Thursday, November 02, 2006

Food Reading

I have recently read one book and one article on food that seem interestingly related. The book is:
The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation
The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation by David Kamp

The article is:

The rise of food television.
by Bill Buford
[UPDATE, 2014: current link is ]

Here is the key sentence, quoted by Buford. The former president of the Food Network explains its success: “Television values. That’s all. We introduced television values and started running the business like a normal network.”

Buford expands: Giada De Laurentiis, Rachel Ray, Bobby Flay and the other giants all produce shows that conform to these values. Former favorites Mario Batali and Sarah Moulton no longer shape up: they are just too interested in... food. "The two essential premises of '30 Minute Meals' —no one knows how to cook and everyone is in a hurry—now inform most instructional cooking shows."

And he concludes: "Forty-five years after the publication of 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking,' food television is finally and definitively not Julia Child. ... Never in our history as a species have we been so ignorant about our food. And it is revealing about our culture that, in the face of such widespread ignorance about a human being’s most essential function—the ability to feed itself—there is now a network broadcasting into ninety million American homes, entertaining people with shows about making coleslaw."

Kamp's United States of Arugula is a bit more wide-ranging, as one would expect. He begins by tracing American interest in gourmet food, with his focus on famous food writers and personalities, especially James Beard, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, and a few others. The early chapters of the book make a good case that these and a number of restauranteurs in New York inspired a high level of interest among Americans all over the country. Half gossip, half pop culture -- his early chapters portray a really interesting set of events and trends up until around 1985.

Marketing trends, which he also covers, make fascinating reading. He describes establishments such as Williams-Sonoma, Dean and Deluca, Celestial Seasonings, Whole Foods, even mentioning Zingerman's here in Ann Arbor (Zing's rates only a single reference not even appearing the index). He moves on with Alice Waters and many chefs that trained in Chez Panisse, including Mark Miller of Santa Fe's Coyote Cafe.

Unfortunately after about 1985, he loses focus. Getting interested in feuds and rivalries, details of restaurant openings and decor, and a few very local venues, he forgets about what might have been happening outside a few big cities. Immense detail on Wolfgang Puck and the LA scene, a summary of Las Vegas as a showplace and money maker for high fliers, and depressing details about the decline of Craig Claiborne regrettably don't keep up the interesting pace and zoomed-in analysis of the earlier chapters.

And at the end: weakness. The brief discussion of the Food Network seems pretty pathetic compared to Buford's New Yorker article. He seems afraid to delve into Ruth Reichl and her accomplishments and influence -- though he frequently quotes her when he needs her data. His lame references to Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and to Alice Waters' activism don't show even a faint grasp of the big issues of how food is raised or what concerned people are trying to do about it.

While I enjoyed much of The US of Arugula -- especially the early gossipy chapters, where his good-natured portrayals of flamboyant personalities were often really successful -- in the long run, I felt as if he promised a lot more than he delivered. Is America a "gourmet nation" ? Does he really tell us the answer to that question? Has he really looked at anywhere but New York, Berkeley, and Los Angeles? Does he really know what we are eating? No, no, no, and no.

1 comment:

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae:)

Thanks for pointing me in this direction. Yes, I totally agree. The thing is, the book is advertised more on the "gossipy chapters" than the rest. So misleading...Thanks for sharing Mae and thank you gfor your kind words on my latest post:)