WHO: David Kamp
BOOK: "The United States of Arugula"
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE: University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE, Seattle, 206-634-3400.
I've always considered "foodie" to be a dirty word. Now I know why. I've read David Kamp's "The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation."
Based on the parts I underlined, the book could be titled "Sex, Drugs and Emeril."
It's a great read whether you're a foodie or a glutton for popular culture.
Kamp is a writer and editor at Vanity Fair and GQ magazines. Of course, his book is spiced with sex and drugs, plus some Beastie Boys' lyrics ("You're all mixed up like pasta primavera.")
It also covers some serious and salient ground on the cultural-culinary transformation of America, but you won't mistake it for "The Omnivore's Dilemma" on your night table. (You actually might read "The United States of Arugula.")
Sandwiched between chapters with unsexy titles -- "America's Dysfunctional Relationship with Good Food," "The New Sun-Dried Lifestyle" and "Toward a McSustainable Future" sound like dissertations -- Kamp dishes liberally and tastefully on some of the seamier sides of America's relatively new love affair with good food:
Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, the free-lovin' foodies whose Sixties ideals gave birth to the American food revolution (not to mention Tower's cocaine habit);
James Beard, the flamboyant big daddy from Portland who legitimized American cooking -- but who also flagellated himself as a "gastronomic whore" for shilling canned vegetables and cocktail sauce;
Craig Claiborne, the New York Times' mid-century tastemaker whose personal life was debauched and melancholy.
"This is a book about ... how food in America got better," Kamp writes in his introduction.
"The United States of Arugula" is most interesting as a sketch of those people who made our food better, with warts shown where appropriate.
(While there's nothing salacious to sling about Julia Child, Jeff "Frugal Gourmet" Smith, the disgraced cooking personality from Tacoma, earns a footnote.)
To Kamp, influential chefs like Waters and Tower; seminal writers and promoters like Beard and Claiborne; brand-a-holic celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse; a heavyweight saint like Julia Child; and even a seeming lightweight like Bobby Flay are rock stars and artists, worthy of elevation and accolades for opening Americans' eyes and stomachs to better food.
I interviewed Kamp on the telephone last week. Here are some audio excerpts.
Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll