Tuesday, January 8, 2008

What's Cooking?


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

If you like cooking, history, and the occasional bit of salacious gossip, this is a book that is delightfully fun to read but also a purveyor of worthwhile information. My husband E. and I both love to cook, and E. has long been a fan of food/cooking writing. I had not read much of it until this book, but thoroughly enjoyed this and will no doubt pursue more of its kind in the future. This book was a Christmas gift from T. and S., who also like foodie books and chose a real winner with this one.

This book essentially traces the culinary history of our country from the mid-20th century to the present, tracing how the "Big Three" - Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and Julia Child, began awakening the United States to what can be done with food if people care about eating as a pleasurable experience rather than mere fuel. Kamp describes the love/hate relationship/rivalry between the US and France for kitchen skills, then describes how in the sixties and seventies American chefs started developing dishes that intentionally moved away from the French influence. Gradually they developed a cuisine that is more distinctly American and relies on American ingredients for both flavor and nutritional value. They especially moved away from the use of thick sauces that so often characterize French food in favor of marinades and spice rubs that boost flavor but are not as heavy.

The push that began in the early seventies in the California Bay Area for fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients used in cooking is an especially interesting part of the book, given what we are learning now about how shopping at local farmer's markets can be an act that helps to save the small family farm and reduces our dependence on oil. Kamp does an excellent job of showing how American eating habits evolve in tandem with other historical and cultural events that change the way we think and live. Although this book is primarily about professional cooking, anyone who has been paying attention to the food press in recent years can see that the pros' ideas are trickling down to those of us who cook for our families and small groups of people. For people interested in learning more about seasonal cooking, healthy eating, and supporting local producers, there were two wonderful books out last year that I highly recommend: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

Clearly, we still have a long way to go as a country in terms of learning to eat healthy foods in reasonable amounts. I realize that love of food and cooking has to be balanced with attention to diet and exercise. I am more inclined to think, though, that our country's obesity epidemic is more about our addiction to junk food and fast food than about any interest trained chefs or casual, recreational cooks (like so many of us) take in experimenting with new dishes and flavors. In spite of our culture's ambivalence about food and eating, I still see the family dinner table as one of the primary places where some of our most important relationships are nurtured. Likewise, gathering friends around a table and sharing a good meal is one of the greatest pleasures of life. For that reason, many of us can benefit from being more educated about trends in the food world and how we can prepare delicious food that nourishes us in body and spirit. Kamp's book is an engaging and worthwhile read - goes down like a
good meal.

Bon appetit!

Reverent Reader

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