how we got to this point, how we went from a food-phobic nation of tinned Spam and Wonder Bread to a technicolor foodie dreamland of farmer's markets, organic this-n-that, lattes and macchiatos, sushi in supermarkets, sun-dried tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, artisanal bacon, celebrity chefs, and so on. I begin by tracing the lives of the "Big Three," the three midcentury figures who laid the groundwork for the foodie explosion that followed: the cookbook author and teacher James Beard, the needs-no-introduction Julia Child, and the food journalist Craig Claiborne. These three were all strong, outsized characters — literally so in the case of the enormously fat Beard and the totteringly tall Child — and their very weirdness is part of what made them such seductive, effective guides for their audiences.

After the Big Three, I move on to the sixties counterculture's role in shaping the American food revolution, in particular where the Berkeley scene that birthed the seminal restaurant Chez Panisse is concerned. And then I move into the entrepreneurial, go-go era that started with figures like L.A's Wolfgang Puck and persists to this day with such people as Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Nobu Matsuhisa, and Rachael Ray.

These folks are not just characters in my book; they're characters, period. I'm trying to capture the humanity of the people in the food world — their passion, their sense of fun, their feuds, their lunacy, their brilliance. In my view, the food world has too often been written about with a sort of kid-glove, lace-doily preciousness, as if food people weren't as passionate and nutty as creative people in other fields. Blessedly, some recent books, like Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and Bill Buford's Heat, have done a fine job of redressing this misperception. My book takes a similar approach, but in a wide-screen, panoramic way — taking in all the characters and flavors of the American food boom, and, I hope, cramming them into a fun, entertaining, informative historical narrative.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
A. J. Liebling, Between Meals. Reading this book, and reveling in the author's sheer revelry in eating, was one of the things that inspired me to write The United States of Arugula. Liebling was an ace New Yorker journalist in the first half of the twentieth century, but he was also an unreconstructed glutton who ate his way through Paris while living there as a correspondent. His recollections in this book, of visits to little restaurants and cafes where he might polish off a bottle of champagne and three dozen oysters just for starters, and then move on to a fish course (with a whole bottle of white wine) and then a meat course (with a whole bottle of burgundy), are thrill-rides for me, wonderful exercises in vicarious eating. I love to eat, but I could never eat as much as this guy. It's like observing someone with a supernatural gift. Liebling ate food the way Charlie Parker played sax.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
I once had the pleasure of interviewing the reclusive Don DeLillo, and he said something that's always stuck with me: "Writing is a form of concentrated thought." He's absolutely right. A good writer, like DeLillo, realizes his thought processes so perfectly that he can put anything over on his audience, even a patent untruth. So, yeah, writers are crackerjack liars.

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Sean Wilsey's Oh, the Glory of It All. Right after I finished my book, I wanted to get lost in another, utterly different kind of book. We were headed to Florida in wintertime and I wanted to read something untaxing. My wife, a woman of unerring instincts, handed this one to me. It's not exactly a larky beach read, given the dark journey Wilsey's dysfunctional upbringing takes him on, but the way he writes about his life and screwy relations, with frankness but no real bitterness, is wonderful. And he's funny and arranges sentences in clever ways that I could never think of myself.

What section of the newspaper do you read first?
In the big-city paper, sports. In the local country paper, the police blotter. It's always neat to see which of your neighbors dented a guardrail or was inappropriately intimate with a cow.

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
Their ability to match everything I wear and be machine-washable. I won't tell you what make or model they are; then everyone will be wearing them.

Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
I should reach way back to someone like Saint Augustine or Mary Magdalene to impress you, but I have to say John Lennon is my favorite character in history. To me, the Beatles' story was the best narrative of the twentieth century, in fiction or nonfiction. The four of them were at once a blank screen upon which all the fads and mores of their era were projected — teenybopper-ism, Indian mysticism, psychedelia, anti-war activism, postwar materialism, etc. — and four very strong, fully formed personalities. Lennon was the strongest of these four personalities, and also the most volatile, careening between utter brilliance and cringe-inducing folly.

I wish I could say Lennon had influenced my writing, but it sounds too grandiose even to associate my name with his. That said, I think the cultural sweep of The United States of Arugula, particularly in the chapters that address the sixties counterculture, is directly influenced by my Beatles-derived interest in the turbulence of the sixties.

Do you read blogs? What are some of your favorites?
"Blogs," you say? Is that some new form of petting that the young people are doing? (Check out www.snobsite.com, and, as of September, www.davidkamp.com)

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
"Budgies"? Oh, aren't we the Anglophile, Mr. Powell! This is ?merca. Learn the language!

In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
Why couldn't the Giants have just knelt on the ball, rather than having Pisarcik try to handoff to Csonka? (That's probably too New York-New Jersey an answer for Powell's, but thanks for indulging me.) spacer

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