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This is a good gossipy account of the world of professional chefs and the restaurant scene in America since about the 1940s, but unfortunately not quite the book that the title suggests. Mr. Kamp opens strong with a focus on the three folks who must, by any measure, be considered to have shaped the American cooking world: Julia Child, James Beard and Craig Claiborne. Ms Child's position on television in a pre-cable world made her perhaps the only true American icon in the field--certainly until recent years--while Beard was a best-selling cookbook author and and Claiborne had a pulpit at the NY Times when it was the pre-eminent national news source. So their importance is undeniable. They're also interesting, and the latter two disturbing, characters. Ms Child emerges here and later as just about the most likable person in the book, while the sexual proclivities of the men make them near caricatures of urban gastronomes. But the reality is that Americans watched Ms Child as much for amusement sake as for cookery's. Your Mom wasn't about to prepare the latest French dish for your family dinner anymore than most Americans were patronizing the French restaurants in New York City that the three were so enamored of and where later stars like Pierre Franey and Jacques Pepin were now toiling. Indeed, because much of the book is confined to the chef and restaurant scene in New York, Southern California, San Francisco, New Orleans, and other cities, it would be hard to argue that the events, personalities and trends being described--though amusingly by Mr. Kamp--have much of anything to do with the eating and cooking habits of the nation; the occasional intrusion of a best-seller by some cook or of a Ben & Jerry's success story notwithstanding.

There are some names and maybe even restaurants recognizable to the general public in the middle portion of the book, and Mr. Kamp continues to dish even as he describes the dishes they were serving up, but the really interesting portion of the story comes only at the end, with the rise of Food Network, and is all too short. See, here's the thing, no one could pick most of the folks in this book out of a police line-up, but I've been yelled at by a seven-year old for pressing down a burger on the grill to see if it's running red: "Alton Brown says not to do that because you'll make the burger dry!" Mr. Kamp writes about the internecine battle within the cooking world over whether chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay are prostituting themselves by doing popular shows with simplified techniques and recipes, but the point is that they're preparing stuff that the rest of us will cook at home. That same child has an Emeril cookbook and does the recipes himself. And Alton Brown isn't just very funny, he's also a great teacher about the whys and wherefores of food preparation. Even if you don't run out and cook what he made on this weeks show, you're likely to retain something of the principles he's imparting. This is of far more lasting value than some dumpy French guy telling you how to truss a duck. There's a pretty amusing bit about how Bobby Flay, though he's a world class cook, is stuck in a niche as the barbecue guy on the channel--the point being that if you're going to appeal to the American viewer you need to cook like him/her, not whip up some obscure dish that gets served only in a trendy LA bistro. meanwhile, there's genuine hatred for a guy like Rick Bayless over his decision to endorse a Burger King sandwich, but millions of people ate that Chicken Baguette, meaning he never did more for the national cuisine. It would seem that what's happening is a really interesting symbiosis, wherein great cooks are having to play to American tastes, but can use the opportunity to alter the quality and understanding of what's being served at our tables. As one might expect in a democratic republic, the gourmet nation is being built from the bottom up as much as from the top down. That's an even more exciting story and one can only with that Mr. Kamp spent more time on it. It's a good book that could have been a much better one.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

David Kamp Links:
    - WEDDINGS; Aimee Bell, David J. Kamp (NY Times, October 18, 1992)
    -EXCERPT: Preface of United States of Arugula
    -EXCERPT: First Chapter of United States of Arugula
    -EXCERPT: Chapter Seven: The New Sun-Dried Lifestyle
    -EXCERPT: Cooking Up a Storm: Americans have ditched Cheez Whiz for Camembert, a transformation that began in 1971 with a burst of sex, drugs, and organic mesclun at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California. In an excerpt from his new book, The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, the author savors the heated partnership that propelled Alice Waters into the foodie pantheon. (David Kamp, October 2006, Vanity Fair)
    -BOOK SITE: The United States of Arugula (Random House)
    -AUDIO ESSAY: The Politics of Brie: Time to Scrap a Label (David Kamp, October 26, 2006, All Things Considered)
    -ESSAY: The best there ever was?: The soul of the Patriots, Tom Brady, has proved himself a new kind of leader. David Kamp talks to the man who just might be changing pro football itself (David Kamp, Men Style)
    -ESSAY: American Communion: Marginalized by his record label, Johnny Cash found an unlikely savior in Rick Rubin, producer for the Beastie Boys, Slayer, and Run-D.M.C. With stark arrangements and daring choices, the hip-hop, hard-rock mogul and Nashville’s Man in Black made five groundbreaking albums before Cash’s death last fall. As American V hits stores, David Kamp captures their faith in the music, God, and each other. (David Kamp, Vanity Fair)
    -ESSAY: Have You Seen This Man?: Philip Seymour Hoffman have become the most ubiquitous man in movies. In the past few years, he has stolen virtually every film he has appeared in, from Magnolia to The Talented Mr. Ripley to Almost Famous. Now, as the actor steps center stage in the political documentary Last Party 2000, David Kamp reveals just who he is. (David Kamp, January 2001 , GQ Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of JULIE AND JULIA: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen: How One Girl Risked Her Marriage, Her Job, and Her Sanity to Master the Art of Living. By Julie Powell (David Kamp, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: A Natural History of Four Meals By Michael Pollan (David Kamp, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of GARLIC AND SAPPHIRES: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise By Ruth Reichl (David Kamp, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of DUGAN UNDER GROUND By Tom De Haven (David Kamp, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of 10TH GRADE By Joseph Weisberg (David Kamp, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A MILLION LITTLE PIECES By James Frey and DRY By Augusten Burroughs (David Kamp, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of NEVER MIND THE POLLACKS: A Rock and Roll Novel By Neal Pollack (David Kamp, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of HIP: The History By John Leland (David Kamp, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of SELF-MADE MAN: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again. By Norah Vincent (David Kamp, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A SPOT OF BOTHER By Mark Haddon (David Kamp, NY Times Book Review)
    -ARCHIVES: "david kamp" (Find Articles)
    -PODCAST: with David Kamp (Sam Tanenhaus, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Ink Q&A - David Kamp (
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: A Dictionary by Rock Snobs, for Rock Snobs (Meredith Ochs, August 26, 2005, All Things Considered)
    -REVIEW: of The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation by David Kamp (A.O. Scott, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Unites States of Arugula (Frank Bruni, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (Alison Arnett, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (Ratha Tep, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (Gabriella Gershenson, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (Linda M. Castellitto, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (Jonathan Kauffman, Seattle Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (Jon Grinspan, American Heritage)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (Tom Cooper, St. Louis POST-DISPATCH)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (Craig Seligman, Bloomberg)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (Stacy Klein. Playboy)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (J. DAVID SANTEN Jr., The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (Deborah Vankin, Variety)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (John Birdsall, East Bay Express)
    -REVIEW: of United States of Arugula (Alan Richman, Men's Style)
    -REVIEW: of Rock Snob's Dictionary by David Kamp and Steven Daly (Stephen Metcalf, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of Rock Snob's Dictionary (Mikael Wood, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW: of Rock Snob's Dictionary (Mark Feeney, Boston Globe)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Having Your Ethics and Eating Them, Too (FRANK BRUNI, November 30, 2005, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of MY LIFE IN FRANCE By Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme (Alan Riding, NY Times Book Review)