Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 23 Jul 07 09:23
As a longtime devotee of the culinary arts (I made my first from-scratch loaf of bread when I was about 9 years old), I've been especially looking forward to this conversation, which is all about the love of good food and how it's transformed the palate of a nation over the past century. Our guest is writer David Kamp; leading the conversation is Lisa Hirsch.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 23 Jul 07 09:24
David Kamp has been a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and GQ for over a decade, covering the cultural landscape and avoiding hard news. He got his professional start in the late 1980s at Spy magazine, the satirical New York monthly. Now a maudlin, middle-aged sentimentalist, Mr. Kamp is the author of "The United States of Arugula," a chronicle of America's food culture as it developed in the twentieth century. The book was named one of the New York Times's Notable Books of 2006, and has just been published in paperback. Mr. Kamp is also the co-author of the humor books "The Rock Snob's Dictionary," "The Film Snob's Dictionary," and the forthcoming "Food Snob's Dictionary," which comes out this October. He grew up in New Jersey and now lives in New York City. Lisa Hirsch is a technical writer by profession and a classical music reviewer and blogger by avocation. She sings alto in a chorus and has trained in Dan Zan Ryu jujitsu since 1982. She and her partner have a dog, two cats, too many books, too many bottles of herbal tinctures, too many opera recordings, and about 80 cookbooks. Welcome, David, welcome Lisa, so glad to have you join us!
David Kamp (davidkamp) Mon 23 Jul 07 09:55
Thanks so much for having me, Cynthia and Lisa. Though Ive long known of the Well, Ive never before had the pleasure of being invited in. Its kind of like Skull & Bones, right? Will there be a virtual paddling?
Lisa Hirsch (sunbear) Mon 23 Jul 07 12:32
I think we could arrange for that.
Lisa Hirsch (sunbear) Mon 23 Jul 07 12:46
David, could you say a little bit about "United States of Arugula" (hereafter "Arugula") and how you came to write it?
David Kamp (davidkamp) Mon 23 Jul 07 13:34
Sure. The book is about how food in America got better over the last sixty years or so, and about how certain tastemakers and social forces effected this change. Its meant to be a fun, rollicking readan entertainmentbut its also rigorously reported, and, I hope, well thought out. As for how I came to write the book, I welcome you all to shake your computer monitors so they go all wavy: Were going into flashback mode... Life had gotten very busy five years agotwo full-time jobs in our household, two young kids, a zillion obligations, etc. In other words, I found myself in the thick of an exhausting if fulfilling professional and family life. In periods like this, you really cherish those fleeting moments when you're totally relaxed, experiencing pure pleasure. For me, I realized, these moments always seemed to have something to do with food. When was I totally relaxed? On a summer Saturday, when, having spent the day swimming, canoeing, or otherwise recreating with my family, I found myself alone in the kitchen around 5 p.m., doing food prep, trimming beans or shelling peas while the iPod played in the background, anticipating the meal we'd share that evening. Or when, on an autumn or winter's night when, having put the kids to bed, having hollowed out my brain after a day on deadline, I found myself inevitably turning to food writing as my comfort reading at bedtime. It could be an issue of Saveur or Cook's Illustrated, or the A.J. Liebling collection Between Meals, or any of M.F.K. Fisher's booksthese were all like literary methadone to me, slowing down my pulse, putting me in that happy state where everything was okay. It occurred to me that if I derived so much pleasure from eating food, cooking it, buying it, reading about it, and thinking about it, perhaps I'd enjoy writing about it. I was not a food writer and still don't consider myself oneI'm hopelessly a generalist, with no deep furrow of knowledge in any one fieldbut I realized that I'd been obsessed with food my whole life. So many of my childhood and young-adulthood memories are, at their core, about gastronomic experiences, whether simple ones (eating little tiny wild strawberries from the little tiny patch that somehow materialized every June in our yard in our dioxin-infested part of New Jersey) or more elaborate ones (such as the mind-blowing experience of walking through the original Dean & DeLuca store on Prince Street in New York when it first opened in 1977, when I was eleven years old). I'm no fan of current food television, with the exception of the decidedly old-school Jacques Pépin, but I watched tons of it as a kid, mostly Julia Child and Graham Kerr. Bottom line: food has shaped my life more than any other part of American culture, with, perhaps, the exception of music. The other thing I realized is that the culinary evolution I'd witnessed over the course of my lifetime was incredible, one of the few realms of our cultural experience where I could unequivocally say things had gotten better rather than worse. (You can't really make that case with music, film, literature, of theater. Or at least I can't.) I looked to see if anyone had written the book I wanted to read, about how Americans discovered the possibilities of better food over the course of the twentieth century, roughly from my parents' births in the 1930s to the almost-present. And I couldn't find this book anywhere, at least not in comprehensive, readable, thoroughly researched, fun form. Aha! So I thought, Maybe this is one I could do myself... So I embarked on writing the book that became Arugula. And in so doing, I turned my off-duty passion and refuge (food) into a job, thereby sucking all the fun and pleasure out of it. (I've since returned to loving food and food writing, though.)
Lisa Hirsch (sunbear) Tue 24 Jul 07 11:22
I can see exactly how turning your passion into a full-time job could make it a lot less fun. "Arugula" is definitely a ton of fun to read. I marked a number of passage and will put them up here for commentary by you and our readers over the next two weeks. > The book is about how food in America got better over the last > sixty years or so I'm one of the beneficiaries of how food has gotten better - I cook and eat a lot better than I did in my childhood. (Well, it's true that my mother never liked cooking much.) But I have to take into account, when I say that, that I've spent my whole life on the coasts, and I wonder whether, or to what extent, the food revolution has made it outside the major urban/suburban areas and into the heartland. For example, I just came back from a visit to a spectacularly beautiful part of the country, the Olympic Peninsula. It's within a couple of hours' drive of Seattle, a culinary center, and - the food sucked. It was hard to find entrees that weren't based on frozen food, despite the fishing industry, let alone fresh vegetables in restaurants. And I still hear scary reports from people who've visited the midwest recently.
David Kamp (davidkamp) Tue 24 Jul 07 13:01
Well, lets get this whole buzzkill thing out in the open: Aren't there a lot of people who still eat mostly frozen and heavily processed foods? Isnt your book focused mostly on the coasts? Arent there too many fat people in America? Isnt it true that we are not, in fact, a Gourmet Nation, as the subtitle of the hardcover version of your book states? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. On that last pointthe hardcovers subtitle, How We Became a Gourmet NationI am particularly agitated, since it was my not my idea. My publisher has been, on the whole, wonderful, as has been the reception to this book, so for the most part, I cant complain. But the imperatives of selling dictated that the book have a catchy, concise, explanatory subtitle. As a first-timer in the hardcover business, I timorously went along with what the publisher suggested (How We Became a Gourmet Nation) rather than push for my own Tom Wolfe-ian suggestion, The Sun-Dried, Cold-Pressed, Dark-Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution. Lesson learned: stick up for what you believe in. The Gourmet Nation tag opened me up to criticism that I was delusional or a myopic New York elitist. But if you read the book, you see that I never argue that we have become, as a whole, a gourmet nation. Im pleased to say that my publisher has kindly reinstated my suggested subtitle for the paperback, as verbose as it is. (And even that subtitle has a bit of the hard sell in it, since, within the book, I say I prefer the term food evolution to food revolution.) As for the blinkered-coastal thing, I chose, from the very outset of writing this book, to take a personality-driven, tastemaker approach rather than an encylopedic, state-by-state or region-by-region approach. I simply found it the best way to digest all of the books different threads into a coherent, readable narrative. In so doing, I ended up focusing mostly on people in big-media cities like NYC, L.A., and S.F. because they tend to be where the tastemakers have their perches. This means I didnt tell the whole story. But I think Ive told a big part of the story, and that satisfies me. And if I focused mostly on culinary elites rather than the reg'lar folk, well, so be it. As the art critic Robert Hughes has often argued, most great cultural movements begin with an elite before disseminating into the general populace. I think thats especially true where someone like Julia Child was concerned. Now, to get directly to Lisas point... Theres still plenty of nasty food in this country, but its simply not true that the better-food phenomenon is strictly coastal and doesnt apply to the midwest or anywhere inland. Every city has at least one or two restaurants hip to seasonal and local cookery, and more and more places have farmers markets and artisanal purveyors, whether ambitious cheese-makers or homey small-time bakers. Lets look at Starbucks, tooindeed, you cant help but look at it, since theres one of its shops outside your front window and another one outside your back window, no matter where you live. Starbucks has become something of an easy punchline because of its ubiquity and rapid metastasization, but it represents something profound. A generation ago, whole-bean, fresh-ground, dark-roasted coffee was strictly the province of university towns and Beatnik cafes in Italian neighborhoods. And now we have this megachain that trades in this stuff, which, even if you think its over-roasted and tastes burnt, is a superior flavor experience to the watery swill we grew up with in delis and diners, and on Moms stovetop percolator. (Side note: Starbucks has also created a ripple effect, spurring smaller upmarket coffee shops to open. I get my own coffee from a terrifc storefront joint in Greenwich Village called Jacks Stir-Brew Coffee.) Now let's think of the foods they sell in Starbucks stores across the country: croissants, scones, baguette sandwiches with brie and watercress in them. In 1972, these things were exotic and redolent of sedition and deviant sexuality. Now theyre familiar foods, and not just in places where coffee drinks cost $4.75 and come in tall, grande, and venti. Its very important to think back to where we were in the 1960s and 70s. The food on offer in supermarkets was inferior to what we have today: your cheese was processed Kraft slices and, if you were getting fancy, a waxed round of gouda or some soft Wispride wine cheddar in a crock. Your lettuce was iceberg, or, if you were getting really wild, romaine. Your ethnic foods were nonexistent or in watered-down, Chun King form. As for restaurants, the choices were more limited, and the fine dining places were usually overstuffed, stodgy places that served gloppy continental cuisine. We HAVE, as a country, moved forward. You cant argue that we havent. You just cant. Markets across America are that much more fluent in soft cheeses, extra-virgin olive oil, whole-bean coffee, baby lettuces, tortillas, sushi- and sashimi-grade fish, and so on. To say nothing of organics. Restaurants, as a whole, are exponentially better than they were a generation ago, in terms of ingredient quality, culinary ability, and variety. (Im excluding fast-food restaurants from this, though there are some chains, like Chipotle and Baja Fresh, that are a cut above.) Sure, there is still crappy food out there, and I suspect there always will be. But there is SO much more good food out there, more potential for culinary pleasure than there was a generation ago. And thats what Arugula is about: this discovery by Americans that they could have it better. Hence my stress on the words fun and entertainment. In my own lifetime, Ive had so much fun, and have kept myself so entertained, by learning of more and more ways to experience good food. I can elaborate on any of these points if anyone likes.
Lisa Hirsch (sunbear) Tue 24 Jul 07 14:35
(Before I carry on, we've caught the cause of the missing quotation marks and apostrophes, and David's future postings will include them.)
David Kamp (davidkamp) Tue 24 Jul 07 18:00
Yes, I was not going for any kind of ee cummings vibe. It was a peculiar Mac-vs.-PC thing.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 25 Jul 07 08:39
(Note: offsite readers with questions or comments may send them to <email@example.com> to have them added to this conversational thread)
Berliner (captward) Wed 25 Jul 07 09:18
Hi, David. I read the book some time ago, as you know from the blog post I did on it back then. (Known to the Intertubes as <http://berlinbites.blogspot.com/2007/01/eat-think-gossip.html>) If it'll help stimulate the conversation later, I'll pretend we didn't have a really good correspondence about my criticisms and we can do it again here. But I wanted to comment on your assertion, with which I fully agree, that things are getting better. Not only in the U.S., either: one of my foodiest friends is currently living in London dealing with the opening of Whole Foods there and my other London friends are clamoring for his phone number like he was some kind of rock star. Given what I ate in 1980 on my first trip there, the progress has been remarkable -- and very much parallel to what happened in the U.S. with food TV and celebrity chefs and all. It's even happening in Germany, of all places, where several chain supermarkets offer "bio" (which is not quite "organic," according to the law) products at much the same price as the regular ones, and interest in ethnic cuisines which aren't quite as fat-oriented as German food is on the rise. But every time I visit the U.S. I realize how much it's changed since I was a kid. Course, I kinda miss Wispride cheddar with wine spread. I used to go to a place that slathered it on a burger patty. Loved 'em!
bill braasch (bbraasch) Wed 25 Jul 07 09:21
you two see the richness in language and enjoy the same in food. on the whole though, it seems like people are reading less and eating more. is it because we're supposed to put our book down while we eat? until I spent some time in Paris, I didn't realize that meals were the central focus of the day. everything else is to fill the time and develop some interesting thing to talk about. we're not there yet, but we are developing more language and culture around food. I like your subtitle better. Maybe they should print two covers for the hardback and see which one sells better. How big is this snob elite anyway?
bill braasch (bbraasch) Wed 25 Jul 07 09:22
make that you three.
Paula Span (pspan) Wed 25 Jul 07 09:45
I like your subtitle yards better too, and cheer its return. And I'm seconding your motion that the food revolution has spread well beyond the coasts and upper socioeconomic enclaves. Take the Hannaford's supermarket in far upstate New York where I shop when I'm up there because, well, because it's the only supermarket within a 20-mile radius. It will not soon be mistaken for a Fairway, but there are so many varieties of olive oil, so many cheeses, so many "organic" foods, far more than you would have seen even five years ago. But that other trend spreads too: of fast food and high-cal, low-nutrition eating. Everything trendy gets turned into a high-fat version purchasable at Dunkin' Donuts, from smoothies to croissants. It seems to me that these two trends are dueling for our stomachs and pocketbooks and wonder if you have that sense and a prediction as to which is winning.
Lisa Hirsch (sunbear) Wed 25 Jul 07 10:53
Isn't Hannaford's the market that did nutritional analysis of 30,000 products it sells and then posted the results in the store? Marion Nestle discusses the market in "What to Eat," her latest (and really great) book. David, those points are great, thanks. Ed, I will take a look at your blog at some point.
Lisa Hirsch (sunbear) Wed 25 Jul 07 10:54
I forgot to mention earlier that David has a Web site. The home page has bloggish aspects in that he posts about topics of interest, his books, news, and events: http://www.davidkamp.com/
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Wed 25 Jul 07 13:22
David, I loved your book, not least because it was a kind of culinary biography of my own life, from Julia Child (my own awakening: my mother was British and food was not in our childhood a big deal) to early Chez Panisse, and on to present-day James Beard House. Last Saturday night I sat at the counter at Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe and cheered on a young intern from the CIA who was working his tail off, but still thrilled to be appreciated and encouraged. You not only brought back happy memories, but reminded me just why they were so happy. Now--Miller was quoted a week or two back in the Times saying that exotic tastes (e.g., wasabi, and other fancy foods) were trickling down to the mass food outlets much faster than in the past. If you agree, could you say a little more? (And if you don't, could you still say more?)
David Kamp (davidkamp) Wed 25 Jul 07 14:08
Hello there, first gang of people who are not Lisa Hirsch and Cynthia Dyer-Bennet. Thanks for your kind words so far. And kudos to Paula and Bill for ID-ing themselves by their full, real names. Ed Ward, you should be proud to call yourself Ed Ward. I know you're "Capt. Ward" in your dreams and a Berliner by day, but sir, you need no pseudonym. To touch on ideas that Paula and Bill raised: I've often said while promoting this book that America is currently rolling on two parallel tracks. There's a part of the population that is eating more and more processed food and cooking less and less. And then there's this part of the population that grows ever more conscious of the quality and the sourcing of its food. The trick is, how do we get these two tracks to converge? We're a long way from the ideal, but it's encouraging that more and more supermarkets are borrowing from the Whole Foods or Dean & DeLuca models. And that Costco has a wine director and sells fresh fish. And that Kraft Foods, the food-processing giant, is suffering on Wall Street and in the supermarket because its brands (among them Cheez Whiz, Tang, and Jell-O) have fallen out of favor with a large segment of the public. Kraft is struggling because many Americans are no longer satisfied with its nutritionally dodgy food-like products. (Though I do like Cheez Whiz on a Philly cheese steak.) Regarding what Pamela (surname: McCorduck--but I call her Capt. Pam) says: Mark Miller is right. I think a big part the faster pace of exotic foods' going mainstream is simply a matter of generational turnover. When I was a kid, no Caucasian thought of eating raw fish; now, "sushi" is a word that every kid knows. When I was a *teenager*, it was necessary for a cousin visiting from San Diego to explain to me what salsa was; now, to use one of the most cliched (but nevertheless true) factoids of our time, salsa outsells ketchup as America's #1 condiment. There's so much more variety out there that fewer foods come off as outright weird or frighteningly exotic. The "mass food outlets" Pamela refers to are responding to a bunch of social phenomena: the growing desire for healthier food options, many of which are lifted from other countries and cultures; the imperatives to get new product out there, because "new" always sells; and the growing openness of Americans to new flavor experiences.
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Wed 25 Jul 07 14:23
When I was a kid, my aunt who lived in Ohio used to smuggle back hotdogs, bagels, and Jewish lunchmeats on the plane, because she couldn't get them in rural Ohio where she was! And now everyone Dunkin' Donuts sells at least 5 kinds of bagel, not to mention lowfat blueberry muffins. And all kinds of hot dogs are sold everywhere. I'm glad that you are able to make the conversation here, David! The thing that you talk about in your book, and that concerns me a little, is the loss of regionalization of food in the age of Denny's.
Michael E. Marotta (mercury) Wed 25 Jul 07 15:20
I hate food. I like to cook. It is a lot of fun to make something and cooking is much easier than needlepoint or carpentry. My Mom was the same way: loved to cook and died at 103 lbs. A couple of Thanksgivings ago, my brother and I manned the kitchen and cooked for a couple dozen people and we had a great time. You can get filled up on sampling to make sure it tastes right. My wife is on the way home right now with stuff from the co-op. I tallied the vegetables and proteins -- chicken and beef cooked on the grill the other night. She's bringing more vegetables, rice, and tofu. We have ginger and garlic. We'll have a great time together in the kitchen. But when you are done, all you have is something one step away from garbage or worse. And it takes forever to eat. I really hate food. In the rational world of the Gernsback Continuum, each morning, I would take one pill with a glass of water and be done with it. Regionalism? What a bunch of hippy-dippy brainfluff! Why do people in the South die? Because of the deepfried, carbohydrated and sugared low-value food they make. (Denny's? Why pick on Denny's? You know that you have crossed the Mason-Dixon Line when Mickie Dee's has no biscuits and sausage gravy.) Why do people in Scandanavia have stomach cancer? Their food! Food kills and agriculture is slavery. Yes, you need nutrition to keep going. That is a fact of life. But there is no reason to romanticize the Krebs Cycle. What are you going to glom onto next? Water? Let's have a conference to discuss all the delictable regional flavors in ground water, ways to boil, roast, fry, evaporate and reconstitute water. "Ooooo! It is distilled so evenly with a hint of atmospheric over-pressure and a whiff of partial vacuum. I just love your water." As a bunch of aged hippies with the munchies, you must have heard in some Berkeley classroom that sensualism is a symptom of social decay. Decay: that's what cooking is. You take perfectly good raw ingredients and chemically and physically reduce them step by step closer to total entropy --- and you call it "culinary art." Your cooking is killing you as it prematurely killed your ancestors who were no longer needed as soon as you were born, obviously an indication that they had no wisdom to bequeath. I bare my incisors and expose my molars at you and I am happy to still have an appendix. (oooops! woman home. man cook. bye.)
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 25 Jul 07 15:23
"The Best for Your Health!" (rik) Wed 25 Jul 07 16:28
Got some bad news for ya. Mr. Death is coming after you, too. And all your thinking won't save you. So the only question worth pondering is how do you want to spend what time you have left. Me, I'm going out for BBQ and beer after work.
Jack King (gjk) Wed 25 Jul 07 16:56
Speaking of BBQ: >>> its simply not true that the better-food phenomenon is strictly coastal and doesnt apply to the midwest or anywhere inland. <<< That is so true. I'll pit Memphis, Kansas City and Austin BBQ beef, pork and chicken up against New York, L.A. or Seattle BBQ any time. But the North Carolina and Georgia coasts will give the Midwest a run for the mone, at least where pork and chicken are at issue. Pies? Don't get me started. "Fly-overs" can make pies so good they'd cost $40 or $50 in New York or San Francisco.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 25 Jul 07 17:06
I'm a fan of fresh veggies, and I am so happy about the farmer's market movement. Is that happening in the midwest? Are the kinds of prodcue proliferating like on the coasts?
Mr. Death is coming after you, too (divinea) Wed 25 Jul 07 19:20
Thank you, Rik. Let's eat!
Members: Enter the conference to participate