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.