Book Review: “The United States of Arugula” by David Kamp

During my first six weeks of culinary school, I spent many afternoons trolling the campus storeroom, trying to learn the differences between things like ginger and galangal or radicchio and red cabbage. The sheer inventory of the CIA storeroom was impressive: A veritable dungeon, it was stocked with foodstuffs ranging from the exotic to the mundane, all of which would become the raw-food materials for 18 different kitchen-classrooms on campus. As new culinary students, we were expected to visit the storeroom as part of a class called Product Knowledge (the class final itself — a line-up of about two dozen fruits and vegetables — would be culled from the storeroom’s very shelves).

One of the most challenging tasks was to identify the litany of salad greens in the walk-in: mache, shiso, watercress, mizuna, mustard, little gem, frisée, arugula. Depending on how far someone had lived from a decent farmers market, many of these items could have been completely unknown to some students. Fortunately for me, I did have the benefit of growing up in California, so I at least had some basic familiarity with things like arugula and frisée. However, some of the other greens were more esoteric, and they demanded closer attention.

After I finished chef school — just 21 months later — I hastened my retreat to the Napa Valley, where the produce became even more dynamic (light years beyond Hyde Park, in truth). Once back in California, I landed a job at Auberge du Soleil, whose easy-going kitchen manager ordered the very best produce with free-wheeling abandon. It was an eye-opener: Auberge would have every type of heirloom tomato, every type of wild mushroom, every type of whatever-was-seasonal.

In keeping with trends, Auberge naturally embraced microgreens, those barely-sprouted versions of common plants like arugula, spinach or beets (the bull’s blood beets were the best). Amazingly, I had onbly seen microgreens once or twice in chef school, where they were presented mostly as a curiosity (in a small, plastic clamshell container, no less). In contrast, microgreens were one of the de riguer garnishes at Auberge du Soleil, where we carefully snipped them from large nursery flats every afternoon just before service.

• • •

Over the years, it’s occurred to me that in its basic, fully-mature form, arugula has fast become the iceberg lettuce of today: somewhat quaint in its ubiquity, an all-too-common garnish for a grilled chicken-breast sandwich (granted, arugula is far more nutritious than iceberg lettuce, which is nice). Yet, I can clearly remember a time when, not too long ago, arugula had plenty of novelty and cache, even here in California. Servers always used to describe arugula as “peppery” to those who inquired about it — these days, no one even has to ask anymore, do they?

In “The United States of Arugula,” David Kamp happens to use this leafy green as his metaphor, documenting America’s remarkable gastronomic shift over the last 70 years. The book explores our sociology to a large extent, drawing clear connections between our increased industrialization and our tendency to relegate eating as a necessity more than a pleasure. “The United States of Arugula” pinpoints where we had gone wrong and what ultimately inspired our steps in the right direction.

Kamp begins his food history at the very beginning, when pizza and sushi were still relative unknowns, long before they earned “comfort food” status here in America. The book follows the early days on the East Coast, when the “Big Three” of American cuisine — James Beard, Juila Child and Craig Claiborne — became the nation’s taste-makers. Naturally, during the latter half of the book, the focus shifts to the West Coast, with a detailed and frank history of Alice Waters and the many Chez Panisse alumni.

For the food enthusiast, “The United States of Arugula” is resplendent with entertaining footnotes, and Kamp has clearly researched his topic thoroughly. Originally published in 2006, the book touches upon the recent rise of the Food Network, as well as the recent trend towards “franchising” in Las Vegas. In many ways, “The United States of Arugula” is yin to the yang of Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” — while the latter book reveals how food in America has gone awry, the former book illustrates a few of those things that have gone well.

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