Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Gourmet Class Is Alive and Well in America

This post originally ran in 2006 on Foodbound, a now-defunct site that was part of the Well Fed Network.

I came of cooking age at the height of the convenience casserole era. Almost every recipe my friends and I made involved opening up cans of creamed soup and vegetables, pouring them over meat, spreading processed parmesan cheese over the top, and baking for 45 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Occasionally, I would stumble into the new Whole Foods store that had just opened in downtown Austin, but mostly to marvel at all the odd foods and wonder what people did with them.

It wasn’t long, though, before I started buying something here and there and trying it out. I had been through one bout of vegetarianism in the early ’70s thanks to my sister, who first brought whole wheat bread into our house, then granola and, still later yet, yogurt. But those early experiences were more along the line of diets than lifestyles, and did not last long. In the early ’80s, shopping at Whole Foods, however, I started to see the benefits and joys of using fresh whole foods in my cooking, and have slowly evolved over the years into the snobby gourmet foodie I am today, along with countless other Americans.

But I never really thought about how we got here, until I read David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, coming out this month from Broadway Books. Kamp, a writer and editor for Vanity Fair and GQ and self-professed foodie, details the development of the gourmet movement in the United States and how the rise of fresh, organic, healthy, and exotic food movements have changed how we view the food we eat.

In a light, conversational tone, Kamp tells the story of how the big three - James Beard, Craig Claibourne, and Julia Child - each became instruments of major change in the American culinary world, Beard with his passionate commitment to the idea of an American cuisine as expressed in his best selling cookbooks, Claiborne, who raised food journalism to an entirely new level, and Child, who showed us that the intimidating art of French cooking could be learned by anyone. He then continues with the story of those who prospered in the wake of Beard, Claiborne and Child. Often in their own words and the words of those who know them, we get the story of Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and the growth of the fresh and local movement that sparked the emergence of Community Service Agriculture (CSA) farms and farmers’ markets across the country, Wolfgang Puck in L.A. and the rise of the celebrity chef, Dean & Deluca, Zabar, E.A.T. and The Silver Palate in New York, who raised our perceptions of Italian food from pizza and macaroni to extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and parmigiano reggiano, and introduced us to the concept of artisanal and specialty foods.

While reading this book, I was struck with moments of humorous recognition of some of the food fads of the last couple of decades to which I have succumbed - fondue, quiche, sun-dried tomatoes, free-range chickens and Portobello mushrooms to name a few. But I was also pleased to recognize that mostly, what I have learned has helped me broaden my culinary horizons to embrace the broadest range of foods and cuisines available to me, and to bring them into my life and my kitchen. And thanks largely to the work of the chefs, critics and purveyors Kamp writes about, my reach is virtually unlimited.

The story of how we became a gourmet nation is a fascinating one, and David Kamp tells it with humor, insight, knowledge, and obvious love. While some people, often myself included, bemoan the fact that Americans are eating more processed foods and making poorer eating choices every year, Kamp argues that, on the contrary, today there are more choices than ever before thanks to the influence of the big three and their successors. He definitely has a point.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. If you have any interest in food or cooking, you will too.

The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, by David Kamp (Broadway Books, 2006).

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