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Original Essays | May 1, 2013 5 comments
I'd predict that 99 percent of the small talk in the staff elevator at my library involves the following question and its answers: "Are you reading... Continue »
David KampDescribe 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.
Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
What section of the newspaper do you read first?
What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
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?
Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?