MOST OF US HAVE AT LEAST ONE RAPTUROUS FOOD MEMORY FROM childhood–of fresh-baked Saturday-morning popovers, of sweet little strawberries picked in the wild, of a Cantonese lobster dish unveiled from beneath a dome at some dimly lit place with a name like Jade Pagoda. But I must confess, in defiance of societal pressure to view one’s bygone youth as a magical idyll of unsurpassable delights, that these memories pale completely in comparison to those I have of, oh, last week. Virtually every day of my adult life, I’ve been fortunate to eat something I simply never tasted as a young child. I’m talking not only about fancy foods, like white truffles and aged balsamic vinegar, but about commonplace, nonevent stuff: a tortilla chip dipped in salsa, a handful of picholine olives, a pat of goat cheese on a cracker, a crumble of aged pecorino, a fresh croissant.
Amazingly, these things were either unavailable in my youth or sufficiently scarce that my family didn’t know about them. I remember attending a wedding in 1984, when I was in my teens, at which a cousin from San Diego, where they were more food-forward than us East Coasters, grimly surveyed the restaurants and markets of the dire Pennsylvania town where we’d gathered, and said, “Dude, you people need to learn about salsa.” My response: “What’s salsa?” I remember my mother, in 1978, returning from a business trip to Palo Alto, California, and telling us that her associates had taken her to a Japanese restaurant where they served something called sushi, and that when some of this sushi was placed before her, the restaurant’s watchful Japanese proprietor, somehow sensing that my mother was a sushi novitiate, sped across the room, and, like a Secret Service agent taking a bullet for the president, inserted himself bodily between my mother and the table, crying “Raw fish! Raw fish!”
Suffice it to say, salsa, if I may toss out an oft-cited food factoid, has surpassed ketchup as America’s most popular condiment, and sushi has become so unthreatening that Schnucks, the St. Louis–based supermarket chain whose eminently Midwestern, howdy-do slogan is “The Friendliest Stores in Town,” now features a sushi bar in many of its locations. In other words, I’m not the only one who has come a long way culinarily. Judy Rodgers, whose San Francisco restaurant, Zuni Café, was named the Outstanding Restaurant in America at the 2003 James Beard Foundation Awards, and who herself won the foundation’s Outstanding Chef Award the following year—the food-world equivalent of winning Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars—was originally a St. Louis girl, and she recalls that in her youth in the 1960s, white corn was considered outré. (“I didn’t like it,” she says. “I liked yellow corn.”) Today, as you might expect of a chef whose restaurant is named for a Southwestern Indian tribe but whose primary influences are country French and rustic Italian, Rodgers has gotten a lot more adventurous. Her menus feature items as varied as house-cured anchovies, homemade spaetzle, short ribs braised in ale, pasta alla carbonara, grilled meats marinated in the Argentinian chili-vinegar mixture known as chimichurri, roast chicken with bread salad (her signature dish), and esqueixada, a pungent Catalan salt-cod concoction.
The very fact of such cornucopian variety buoys me. I love the speed with which the food world moves, ushering forth new taste sensations and better ideas with the let’s-top-ourselves alacrity of Apple Computer and the anything’s-possible ambition of 1960s NASA. I love the way each new month brings with it some strange, unexpected, or simply delicious new edible to try, whether an artisanal Kentucky bacon whose down-home producers have just figured out e-commerce, an unfamiliar peach variety that some small-time farmer has grown from heirloom seeds, or the utterly bizarre “bubble tea” drinks that leapt from Taiwanese street stalls to American cities a few years ago, replete with giant tapioca balls that are slurped through an extra-wide straw.
I love the way that even the seemingly mundane staples of our daily life are being tapped for all the depth and complexity they can offer—to the point of ridiculousness, but benign ridiculousness. Butter is now something you can get in a variety of regional pedigrees and butterfat contents: 86 percent for the artisanal “cultured” version made by the Vermont Butter and Cheese Company, 85 percent for the butter from California’s Straus Family Creamery, 82 percent for the commercially manufactured but high-end Plugrá, and 80 percent for your basic supermarket Land O’Lakes. Sugar, too, is making a play for our attention, its enthusiasts arguing that there’s a whole world out there beyond the yellow Domino box, a world populated by varieties with such Dr. Seussian names as jaggery, piloncillo, muscovado, and demerara. What about salt, then? Well, at the restaurant widely regarded as the best in the United States, Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, in Yountville, California, I was soberly presented with a salt tasting—a salt tasting!—as an accompaniment to my foie gras course. The waiter, like some particularly elegant cocaine dealer, gently spooned nine mini-mounds onto a little board, each salt a different hue and consistency from the next—one as fine and white as baking powder, another as dark and chunkily crystalline as the inside of a geode.
It is, in short, a great time to be an eater. And how often do we get to say something as unreservedly upbeat as that? Nowadays, it’s all too common—and, alas, valid—to complain that things just aren’t as good as they used to be: movies, music, baseball, political discourse, ladies’ millinery, what have you. But food is one area of American life where things just continue to improve. If we’re cooking at home, we have a greater breadth and higher quality of ingredients available to us. If we’re dining out, we have more options open to us, and a greater likelihood than ever that we’ll get a good meal, no matter what the price point. Our culinary elites—the chefs, cookbook authors, cooking-school instructors, purveyors, and food writers who lead the way—are suffused with feelings of boundless possibility, having liberated themselves from the old strictures and prejudices that hemmed in their predecessors. It’s okay for the traditions of peasant cookery to inform those of haute cuisine, and for haute flourishes to inform regular-guy food.
I daresay we’re in the throes of an American food revolution! Well, I would daresay, were it not for the fact that the national media have been declaring the advent of the American food revolution for decades, since way back in those primordial dark ages before people knew what salsa and sushi were. In November of 1966, Time put Julia Child on its cover, an acknowledgment of the huge following she’d acquired via her program on public television, The French Chef, and the best-selling cookbook she’d co-written in 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The story inside declared, “If 1966 is the year that everyone seems to be cooking in the kitchen with Julia, this is partially because Julia is just right for the times . . . Supermarkets have found that their gourmet counters are their handsomest profit earners, and are rapidly expanding them . . . [The] Bon Vivant supermarket in San Diego stocks more than 3,000 kinds of fancy foods, from kippered sturgeon and kangaroo tails to pickled rooster combs and 4-lb. tins of Caspian Sea caviar.”
Almost a decade later, in the summer of 1975, Newsweek featured the French chef Paul Bocuse on its cover, using his prominence as the Sinatra of the nouvelle cuisine Rat Pack as a pretext for examining the new culinary savvy afoot in America: “From Seattle to Savannah, sales are up on gourmet kitchenware. New York’s The Bridge Kitchenwares Co. has a six-month waiting list for the $20 porcelain mortars and pestles necessary for grinding fresh herbs. Chicago’s Crate and Barrel chain, whose revenues have tripled since 1970, can’t keep up with demand for woks, crepe pans or the $190 Cuisinart food processor that does everything to food but cook it.” And in 1976, James Villas wrote a landmark essay in Town & Country entitled “From the Abundant Land: At Last, A Table of Our Own,” in which he noted “our country’s present obsession with fine food and drink” and felt it was only a matter of time before “we could boast a cookery with all the subtlety and refinement of la cuisine française,” complete with a “formal codification of dishes and cooking techniques, so that people everywhere can truly understand this nation’s complex culinary heritage.”
In truth, the American food revolution has really been more of a food evolution, a series of overlapping movements and subtle shifts, punctuated by the occasional seismic jolt. If there’s a major difference between now and the sixties and seventies, it’s that the scale is so much larger; culinary sophistication is no longer the province of a tiny gourmet elite. The historically unrivaled run of prosperity in the United States in the eighties and nineties, compounded by the culinary advances that had so excited Time and Newsweek in the previous decades, has led to the creation of an expanded leisure class that treats food as a cultural pastime, something you can follow the way you follow sports or the movies.
The food world has its own ESPN (the Food Network, founded in 1993), its own constellation of marketable stars (Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, etc.), its own power elite (Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, etc.), its own literary lights (Ruth Reichl, Calvin Trillin, Anthony Bourdain), and its own high-end glossies (Saveur and Food & Wine, as well as the old dowager Gourmet, revivified under Reichl). You can be a non-cook and still be a food obsessive, attending new restaurant openings like a theatergoer, religiously consulting the Zagat guides (launched in 1979), and ordering the finest prepared foods from Whole Foods, Dean & DeLuca, or Williams-Sonoma. Or you can be a serious cook and fill your kitchen with professional-grade equipment—the six-burner Viking Range, the Sub-Zero refrigerator, the supersharp Global knives from Japan—and buy your produce and artisanal edibles from the local farmers’ market that didn’t exist ten years ago, and exhibit your disdain for mere “feeders” by subscribing to and following the recipes of Cook’s Illustrated, the meticulousy researched, trend-averse anti-glossy that has thrived since its founding in 1980 without the benefit of any advertising revenue. While I don’t think we have realized Villas’s vision of a unified, codified national cuisine like France’s, nor do I think we ever will—America is just too big, unwieldy, multiregional, and multicultural for that—we have come that much closer to being a nation where, as in France (and Italy and Japan), food is a fundamental facet of our cultural life, a part of the conversation, something contemplated as well as eaten.
This is a big deal, for America has long struggled with the very idea of culinary sophistication, viewing it warily as a sign of elitism (an unforgivable sin in a populist land), weirdness, or worse. Booth Tarkington captured this attitude in an amusing passage in his 1918 novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, in which an Indianapolis commoner reacts skeptically to the latest highfalutin delicacy to hit the city, olives: “Green things they are, something like a hard plum, but a friend of mine told me they tasted a good deal like a bad hickory-nut. My wife says she’s going to buy some; you got to eat nine and then you get to like ’em, she says. Well, I wouldn’t eat nine bad hickory-nuts to get to like them.”
Much more recently, in 1989, in the black comedy Heathers, the movie’s teen protagonists were able to pass off their murder of two mean jocks as a gay suicide pact by leaving bottled mineral water at the scene. (“This is Ohio . . . If you don’t have a brewski in your hand, you might as well be wearing a dress.”) To this day, there are those who make alarmist hay of suspect food preferences. In her best seller Treason, the conservative commentator Ann Coulter derides liberals who opposed the invasion of Iraq as having “sulked with their cheese-tasting friends,” the French, as if being buddies with someone who appreciates a good Morbier is an act of sedition (and notwithstanding the fact that America’s foremost cheese expert, Steven Jenkins, of New York City’s Fairway Market, is a political conservative). And during the 2004 presidential election, an Iowa conservative group paid $100,000 to air a television commercial that excoriated supporters of the former Vermont governor Howard Dean as “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving” freaks.
But these food phobics are the laggards, the ones who haven’t gotten the message that Americans are increasingly sophisticated about what they eat and expansive in their tastes. Indeed, it’s getting harder, in a good way, to define what constitutes a “gourmet” product nowadays. Is brie really gourmet anymore, or extra-virgin olive oil, or prosciutto, or fresh pasta? Is it gourmet to use fresh herbs instead of dried ones from a McCormick tin? Technically, the millions of people who get their coffee from Starbucks every morning are purchasing, to use the trade term, “specialty” coffee, but at this point, with 5,000-plus U.S. locations and 10,000-plus worldwide, is drinking Starbucks coffee really that much of a specialty-food experience, or simply a better one than gulping down the watery deli swill we all used to put up with?
This is a book about how we got to this point—how food in America got better, and how it hopped the fence from the ghettos of home economics and snobby gourmandism to the expansive realm of popular culture. The paterfamilias of this saga is James Beard, who announced his corporeal presence on this earth in 1903 as an enormous, thirteen-pounds-plus newborn, and remained, until his death in 1985, a literally and figuratively outsize character in the food world, the undisputed dean of American gastronomy. There were plenty of other cookbook writers and cooking teachers before Beard, but none who had his knack for engaging so large and varied an audience, and for legitimizing American cookery as both a heritage to be drawn upon and a cause to be advanced. That’s why the action of this book begins, give or take a few digressions, in 1939, the year a despairing Beard, who had moved to New York from his native Oregon to pursue a life in the theater, recognized that he was no Lionel Barrymore and decided to supplement his meager income by co-founding a catering company—the first step in his massively influential food career, taken at a time when the words “food” and “career” did not sit comfortably together.
And onward the story continues to Julia Child, the beloved, warbling giantess from Pasadena who demystified sophisticated French cookery for average Americans; Craig Claiborne of The New York Times, who turned food writing into a bona fide arm of journalism and invented the make-or-break, starred restaurant review; Alice Waters, the untrained Berkeley counterculturist whose co-creation of the iconoclastic restaurant Chez Panisse was as much a political mission to enlighten the masses as it was a culinary pursuit; Wolfgang Puck, the Austrian-born, Los Angeles–based chef who unabashedly embraced American capitalism, expanding a business that started with one restaurant, Spago, into a multifarious empire that encompasses upscale dining establishments, inexpensive cafés, and supermarket products; and dozens of other influential figures, some of whose names are recognizable as national brands (Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma; Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca), and some of whom have been forgotten or are unsung heroes whose names were never well-known in the first place.
It’s a rich cast of characters, because the American food world, though often perceived as a precious refuge for aesthetes, adorable eccentrics, and saintly earth-mother figures devoted to sustainable agriculture and arranging baby lettuces just so, is, in reality, like any other creative milieu—full of passionate, driven, talented, egocentric, sharp-elbowed people, some congenial, some difficult, most of whom know one another and regard one another with varying degrees of fraternity, rivalry, warmth, and malice. (One reason Bourdain’s scabrous memoir, Kitchen Confidential, resonated with so many food professionals is that it gave lie to the old PBS image of the kitchen as a becalmed place where Concerto No. 1 from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is always playing.)
The raggedy tale of Chez Panisse alone is rife with moments of idealist struggle, druggy abandon, screwball comedy, workplace romance, seat-of-the-pants innovation, and serious dissension—some of its participants extolling Waters as a magnetic, kindhearted soul of extraordinary vision and ingenuity, and others deriding her as an imperious, disengaged credit hog who can’t even cook that well. There have been personal friendships in the food world that, more by accident than design, have had nationwide repercussions—like the one Claiborne struck up in the fifties with the chef of Le Pavillon, Pierre Franey, which resulted in nearly three decades of collaboration at The New York Times, and the one Boulud struck up with Vongerichten in the mid-eighties, when both were young chefs on the rise in New York, egging each other on with fantasies of what it would be like to be not only chefs but chef-owners. And there are tiffs: the two chef-authors who have done more than anyone to educate Americans about authentic Mexican food, Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy, don’t care for each other. The two most brilliant marketers of specialty foods in New York City, Eli Zabar and Giorgio DeLuca, nearly had a smackdown in Zabar’s shop in the late seventies when the former suspected the latter of stealing ideas. (Fortunately, tempers cooled before any vials of aged balsamic vinegar were toppled and shattered.) There is still simmering controversy, more than three decades after the fact, over who invented pasta primavera, and precisely what ingredients should be in it.
There are so many plots and subplots to the American-food saga, such a wealth of characters, that this book could potentially be several books, a multivolume epic of Proustian length. But in the interests of serving forth a digestible narrative—if you’ll indulge the gastronomical metaphors; then I’ll stop, I promise—I’ve sacrificed certain plotlines. Not every region gets its due (sorry, Lydia Shire, Jasper White, and all you great Boston-area chefs; sorry, Norman Van Aken and company down in Florida), nor do the whizzes and wunderkinds of the dessert and chocolate worlds (sorry Jacques Torres, Sherry Yard, John Scharffenberger, etc.). And I’ve given admittedly short shrift to the extraordinary American wine boom that’s accompanied the food revolution—a subject that really deserves a book all to itself.
I’m compelled to acknowledge, however, that every so often I encountered an interviewee who cocked an eyebrow and questioned this book’s very premise, arguing that food in America has, in fact, been going down the tubes for years. “Oh, it’s definitely gotten much worse, with all the processed foods and meals eaten outside the home—hardly anyone cooks at home anymore,” Marion Cunningham told me as we sat at her dining-room table in Walnut Creek, California, adjacent to the very kitchen where she tested the recipes for her landmark 1979 revision and modernization of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Cunningham, a Beard protégé for whom fame and success in the food world did not come until she was well into middle age, has been around long enough—since 1921, to be precise—to remember when mothers did most of their own baking, put up their own preserves, routinely used ingredients from their own gardens, and yoo-hooed their husbands and children to the table for a shared meal and a lively discussion of the day’s events. I don’t mean to turn a blind eye to the issues Cunningham raises, or even to those she hasn’t—such as the epidemic that has seen the number of Americans classified as “overweight” or “obese” rise to 64 percent, and the threat that rapacious agribusiness poses to small farmers, and the health dangers posed by farmed salmon and hormone- and antibiotic-treated beef, and the commercial food industry’s infliction upon us of ever-more-shuddersome products like green Heinz ketchup and stuffed-crust pizza. There are food- and nutrition-related problems out there that warrant serious consideration and action, and while these issues are acknowledged in this book, they are not its main subject. (I would suggest two excellent books by Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health and Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism, for further reading on these topics.)
But I must respectfully disagree with Cunningham’s conclusion that we as a nation have slid backward culinarily. We enjoy a vastly greater choice of goods and eating options than our forebears did, and, if we choose well, we can eat better, and more healthfully, and with a greater knowledge of culinary cultures outside our own, than our grandparents ever could have imagined. Furthermore, the very fact that the aforementioned issues have come to the fore, and are now the subject of symposia and debate, is yet another indication of how far food has come in the American consciousness. You wouldn’t have McDonald’s scrambling to shore up its death-burger image by offering salads with Newman’s Own dressing, abolishing its Super Size portions, and switching to vegetable oil for its french fries, or Burger King angling for health and foodie cred by hiring Bayless to promote its Santa Fe Fire-Grilled Chicken Baguette Sandwich, or Alice Waters taking on the sorry state of school lunches as a pet cause, if the food world hadn’t acquired some muscle and cachet that it lacked even a decade ago.
I feel I should also address those dissenters who, rather less graciously than Cunningham, have condemned as their idea of hell the very climate of ferment and ambition that so excites me. The same James Villas who abounded with optimism in Town & Country in the seventies is now an unfettered (albeit whip-smart and entertaining) crank who proudly trumpets his abhorrence of sushi and salsa, refers to these times as the “era of gastropornography,” and believes that the heyday of American food came and went in the sixties, when fine-dining traditions were still prevalent and chefs kept to one kind of cuisine, in just one kitchen. “Contrary to all the ecstatic proclamations by the ever-gullible food press, the proliferation of trendy cookbooks, and the wildly buoyant Zagat restaurant surveys,” he wrote in his 2002 memoir, Between Bites, “gastronomy in America [has] evolved into nothing more than a sick joke” that would mortify the likes of Beard and Claiborne if they were alive today.
Likewise, Robert Clark, at the end of his otherwise impressive and cogent 1993 biography of Beard, The Solace of Food, throws a hissy fit about what the food world has become in the wake of its patriarch’s death, blasting it as shallow, trend obsessed, and in suicidal thrall to celebrity chefs and myopic Manhattan tastemakers who delude themselves into believing that “the whole country [is] greedily feeding on chanterelles and mâche.” Like Villas, he imagines that Beard would be horrified by it all, surveying the scene like the weeping Indian in the old Keep America Beautiful ad: “We seem as a people less inclined to gather at our stoves and our tables and take succor in the good things that happen around them . . . and James Beard would have thought that a tragedy.”
These laments bring to mind the wounded, I-was-there-first bitterness of the early R.E.M. or Nirvana fan who has never gotten over the fact that his favorite indie band got big, and who therefore sees a positive development—the mass acceptance of what was once a small movement—as some kind of unforgivable sellout. There’s no doubt that chefs and food editors do indeed get caught up in risible trends (for example, blackened fish in the eighties, lemongrass abuse in the nineties, foams in the early twenty-first century), and that the celebrity-chef machinery coughs up the occasional vainglorious twit, but these are mere glitches in what has been a remarkable culinary evolution. While the whole country most certainly is not “greedily feeding” on mâche, things are moving fast enough that, in the decade-plus since Clark launched his gratuitous, unprovoked attack on the perfectly innocent salad green, a Chez Panisse alumnus named Todd Koons has started up a company called Epic Roots that distributes bagged, fresh mâche to supermarkets in thirty states. In the same period, an alumnus of Wolfgang Puck’s kitchen, Nancy Silverton, has rapidly expanded her La Brea Bakery, whose artisanal baguettes and sourdough loaves are par-baked in Southern California, shipped frozen to supermarkets across the country, and baked to completion on the premises the day they’re sold, allowing people all over the United States to enjoy fresh-baked bread of a sort that was once available only in expensive West Coast specialty shops.
Besides, I’m not entirely sold on the guilt trip that some in the food elite like to lay on non-cooks and infrequent cooks. Though I’m an enthusiastic home cook myself, I recognize that this is America, and part of what has made America America is its drive, its impatience, its demand of long hours in the workplace, its two-career couples, its lack of Mediterranean languor. It’s all well and good to pine for the vanished America in which moms stayed home and issued forth three hot meals a day, or to gaze across the Atlantic with envy at Europeans who still take three hours off for a midday meal with wine—and it sure is nice to appropriate the rhythms of these places over the weekend or while we’re on vacation—but that ain’t us.
So maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world that the bustling, ever-busy, aromatic home kitchen of yore has been replaced by an ad hoc arrangement of dining out, ordering in, toting home prepared foods, and occasionally whipping up something from scratch. And maybe it wouldn’t be so horrible if those who flat-out don’t want to cook never had to, provided they had options and inclinations beyond processed fast food. Indeed, to some culinary thinkers, like the brilliant Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, this represents an exciting new frontier. “From an opportunity standpoint, it’s gonna be an amazing time to be a cook or a chef twenty, twenty-five years from now,” he says. “It’s a weird time at the moment, because you have a massive part of the population that doesn’t cook, maybe doesn’t even know how to cook, and yet is conversant in several food languages, knows its way around a sushi menu. And then there’s this whole ’nother segment of non-cooks that eats nothing but fast food and processed food, which is part of the reason we have the obesity problem. Either way, you have people who, whether for personal reasons, time-commitment reasons, or financial reasons, aren’t cooking. I think there’s extraordinary potential behind that, to feed people who aren’t feeding themselves, and to do it right. We can’t be afraid of progress in the food world.”
But this is getting ahead of the story. There are beans to be shelled, roasts to be trimmed, oysters to be shucked, big fish to be gutted . . .
Excerpted from The United States of Arugula by David Kamp
Copyright © 2006 by David Kamp
Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.