October 2006 Archives
I did a lighthearted little essayette for NPR this week about the tired “Chardonnay and brie” trope applied to liberals in election season. It aired on Thursday, October 26. You can listen to it here.
Next time I do one of these, I’ll ham it up more. Listening back, it plays well enough, but I sound rather stiff and Caucasian, like one of those dandruffy, sack-suited Washington-bureau print reporters wheeled out on the Sunday-morning wonk shows. Which is sexy in its own way, but...
What better way to spend an autumn Sunday afternoon than engaging in bookchat in the sunny capital of Texas? Well, actually, I can think of a better way: watching this week’s N.Y. Giants-Tampa Bay Buccaneers game at the stadium with Dad. But hey, I’m honored to be a part of this weekend’s Texas Book Festival in Austin, and Mom will ably fill my seat at Giants Stadium, hollering at Luke Petitgout for making yet another false start.
I am participating on a panel at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 29, with Jay McInerney, who has an entertaining collection of his wine writings just out called A Hedonist in the Cellar, and Steven Rinella, who has written an amusing book called The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, in which the author, an outdoorsman, criss-crosses the nation in pursuit of the obscure ingredients he needs to recreate a gouty feast from the menus of Escoffier. I have to say that it’ll be nice to be part of a panel that’s unabashedly about the pleasure of food and drink, and not some grim “food issues” mopefest.
We will be a-bookchatting in something called the Bon Appetit Y’All Cooking Tent. The day before our panel, the Y’All Tent will be the domain of Amy Sedaris, who will discuss her demented new hostessing book I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence with the funny, swarthy David Rakoff. It’s great that Amy has brought back the hostessing manifesto; my wife and I happen to be devoted to another one, of 1971 vintage: My Way of Life by Joan Crawford. If you haven’t read Crawford’s book, which is out of print, locate a copy and pay top dollar for it. It will change your life.
One of my FCFs (favorite chefs forever), Judy Rodgers of San Francisco’s Zuni Café, has alerted me to a mistake on page 276 of the book concerning her participation in the Farm-Restaurant Project, an admirable early-’80s undertaking in which several Bay Area restaurants banded together as a bloc to buy speciality produce from small farms. I say that Judy’s Zuni Café was among the participants, but, as Judy writes to me, “I wasn’t yet at Zuni during this critical, seminal project.” Nevertheless, Judy was a participant in the Farm-Restaurant Project, in her then capacity as chef of the Union Hotel in Benicia, CA.
The above is a line from Monty Python’s famous cheese-shop sketch, an all-time favorite of mine (and, come to think of it, an early trigger mechanism in my developing an abiding interest in food). I think of this sketch every time I step into New York’s best cheese shop, Murray’s Cheese, which happens to be in my neighborhood, Greenwich Village. Unlike John Cleese, who plays the customer, I’ve never gone cheese-shopping after getting peckish whilst reading Rogue Herries by the English novelist Hugh Walpole (I’ve never read Walpole, period), and unlike Michael Palin, who plays the cheesemonger, the man who runs Murray’s, Rob Kaufelt, stocks just about every cheese you can dream of–including Caerphilly, which is a semisoft Welsh cow’s-milk cheese.
I’m happy to report that Rob has just come out with an excellent little guidebook, entitled simply The Murray’s Cheese Handbook. It’s a compact, Zagat’s-size paperback that fits easily on a kitchen shelf. Rob is an enthusiast but not a snob; his book gently demystifies the vast array of imported runnies and indigenous artisanals now on bountiful display in this country’s better food markets.
It’s a complete fluke, but Rob and I also happened to grow up on the same block in Highland Park, New Jersey. We never knew each other until I met him while researching The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. Rob, being a bit older, was off at college being an agitational hippie while I was toddling on the kitchen floor, banging a wooden spoon on an overturned pot as my mother cooked dinner and played the White Album. But I’m pleased to know Rob now, and to prove with him that not all guys from Central Jersey have center-parted hair and mustaches.
...but you (or some magnanimous portion of “you”) like the book, you really like the book. The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation has gone back to press for its third printing, and this past Sunday debuted at #8 on the San Francisco Chronicle’s nonfiction bestseller list.
I will be capitalizing on the Bay Area’s goodwill by returning to San Francisco on November 30, when I’ll be doing a chat/signing with bicoastal foodie yenta Clark Wolf at Book Passage, the lovely bookshop in the lovely Ferry Building, where you can’t take two steps without squishing a Frog Hollow peach or an Acme Bread herb slab.
In the course of researching The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, I found the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts and Letters, an online community for chefs and hardcore foodies, to be a useful resource. It’s a good place to learn about new restaurants and ancient cookbooks, and to observe forum conversations where anyone from a Westchester dentist to Anthony Bourdain might weigh in. And–my goodness!–I’ve just noticed that they’ve now got a discussion thread going about my book, and that most of the comments are favorable.
As much as I enjoy eGullet, I’m also amused by its insularity, the way its members refer to themselves in the forums as “our tribe” (e.g., “I was giddy, tipsy, and high on the thrill of meeting members of the hungry kinky geeky tribe,” or “I was expecting very little [of The United States of Arugula] because of the title and because he’s not a ‘member of the tribe,’ but boy, he really reported the heck out of that book”); forgive me, but sometimes I can’t help but envision these folks as gastronomically inclined members of a suburban swingers’ club.
I think that an eGullet foodie convention would make an excellent premise for the next Christopher Guest improvisational ensemble comedy. The United States of Arugula thread alone is good grist. One commenter revisits the great title debate, critiquing, “I just don’t understand the title. Are we united as a nation by arugula?” In his profile section, the title-disliker includes a link to his own blog. Its title? “A Frolic of My Own.”
The most unforeseen aspect of the publication of The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation has been the food press’s surprise that anyone would write an upbeat book about food these days. Today’s Boston Globe runs an interview that the paper’s restaurant critic, Alison Arnett, conducted with me a couple of weeks ago, and Arnett feels a need to preface the Q&A by writing that my book “stands out from a sea of issue-oriented books written in the last few years. Instead of doom and gloom, Kamp is optimistic.”
(Funny, no one’s ever made a big deal of the fundamental upbeatness of Ruth Reichl’s food writing, or Calvin Trillin’s, or Ed Levine’s, or the late Johnny Apple’s.)
But I know what Arnett is talking about. She herself sounded kind of shell-shocked as she conducted the interview, as if worn down by having to hew to the prevailing food-journalist orthodoxy, which is that America is currently a bleak landscape of obesity epidemics, E. coli scares, and sellout celebrity chefs. I don’t mean to trivialize these issues (well, okay, let’s go ahead and trivialize Rocco DiSpirito), but there have been so many positive developments in American food over the past few decades that it’s ridiculous and disingenuous to be apocalyptic about the present. Let’s not romanticize the past as some irretrievable golden era; a generation ago, there was much more mediocre-to-bad restaurant food, and the supermarkets were often downright appalling, with shabby produce, subpar meat, and nothing but processed cheese. Today we have burgeoning artisanal-cheese and pastured-meat movements that are still only in their infancy, and American chefs have more fresh, native ingredients at their disposal than ever. I could go on and on–and indeed I do in the book.
I guess I fall into the Julia Child camp: I think the most effective way to energize people about good food is to speak positively about it and the potential for every American to experience it. If the national conversation about food gets too negative–nothing but hysteria, panics, warnings, scoldings–it only exacerbates what I describe in the book as “America’s dysfunctional relationship with good food”: a tendency to lurch from one fad diet to another, or to retreat completely from new culinary experiences, or to buy into the demonization of “carbs” one day and the exaltation of some false savior like oat bran another day. My advice: Be smart but enjoy yourself, and chill.
Like a hack politician, I’ve been doing lots of radio interviews to “get out the vote” for The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. On Tuesday, October 10, I was honored to be the first-ever in-studio guest of Michael Colameco, who is just three weeks into his tenure as host/revitalizer of WOR 710 AM’s Food Talk. You can listen to my appearance on Chef Mike’s show here. I come on about halfway into the show. I had a lot of fun on this one and didn’t come off as uptight and weenie-ish as I did (alas) talking to Sam Tanenhaus for the New York Times Book Review’s podcast. I should probably take a cue from Mario Batali and Bill Buford and drink lots of wine throughout my public and media appearances.
Speaking of Mario, I had just eaten approximately my weight in cured meats (and porchetta, and meatballs) at his dad Armandino’s place in Seattle, Salumi, when I appeared last Wednesday on KUOW’s The Beat, a popular public radio program in the Pacific Northwest hosted by the brainy and witty Megan Sukys. Click here to listen to our chat in the format of your choice. Can you hear the contented torpor in my voice?
New York metro area readers and listeners, be sure to tune in for my appearance on WOR 710 AM’s legendary Food Talk program on Tuesday, October 10. Food Talk, which was for years the perch of the great schmoozer Arthur Schwartz–as authentic an article of pre-gentrification New York City as Jerry Orbach (or Ohrbach’s department store, for that matter)–has been revitalized by the recent arrival of new host Michael Colameco. The show airs from 11 a.m. to noon EST, and I’ll probably come on around 11:30.
So, as I mentioned in the previous post, New York Times critic A.O. “Tony” Scott gave my book a very favorable front-page assessment in the paper’s Sunday review section, but called the book “horrendously titled.” Now, personally, I like the title, but when an institution like the New York Times issues such a pronunciamento, it becomes the conventional wisdom. Unless I do something about it.
All along the stops of the West Coast book tour I undertook this past week, I asked my audiences what they thought of the title, and they were unanimous in their enjoyment of it. Now, granted, these are people who made a point of coming to hear me read, so getting an affirmative answer to “Do you like the title?” was probably a gimme–the same gimme a rock musician gets when he takes the stage in any given city and shouts “[NAME OF CITY], are you ready to rock?”
But I’ve been heartened to receive spirited and utterly unsolicited endorsements of the title from such esteemed figures as Nora Ephron (who says she’s gotten similar grief for the title of her latest book, I Feel Bad About My Neck), Scott’s Times colleague Frank Bruni, the food author Betty Fussell, and the Boston Globe restaurant critic Alison Arnett. The Huffington Post has even rebuked Scott about his title slap, declaring The United States of Arugula to be an “excellent title,” adding, “Don’t you be mesclun around with puns!” (That one I had nothing to do with, Tony.)
I also asked visitors to this site to sound off on the title. My favorite response came from a New Yorker named Paul Smalera, who wrote “United States of Arugula? Brilliant, I would say. I mean, how else do you capture the thesis of your book in four catchy words? In Gorgonzola We Trust? Nah, too foreign. E Pluribus Umami? Too obscure.”
It was a rather tortuous process, naming this book. The working title was the very Tom Wolfe-ian Sun-Dried, Cold-Pressed, Dark-Roasted & Extra Virgin, which is duly evocative of upscale food and evolved eating habits, but a mouthful and hard to remember. After seeing such books as Blink and Prep flourish with concise, one-syllable titles, I became convinced for a time that this was the way to go, until I realized I couldn’t come up with a workable one-syllable word that could even begin to describe my subject matter. (The best I could do was FÜD–which sounds more like a death-metal band composed of off-duty chefs). Then, for a while, I was entranced by the wonderful movie title 24 Hour Party People (the name of a 2002 film about the British indie label Factory Records), and tried, unsuccessfully, to fashion a food-world equivalent: Six-Burner Garland Range Pastry People, that sort of thing.
Finally, after several days of trying to combine the idea of America with the idea of food with the idea of status with the idea of aspiration/sophistication with the idea that I can’t pass up any opportunity to make a joke, I came up with The United States of Arugula.
My editor kind of liked it. But his boss, the man who runs the whole publishing house, hated this title. He called me from his summer home, interrupting his own vacation, to tell me that it was “frivolous” and would trivialize all the hard work I had put into the book. I wasn’t about to argue with him. So, back to the drawing board. There was talk of calling the book something like Gourmet Nation, but I thought this was too blah and derivative (though the phrase was useful in the subtitle), and I didn’t want to set up this book as some kind of “response” to Fast-Food Nation, a work I admire. (As I’ve said before, my book and Eric Schlosser’s cover two very different but equally legitimate phenomena.) I was desperate. What would I resort to? Garlic and Sapphires? (Fortunately, that was taken.) The Five People You Meet in Bouchon Bakery’s Takeout Line? Kamp’s Compleat Historye of the Consumption of Viands, Sweetmeats, Minces, Fruits, Fishes, Mollusks and Fowl of All Sizes in the Contiguous United States 1941-2006?
Then, one day, fortunately, miraculously, the head of my publishing house came around to The United States of Arugula. He is now the title’s staunchest defender.
“Hitting bookshelves right now is The United States of Arugula. What a great title.”
–Frank Bruni of The New York Times
“...David Kamp’s lively, smart, horrendously titled new book.”
–A.O. Scott of The New York Times
But wow, I’ll still take the front page of the Sunday Times Book Review, that beautiful artwork by Ed Lam, and the favorable writeup from A.O. Scott, who, as readers of one of my Snob books are aware, is known to the cognoscenti as “Tony.” Title gripes aside, thanks, Tony. More on the big title debate anon.
And the book tour continues with some more appearances by yours truly this week:
On Monday, October 2, at 7 p.m., I will be appearing at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA (Julia Child’s hometown).
On Tuesday, October 3, at 7:30 p.m., I will be appearing at Powell’s City of Books on Burnside in Portland, OR.
On Wednesday, October 4, at 7 p.m., I will be appearing at the University Book Store (the University District location) in Seattle, WA.
And on Friday, October 6, at 11:30 a.m., just hours after my return to New York, I’ll be participating in a chat with Clark Wolf, restaurant consultant and foodie-culture analyst extraordinaire, at New York University–specifically, at the Fales Collection (3rd floor of the Bobst Library on Washington Square South).