Gourmet Na­tion: A gos­sipy look at the great Amer­i­can food revo­lu­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

The United States of Arugula: How We Be­came a Gourmet Na­tion” isn’t a book about just salad greens. Ac­cord­ing to au­thor David Kamp, it’s about “how food in Amer­ica got bet­ter, and how it hopped the fence from the ghet­tos of home eco­nomics and snobby gour­man­dism to the ex­pan­sive realm of pop­u­lar cul­ture.”

Mr. Kamp has cho­sen to tell this story by fo­cus­ing on the larg­erthan-life per­son­al­i­ties who made din­ing out a se­ri­ous sport on the East and West coasts (the heart­land by and large has re­sisted trendy restau­rants) and changed the way le­gions of Amer­i­cans cook and shop for food.

In the be­gin­ning were James Beard, Craig Clai­borne and Ju­lia Child, who in­de­pen­dently dis­cov­ered that the prepa­ra­tion of food, far from be­ing a dis­agree­able chore, could ac­tu­ally be en­joy­able — even fun — and that din­ing, as op­posed to merely eat­ing, was one of life’s re­peat­able plea­sures.

James Beard, the 6-foot-4-inch Ore­go­nian who learned about food in his mother’s board­ing house and who could bake bread by the time he was eight, made the case for Amer­i­can re­gional foods. Craig Clai­borne started his own mini-revo­lu­tion by re­view­ing restau­rants as if they were theater, and cov­er­ing gas­tron­omy as a reg­u­lar news beat for the New York Times. Ju­lia Child fell in love with French food and shared her con­sum­ing pas­sion with Amer­i­cansin“Mas­ter­ingth­eArtof French Cook­ing” and in her television show, “The French Chef.”

Not much new here ex­cept more than one needs to know about the sex lives of Beard and Clai­borne and Clai­borne’s mis­er­able de­cline and death. The au­thor even dug up a racy quote con­cern­ing hot Ital­ian beans (that, alas, can­not be printed in a fam­ily news­pa­per) from Child, Amer­ica’s culi­nary sweet­heart.

But be­hind-the-scenes gos­sip about the Big Three of the food es­tab­lish­ment is mild com­pared with Mr. Kamp’s dish on those who came af­ter — an un­ruly bunch of celebrity chefs and their acolytes whose ad­ven­tur­ous cui­sine thrived (and some­times dived) in a worka­holic world of adren­a­line-driven restau­rant kitchens and an afterhours cul­ture of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Nowhere was this cul­ture more in ev­i­dence than at Berke­ley’s Chez Panisse, founded in 1972 by Alice Wa­ters, the leader of what Mr. Kamp calls the “coun­ter­cuisin­ists,” who be­lieved that cook­ing with fresh, sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents — the way the French and Ital­ians do — could be viewed as a protest against the bland, pro­cessed Amer­i­can diet.

In the early years the bril­liant, am­bi­tious chef Jeremiah Tower was as im­por­tant as Ms. Wa­ters in putting Chez Panisse on the map. To at­tract more din­ers, Mr. Tower dreamed up themed menus like a Gertrude Stein-Alice B. Tok­las din­ner and a week of Sal­vador Dali-in­spired fare, such as l’en­tre­plat drogue et sodomise, (a leg of lamb “drugged and sodom­ized by a mix­ture of Madeira, brandy, and tan­ger­ine juice in­jected through a sy­ringe”).

Such pro­mo­tions were a huge suc­cess — the restau­rant was packed and fre­quently over­booked by a dis­or­ga­nized Ms. Wa­ters. To keep up with the heavy work load, Mr. Tower and oth­ers were do­ing co­caine in the kitchen, and af­ter hours the at­mos­phere, writes Mr. Kamp, was “pos­i­tively Caligu­lan . . . Wa­ters frowned upon the drug scene, but she im­bibed as freely as any­one.”

Quoth a for­mer Panisse staffer: “It’s af­ter work, the cus­tomers are gone, the drugs come out, ev­ery­body starts drink­ing, the tango mu­sic comes on. Alice would get drunk, her in­cisors would show, and she would at­tack some poor in­no­cent per­son and bed him.”

Mean­while in Los An­ge­les hy­per­ac­tive Wolf­gang Puck opened a string of glitzy din­ing spots and cafes in­clud­ing Ma Mai­son, the first restau­rant with an un­listed tele­phone num­ber; his luxe pizza place, Spago, broke new ground with its then revo­lu­tion­ary open kitchen and a wood-burn­ing pizza oven. New York’s David Bouley and Chicago’s Char­lie Trot­ter flour­ished de­spite their abra­sive “the cus­tomer is al­ways wrong” phi­los­o­phy, and Emeril La­gasse, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray strut­ted their stuff on the Food Net­work.

David Kamp isn’t the first writer to try to wrap his arms around the great Amer­i­can food revo­lu­tion — a lifestyle change that’s been hailed for decades and con­tin­ues still. But all the buzz about celebrity chefs and restau­rants, while vastly en­ter­tain­ing, may leave some read­ers hun­gry for more sub­stan­tial fare about the Amer­i­can food scene. One won­ders who will buy “The United States of Arugula” be­sides the pa­rade of celebrity chefs, restau­rant en­trepreneurs, cook­book au­thors, food jour­nal­ists and own­ers of posh food em­po­ri­ums who crowd its gos­sip-filled pages?

It’s de­bat­able whether a na­tion of fat­ties where one out of four Amer­i­cans eats at a fast-food restau­rant on any given day, where fad di­ets pro­lif­er­ate and few peo­ple cook at home is the “Gourmet Na­tion” of Mr. Kamp’s ti­tle or closer to the “Fast Food Na­tion” of Eric Schlosser’s 2001 best­seller. You might want to read both.

Lorna Wil­liams is a Wash­ing­ton, D.C. writer.

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