In 1984, I parlayed a Cal English degree into a minimum-wage job washing lettuce at a San Francisco vegetarian restaurant. It was far from factory-farmed romaine. The eatery was Greens, the foodie shrine that Deborah Madison built for Zen Center in 1979, inspired by the experience of cooking for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, and those lettuces were obscure European strains harvested from the center’s organic farm in West Marin.
More than twenty years later, arugula and radicchio are as common as romaine, and onetime mavericks like Madison are churning out accessible cookbooks for big-name publishers. It’s that transformation — from restaurant salad greens esoteric enough to seem revolutionary to the bagged and UPC-stamped merchandise at Costco — that author David Kamp seeks to trace in The United States of Arugula (Broadway Books, $26). Subtitled “How We Became a Gourmet Nation,” Kamp’s book begins in 1939 (the year James Beard began making canapés for a Manhattan caterer) and ends with the farm-to-table movement that every serious restaurant now wears like a product wrapper.
Unlike many in the Bay Area’s food politics movement, Kamp, a writer and editor for Vanity Fair and GQ, is an optimist. “It is, in short, a great time to be an eater,” he writes in the preface. Food is now a cultural pastime, he says, “something you can follow the way you follow sports or the movies.”
Kamp’s challenge is to weave together an enormous and diverse set of players into a coherent narrative, from the seminal 1940s New York haute cuisine restaurant Le Pavillon with the ’70s hippie broccoli ashram Moosewood. Not an easy charge in a little more than three hundred pages.
Along the way, Kamp sketches vivid portraits of the queer troika of America’s founding food establishment — Beard and New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne (gay men in a closeted age) and Julia Child, a gangly, whooping misfit. “Caligulan” glimpses of Chez Panisse in the early ’70s are something we haven’t seen before, reminiscences of after-hours blow and blow jobs, and Waters as a hippie chick with a taste for baby talk and vintage cloche hats. But connecting Beard and Child to Waters is a stretch, except as distant, ambient influences. And since Waters is a crucial figure in popularizing the fresh-food movement, Kamp’s thesis lags. While he ultimately dismisses Waters as a scold, she comes off a hell of a lot better than other food geniuses Kamp describes, felled as they were by killer cocktails of hubris, cocaine, and greed.
In the end, The United States of Arugula is both as irresistible and frustrating as a bag of supermarket mesclun: easy to delve into, but not entirely satisfying.