When a publicist asked to send me The United States of Arugula  by New York magazine journalist and editor David Kamp, I said sure.  I’d been meaning to read it, just never had.  Another story of America’s food revolution with a silly title, yawn.  So, receiving the paperback, out a few weeks ago, I plowed diligently into it (when did I find the time? Airline travel this summer. I need say no more.).  It opens with a pro forma intro about how things have changed in America and the reason for this story’s being told, and then, after the preface, an Intro.  I hate that.  Preface, then intro—get on with it!  But THEN, his first chapter is about Julia, Craig Claiborne and James Beard, three food giants—stories that were told well by Betty Fussell in Masters of American Cookery, and that everyone already knows!  That combined with Northwest airlines would make anyone cranky.
    But this is a fantastic book.  I didn’t want to like it, I knew half the stories already, and much of it is my territory so I’m hypercritical.  But Kamp’s reporting is so good, his pacing so assured, his tone so appropriate and compelling (not the snarky New York journalistese I expected), his story telling so engaging, that every time I put the book down, I looked forward to picking this book up again.
    Kamp seems to hit everything in the big sprawling mess of American food culture during the last five decades, from the sad descent of Craig Claiborne, to nouvelle California cuisine, the Chez Panisse story (about which I knew considerably less than I thought—though I’m still wondering if I know the entire Jeremiah Tower-Alice Waters saga), to Zabars, Niman Ranch, sushi and  radicchio, Vegas, the Rick Bayless-Burger King fiasco, celebrity chefs and celebrity chef take downs.
    Why did I like it so much really?  The stories and characters were so good, which is ultimately why a book grabs me.  What’s the worst part of the book?  The footnotes—soooo many footnotes, which were annoying because the type is so small and they were too interesting to miss.  Highly recommended.
    I’ve never met Kamp, and hadn’t heard of him till I was having lunch with my mentor at The Times, Arthur Gelb, a beacon, and Gelb asked me if I knew this guy Kamp because he’d been in interviewing Gelb for this book (Gelb has great detail on the Claiborne story). Gelb said he seemed like a decent guy.  But I was not prepared to like him mainly for his snob dictionaries—not that I’d read anything, I just find the glorification of snobbery, well, let’s just say there are better things to do (Velvet Tango Room, for instance).  When a friend gave me the galleys for The Food Snob’s Dictionary , I thought this is all we need, more food snobs.  I read the entire thing before we were off the tarmac, and it’s funny and accurate and fairly random in what it includes, it’s cute, I’d guess you’d say, and yes, the tone is snarky.  (“Mise en place: Fancy French term for doing all one’s food prep before actually cooking—chopping, measuring, arranging, cleaning up, and so on.  Especially Snobworthy when shortened to meez and used as a verb.  Honey, I’ve meezed everything for Julia’s supreme de volaille a blanc, now all we need is for our guests to arrive.”)  I even get a nod in the “forcemeat” entry for having featured forcemeat in what is called a “rhapsodic Snob-lit classic.”  But again, Kamp, who wrote the book with Marion Rosenfeld, here as in Arugula seems to be battling the snark factor despite himself, actually taking his subject seriously without losing his sense of humor and style.  A year in Cleveland and he’ll be completely cured.


48 Wonderful responses to “United States of Arugula”

  • Lilly Jan

    I literally finished the last page of the book and decided to check out your blog. I agree with you on much of the review, I liked it in spite of myself, although it certainly wasn’t what I had thought it would be about. And I agree the footnotes were sometimes the best parts, at times, though, they were also incredibly self-indulgent for Kamp (“I just don’t want to cut it… it’s so good!”).

    I personally was drawn to it in hopes it would provide me a fuller background on the gastronomic American. I’m excited to be starting a Masters in Gastronomy in a month – which I’m certain you’ll have an opinion about – and this book was helpful to get my mind thinking about my future thesis.

    Overall, I think it’s an interesting and well-written book. When’s your next book coming out? 🙂

  • ruhlman

    as a writer, i know the feeling of not wanting to cut out good material. as far as i’m concerned, he could have incorpoarted all the footnotes into the text, and i’d have been glad.

    my next book is The Elements of Style, a essays on culinary fundamentals and an opinionated glossary of cooking terms (modeled after the STrunk and White classic, Elements of Style).

    What exactly is a gastronomic american?

  • jaye joseph

    Lilly, can you tell us a little more about a Masters in Gastronomy? I’ve never heard of such a thing, and I’d like to know more from a first-hand perspective. Thanks!

  • Big Red

    Not being a food snob myself, I can say that anything like his previous writings would have turned me off completely. But Kamp, in this book, has a decent sense of humor that seems to be forced out of him and put through a strainer. Having quit the restaurant business full time to care for my 2 kids with autism, I do not have patience for the crap in his snob book. This book is actually good and I did like it even though I didn’t want to, and I needed reminding of the supposedly over told stories b/c I had only heard snipits of them, never the whole story. I was actually able to forget who was writing the book and enjoy the story. And now that I am not slaving over the cook top anymore I have a lot of time on my hands to read books and be a pain in the ass and bore everyone around me with what I think of them. Kinda like Bourdain…but I do not even kid myself to think I am in that man’s league. (I am a huge fan, truly) But thanks Ruhlman for making my pastime seem normal.

  • Sorcha

    Craig Claiborne has something to do with food? I had no idea. *makes note to hit the library and check out this book*

  • Lilly Jan

    Alas, I met the gastronomic history of America.

    Jaye – more information on the program I’m about to start is available here (the website is a bit ghetto-fabulous):

    I think the FAQ section provides more information than anything else. From what I understand, it was the brain child of Julia Child with input from Jacques Pepin (I could be completely wrong about this).

    I’m actually starting off with the culinary arts certificate program. It’s only 14 weeks, but the list of instructors is very exciting to me: acques Pépin, John Vyhnanek, Jean-Jacques Paimblanc, Chris Douglass, Jody Adams, Michael Leviton, Ana Sortun, Sheryl Julian, Barbara Lynch, Nina Simonds, Jim Dodge, Michael Schlow, Mary Ann Esposito, Joanne Chang, Cindy Salvato, Raymond Ost, Bill Bradley, Sara Moulton.

    If I can make a decent hollandaise at the end of it, I’ll be happy.

  • Sorcha

    Ignore my last comment, for I am braindead and in my wee head mixed up “Claiborne” with “Kilborn.” *headdesks*

  • Skawt

    So if he spends a year in Cleveland he’ll lose his sense of humor? The VTR must be a frickin’ amazing bar to keep you there. 🙂

    The mention of Zabar’s always hits me with homesickness. Fortunately, the wife and I are heading back to NYC for a week at the end of August. Spending some time up in Connectivut with friends (and Stew Leonard’s – yay!) The second half of the week with my family in Long Island. And somewhere in there, bagels, pizza and Zabar’s.

    ruhlman sez:

    “But again, Kamp, who wrote the book with Marion Rosenfeld, here as in Arugula seems to be battling the snark factor despite himself, actually taking his subject seriously without losing his sense of humor and style. A year in Cleveland and he’ll be completely cured.”

  • Victor

    A couple of years ago I read in GQ an article by their food writer, I think his name was Alan Richman , entitled “Paul Bocuse Must Stop”.

    Bocuse, a multi-starred god of French cuisine with a national cooking contest named after him, the Bocuse d’Or, had apparently “declined” too much for the author to bear.

    According to Richman, the chef essentially just walked around the restaurant shaking hands and taking photos while an apathetic staff cooked and served pale reflections of his classic masterpieces.

    While I never had the chance to follow-up on the story, the mention of celebrity chefs’ “declines” or “take-downs” in this post arouses my curiosity . What leads to a decline? What kinds are there? And how can a celebrity chef get taken down? (Is Rocco DeSpirito an example of this? Or was the Frugal Gourmet?)

    I don’t enjoy others’ misfortune. It’s just that there’s something to be learned there and the more I learn about food (not much yet) I also like to learn about the people who prepare it.

  • Skawt

    Victor – good observation. I’ve always wondered what it is about being a celebrity chef that causes them to lose their chops. I think it stems from becoming a figurehead, rather than actually working in or running a kitchen.

    I suspect that the celebrity chefs that continue working hard and eschew the limelight (parties, TV shows, putting their name on supermarket grocery items) allows them to continue doing what they love. Otherwise, in the end, they become Emeril – a talk show host with a live band and an audience, who occasionally cooks (and cross-contaminates everything).

  • Sorcha

    I’d enjoy Emeril more if the audience didn’t applaud every single time the man breathed. I swear to God, I watched an ep where he put cheddar cheese and chives into some mashed potatoes and the audience applauded like he’d just invented the perpetual motion machine.

  • French Laundry at Home

    Wow. How odd (cool) that I just packed my copy of “City Room” to re-read at the beach, and you write about Arthur Gelb. I bought United States of Arugula, but haven’t read it yet. With your ringing and sort of surprising endorsement, I’ll now move it closer to the top of the to-read pile on vacation.

  • Gallon

    “A year in Cleveland and he’ll be completely cured.”

    Are you channeling Anthony Hopkins?

  • casa

    sorcha the Kilborne meltdown was pretty damn funny and I totally agree with you on th Emeril thing. “And now we’re going to squeeze a little lemon juice into the avocado”, room goes nuts! Kind of sad really that that still passes muster.

  • Sorcha

    Yeah, Casa, I mean – if that’s what he’s making, if that’s what suits the menu, cool, no quibbles from me. It’s the audience going apeshit over it that makes my eyeballs ache.

  • David Kamp

    Hello, gang! It’s David Kamp, the author of the book being discussed. I don’t normally comment in “Comments” sections of Web sites, because I don’t want to contribute to the whole American vituperation epidemic, but you all seem to be reasonably nice folk. Thanks, Michael, for liking the book despite your initial wariness. I sincerely appreciate it and should add an “s” to the end of that phrase “rhapsodic Snob-lit classic”–your other food books belong in the same canon. And indeed, Mr. Gelb is a gracious and wise man.

    To Jaye Joseph, let me simply explain that all the Snob books are intended first and foremost as *humor* books–as sendups of the proprietary sense of knowingness that snobs in any given mileu are wont to display. (E.g., “Only *I* may know about jamon iberico, not you.”) The first Snob book, “The Rock Snob’s Dictionary,” essentially sprang from the impulse to lampoon my own worst tendencies vis-a-vis being more-knowledgeable-than-thou about music. For example, if I ever met Michael, I would subject him to an excruciating lecture about the history of my favorite Cleveland avant-rock band, Pere Ubu–and then hate myself for having done so. (And for using the phrase “avant-rock band.”)

    That said, Jaye, if I can’t make you like me (“I was actually able to forget who was writing the book”; OUCH!), I’m glad you at least found a place in your heart for a few sentences I wrote.

    Yours in snarky New York journalistese,

    David Kamp

  • Josh Ozersky

    Kamp is a fantastic writer, but he’s not a writer for our magazine, sad to say. If I’m not mistaken he’s a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

  • David Kamp

    Just realized the reader I should have been addressing was “Big Red,” not Jaye Joseph. My apologies.


  • Big Red

    Mr Kamp,

    Please do not take my comments too personally. I normally do not apologize for my own snarkiness, because I really do not care that much, but I believe I was a little harsh on your poor soul. I am not Bourdain after all, although my pain in the ass comments could be somwhat attributed to being a fan of his. Do not get me wrong, writing a book and actually getting it published are great feats within themselves when you consider the reading public. (When nearly 35% of Americans are illiterate, you have to wonder) I did enjoy the book, although my view of it was tainted by the fact that I did not like your others. And that is only because I am not the type to go to fancy restaurants, nor do I equate myself to those with supposedly sophisticated taste. The idea of some of the cheeses that some of the foodie snobs claim are good makes me wonder whose toes they were sucking on the night before…Dick Cheney’s after they were in his nylon socks all day perhaps? But I digress.
    Put simply, I do not like food snobs and they rate about as high with me as Britney Spears on my give-a-shit meter. I feel that the “Arugula” book was very entertaining, and I did enjoy it. You should write more along these lines as I believe that you have a talent that at least those of us who are semi-literate, (although after a night of dealing with 2 screaming kids, I cannot say I am one of them the next morning)have enough sense to recognize.
    I have a great deal of respect for the writers of the world, despite what they have to say. I read because I know that I can feel free to like or dislike a book as I see fit to do so, and it is a freedom I do not take for granted. I enjoyed Bourdain’s hard ass, no holds barred approach, and Ruhlman’s toungue in cheek style. Your “Arugula” book is going into my collection for the distinct reason that you embody the fact that you can write with two different results. One I hated, one I enjoyed, and I learned more from than anything I learned in school about cooking history. Says much about the quality of cooking schools in this country. I was not blessed enough to attend the CIA.
    Now that I have bored everyone on this board with my pain in the ass points about a piece of literature, I will get to the point, and with my motherly voice. You did good Kiddo, now eat your Macaroni and Cheese. I would have addressed it privately however, without anyway to do so it is here for all to read. I apologize for that too, fellow bloggers. Keep writing and if you write more I like, you will be the first to know.

  • rockandroller

    Yeah, but you can only discuss Pere Ubu with a Clevelander if you know about and can discuss their connection to the Numbers Band. 🙂

  • rachel

    You know, it looks like there are 2 versions of United States of Arugula on amazon – one subtitled “How We Became a Gourmet Nation”, one with “The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food”, and 2 different pub dates. Which book are you referring to here? Sounds like the “Gourmet Nation” from the synopsis. ( Which isn’t the image or web item linked to in the blog entry…..) Am i missing something?

  • Frances

    Any time I think of the word “celebrity”, I think of 9 people in the Hollywood Squares. It implies that your worth is based on how well-known you are. I think any chef who is placed in that category hates the term. I could never have considered Julia a celebrity. Julia was … Julia. She didn’t have a “schtick” and many chefs who have gained notoriety don’t either. They don’t need it, and it wouldn’t help them anyway, when whoever or whatever powers that be decide that they aren’t celebrities anymore.

    I remember Geoff Smith – he taught me how to drain pasta (not in person). Yes. I was not doing it right.

    Now you want to talk about celebrity – there was nothing else on PBS like Cookin’ Cheap. Those two guys from the Virginia hills were fearless. Even in drag.

  • Tana

    Hey, don’t knock “Hollywood Squares”! I can’t tell you how many games of Trivial Pursuit they helped me win!

    Michael, when you said, “A year in Cleveland, and he’ll be completely cured,” Justin Severino’s grandfathter-the-butcher in Ashtabula sprang to mind. I worry about you sometimes.

    Rachel, the version of the book is the “How We Became a Gourmet Nation” one.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Michael David Kamp wrote

    “Thanks, Michael, for liking the book despite your initial wariness. I sincerely appreciate it and should add an “s” to the end of that phrase “rhapsodic Snob-lit classic”–your other food books belong in the same canon.”

    Ouch! It’s rough out there in the world you work in. Geesh.

  • Jon Vedamuthu

    So strange: I, too, finished the book just two days ago, August 8, led there by interested in American culinary developments, largely spurred from recently completing Ruhlman’s fine, oh so fine, Chef works. Very good book.

  • Marco

    Michael, your review was right on. As you said, the characters were portrayed very realistically. This is what kept me wrapped up in the book. Richard Olney’s “Relexions” also provides some-not-so-kind glimpses into the behavior of some of our revered food gods and goddesses.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Lily Jan, hope u are still reading: having gone to Boston U website u posted, prompts me to ask u the ultimate goal of having your Masters Degree and where u will take it? The gastronomic arts in most Canadian University’s unless they are culinary schools is virtually non-existant but we do however have degrees in Nutrition and Dietetics which obviously must incorporate gastronomy.

    How much further does a gastronomy degree in liberal arts go and then a Masters? the obvious is the restaurant industry, but i suspect it is much more than that? I hope u or someone else can answer.

    Also if i may, what area would one take when thinking of a thesis…i am fascinated by the possibilities because everything we are and do involves sustenance.

  • Kansas City rube

    Congratulations, big red. You actually got a published author to respond to your blog comment about his book–something even a below average yet egomaniacal former journalism student never stooped to do while pouring over the responses to his mediocre opinion pieces in the daily college rag.

  • Bill T

    Michael I was looking at this in a bookstore in Santa Barbara along with the owner of the store. As good a book as it probably is I can’t believe they included Rachael Ray on the cover. I mean come on, Beard, Julia, Claiborne, Batali and on and on. She’s down in the lower left hand corner looking the whore of Babylon.

  • Val

    I am loving this book! I started reading it while I was reading “Heat”, but I kept getting the stories confused, so I finished Heat and am now trying to make myself read USoA slowly so that it will last a bit longer. I’m impressed by the writing and taken with the stories and all in favor of the lack of pretension. So good!!!

  • Art

    That was a long boring post. I’m guessing the “book” is even longer and even more boring.

  • S. Woody

    Mr. Ruhlman and Mr. Kamp:

    I read United States of Arugula when it came out in hardback, and enjoyed it a great deal. More importantly, I’ve loaned it out on occasion. Working at a supermarket in Rehoboth Beach, DE., during the time I was reading it I regularly propped it up next to my register, where it received several comments from our customers (is it good, are you enjoying it, that sort of thing). Later, I went through and marked several sections with post-its, all dealing with marketing, and loaned it to some of our younger management staffers, figuring the sections would give them some info about the history of what we’re selling. Interesting, they all read more than just the sections I had marked, they were so intrigued.

    This isn’t the only book I’ve loaned out. Charcuterie is very popular in the butcher’s department, enough so that both staffers there, after reading my copy, have purchased copies of their own. A third butcher wants to borrow the book, but is currently working his way through James Peterson’s Sauces, and doesn’t want to borrow more than one tome at a time. (The head of the department, sadly, isn’t interested. We’ve decided that he only reads books that have large, colorful pictures on each page and simple text, along the lines of Dick and Jane.)

  • Big Red

    Thank you kansas city rube, however, that was not my intention, but hoping to be an author one day myself, I can appreciate the situation.

  • Natalie Sztern

    this entire blog reminds me of the time as a couple we wound up sitting with three other couples at a bar mitzvah. the talk went round the table on two topics; antique cars and how many each couple had and horses and how many each other had…while my husband and I sat listening (and owning two race horses of our own)when about five minutes into the conversation my husband abrubly rose and in a loud voice announced if he didn’t leave this table now, he was going to throw up with all the bullshit…and together we left leaving their mouths wide open in shock…this blog today, is an exact replica of that evening!

    and my two race horses-look in ur kids glue drawer!

  • Natalie Sztern

    there exists a not-so-underlying message in this blog, that does and does not surprise me…i am sensing a distinct aura of snobbery in both the topic and comments which i have not felt before…michael sounds forced and reluctant to give heed to another author; this other author feels the need ‘even tho he doesn’t usually comment” (Puhlease!) to come back with a jolt and further someone named Josh Ozersky (of who, even I know of) has the need to correc Michael making sure he knows a)-he made a mistake in his research of who what and where is a David Kamp and b) correct this heinous error and point towards the correct venue of Vanity Fair…

    okay now I need to throw up! Those who can do and those who can’t write? and there are too many of you out there, is that it? (a rhetorical question with sarcastic intent)

  • Lilly Jan

    Natalie – in response to your earlier question about the gastronomy program:

    I don’t work in anything relating to the food industry right now, and my degree isn’t so much for a career-related advancement as a personal interest in pursuing this topic. The program includes sociology, psychology, economic and anthropology approaches to food and wine – and the classes just sound so interesting. I appreciate your interest though, and wanted to give you an honest answer. I’m really just doing this because I want to, I’m drawn to it. Maybe I’ll become a food writer! 🙂

    As for thesis topics, I’ve been chewing over possible ideas for a while, but of course, the actual writing is several semesters away. Thinking up questions and possible topics is most of the fun though – like, why do two cultures with similar environmental benefits end up with such distinctly different foods? Or for a more historical approach, how much did the pursuit of food push new world exploration and discovery? And how did it contribute to the establishment of european colonies? Stuff like that…

    Hope I answered (at least vaguely) some of your questions.

  • Natalie Sztern

    interesting, thx…ur first question will be dinner discussion tonite…

  • Ellen

    After reading comments about the length and redundancy of the preface AND intro to “Arugula,” I have to mention that the first section of “The Reach of a Chef” was seemingly interminable. You took the reader over old ground, spent pages and pages on you and your somewhat related experiences: what, brown sauce again?
    I thought “Chef” was never going to start addressing the reason I wanted to read it in the first place.
    So, calling out another author for essentially the same sin seems, to me, to be a little less than genuine.

  • ruhlman

    ellen, i did not find the opening to reach interminable, but rather zippy and to the point.

    So the calling out may seem ironic to you, but I assure you it was genuine.

  • ENS Romeo, in the Central Arabian Gulf

    The foot notes! Glad I’m not the only one that thought there’s an awful lot of them (regardless of how great they are to read).

    I just received the book in a care package and have enjoyed the first 100 pages tremendously. I particularly enjoyed the small section on Claiborne and his Navy experiences…it’s a MUCH different Navy today.

  • Rashena

    Love this book. It is a very nice primer on all things foodie, a very fun read! I also have an advance copy of the Food Snob’s Dictionary and think that it’s hilarious. Will be a nice companion piece to the forthcoming The Elements of Cooking. *snicker*

  • Farid

    Well, I’ve met David and his brother (a producer) and I keep in touch on and off.

    I like his writing style very much, never got the impression that he was snob or snarky.

    Hilarious, ironic, great sense of humor, terrific writer, keeps you interested, etc… YES! 😀

    Glad you finally got around to reading his book. Wondering why the publicist was so late in getting a copy to you.

  • Rachel

    Lilly Jan,

    I don’t know if you’re still looking at this, but just in case, I also am a BU Gastronomy student! We’ve probably met!! I’m taking Agricultural History and Culture of Cuisine: France this semester. I did the Culinary Arts Program last semester. Cheers!

    /hijack. As for The United States of Arugula, I’ve been looking forward to reading this for some time now and am clicking on over to Amazon.