The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation

The United States of Arugula is a book about one of the happiest developments of our time: the quantum leap forward in food choice, food quality, and culinary sophistication in America in the last sixty years or so. I was born in 1966, when American adults were in thrall to convenience foods and NASA chic (you know, Tang orange-drink powder and those Pillsbury food sticks that looked like Slim Jims and tasted like Tootsie Rolls), and I’ve been fortunate to witness, over the course of my lifetime, a radical refurbishment of my family’s larder and just about everyone else’s. We have a greater variety of ingredients and products available to us, representing a wider-than-ever range of ethnic influences (it’s shocking how literally white-bread American cookery was in the midcentury), and if we care to, we can eat better, healthier, and more flavorful food than our ancestors could have dreamed.

The book examines not only the social forces that effected this transformation, but the visionaries who changed American food for the better: among them James Beard, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, and Alice Waters. Too often, these individuals have been portrayed as jolly or silly creatures on the margins of American culture, mere “food people.” I think they don’t get their due. In my view, their contributions to American life are on a par with those of Americans who innovated in other fields: Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, Charles Ives, Orson Welles, Walt Disney, Charlie Parker, Elvis. (Well, maybe not Elvis.) What’s more, food people are interesting people, as passionate, brilliant, charismatic, contrary, and kooky as leaders in other creative fields. Their stories are rich, and they are told in The United States of Arugula.

For a fuller overview of the book, read its preface.

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