Book of the Week: United States of Arugula

I’m a little too young to have watched Julia Child do her French Chef on PBS. I am actually too young to have watched the French Chef on SNL. My mom always had a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but other than that, I was not very aware of the canon of American cookery. My mom was was and is a very good cook, but we lived in midsized cities in the 90s, so it wasn’t like Alice Waters was opening restaurants in our neighborhoods.

But I ended up getting my master’s degree in foodways, and these names became my life. The United States of Arugula is a family album of sorts that brings together all these biographies and styles and shows you how they fit together to inform each others’ recipes and restaurants.

United States of Arugula, by David Camp.
United States of Arugula, by David Camp.

David Kamp has written a lot of books about popular culture (food, wine, rock music), and he has a very direct way of saying what he thinks. I kind of liked that with The Rock Snob’s Dictionary, but…okay, we’ll get back to that.

What’s cool about Arugula is spelled out in the first pages of the preface, namely that the last forty or so years have been a sea change in the way Americans eat. I can vouch for that: people are more interested in knowing where you source your sorrel than they were five years ago. People know what sorrel is, which was not the case five years ago. My mom has a friend whose grandfather introduced broccoli to America. Let me run that by you again: no one was eating broccoli in 1925 in America. It was not something available for purchase. Isn’t that wild?

Anyway, David Kamp takes you from Clementine Paddleford (she had to explain what pasta was in one of her columns in the late ’30s) to Bobby Flay and skips little in between. It’s interesting to see how James Beard came to be, how Julia Child got her start, and the route by which Craig Claiborne became the first male food editor at the New York Times.
Maybe I’ve read too much academic writing about American foodways– in fact, I am sure I have– but I wanted Arugula to be more…serious. It was just too gossipy for my taste. I really don’t need to know about Jeremiah Tower‘s cocaine problem or the aforementioned Claibourne’s formative sexual relationship with his father. It’s just not of interest to me. I WAS really interested in hearing about how Escoffier-style sauces fell from grace, the provenance of foraging in professional kitchens, and the embrace of local ingredients. He touches on all that, to be sure, but some really interesting anecdotes got lost in a sea of Rick Bayless/Alice Waters bickering and descriptions of James Beard’s beloved muumuus. It’s an easy, quick study, but just not very substantial in some places.

Anyway, I want to leave you with a topical recipe. In the late 70s, when my mom was in high school, her dad came home from a business trip to Mexico City with an enormous sack of weird, scaly black fruits and a napkin inscribed “green dip.”

photo (8)

Right! An avocado. A mere 10 years before I was born, avocados were not a thing. Well, they were a thing, but not a thing Americans could buy. The recipe was guacamole, and I want to share our recipe with you here. It’s very simple and very good.

Green Dip

adapted from Bill O’Sullivan’s cocktail napkin recipe written kind of in English but mostly in Spanish

4 ripe avocados (cut that sucker in half and use a spoon to pull everything out. Don’t get an avocado peeler or whatever that nonsense is)

2 medium tomatoes, diced small

1 red onion, diced even smaller

juice of one lemon (helpful hint from Heloise: rub the lemon between your palms for a sec to get more juice out of it)

sea salt to taste

1. Mash up avocado.

2. Mix in everything else.

3. Eat.

That’s it. It’s so much better than adding cilantro or fresh corn or black beans, or trying to find low-fat avocados or whatever, and it takes approximately 5 minutes if you’re really taking your time. If you’re really lucky, someone you know has an avocado tree and they let you have all the fruit.

So yeah, what’s a not-weird thing you eat that your grandparents/parents/great-grandparents have never heard of? Sushi? Tacos? Non-fried fish? Did you personally read this book and disagree with my not-thrilled verdict? Let me know.

Next week, I’ll be reading this. I would be excited to talk to you about it.

6 Replies to “Book of the Week: United States of Arugula”

  1. My dad had never had any kind of seafood that was not a fishstick until he was college-age.

    Have you read Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First? Kind of in a similar vein, but very Francophilic (is that a word?) and gracefully written with a lot of historical substance. I listened to it in the car last summer (don’t judge me) and really enjoyed it. Maybe you would like it better?

  2. When my mom was in high school, she started dating someone in a significantly higher socioeconomic class. His folks begrudgingly had her over for dinner one night and (I’m sure intentionally) served soft-shell crab and artichokes. She knew how to eat neither. It was essentially hazing by food that was unavailable to anyone outside the upper echelon in 1971 Philadelphia.

  3. I have no idea if this is true or not but I read in the courier one time that when Lotsa Pasta opened up and were applying for their bank loan, they had to tell the loan officer what pasta was because he had never heard of it.

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