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.