Saturday, March 13, 2010

Book review: The United States of Arugula

The book The United States of Arugula: The Sun-dried, cold-pressed, dark-roasted, extra virgin story of the American Food Revolution by David Kamp, is not a book that is easily categorized despite its title, which is longer than the ingredient list to many recipes. It is a documentary story, supposedly very factual, about the chefs, TV kitchen celebrities, cookbook writers, and food journalists of the last ca 100 years in the US. I say supposedly factual, but as we know, the truth is sometimes a very fleeting and subjective thing.

David Kamp writes about James Beard, Julia Child, Alice Waters, MFK Fisher, and all the other famous food people, and spice it up with stories, rumors, and a-friend-of-a-friend-said... He clearly admires many of them, but sometimes he goes for the sensational. Do we really care what somebody did lewdly to a farm animal as a little boy, and who is crazy and who slept with everybody in their kitchen? That part reads more like a gossip magazine and really has nothing to do with the actual food history of America.

The book does describe the food revolution very well , from the frozen TV dinners in the 1950s and 60s to our current fascination and desire for local, pesticide-free, and naturally grown and produced food. I enjoyed the book, but it is a bit too long and could have used some editing to cut out some slow and repetitive parts. Parts of it are based on interviews and the book therefore includes many quotes. He describes the origin of the supermarkets, the celebrity chef phenomenom, free-range meat, microwaves, and the loss of the corner groceries and farmer's markets (now on their way back).

You learn a lot in this book - that the first people to sell Chemex glass coffeemakers (we have one in our kitchen), were the two guys who later started Starbucks. That before Dean and DeLuca opened a little food store in New York City, you could not get balsamic vinegar and sundried tomatoes here. This is how trends and tastes started. Now we take it for granted, but I remember the 1970s in Sweden - there simply was no international food in the supermarkets except for spaghetti. Food has changed so fast, and with the increased international travel and immigration/emigration in the last 20-30 years we are now much more global.

I recently was asked about typical Swedish food, and after thinking about it for a second I said: boiled cod, white sauce with eggs, and boiled peeled potatoes, all flavored with salt and white pepper, maybe if you are lucky also some peas and parsley ('kokt torsk i äggsås' in Swedish). That is what we were served in school sometimes when I grew up, but I don't think many people in Sweden eat that anymore. Then I added meatballs ('köttbullar'), with gravy and lingonberries ('lingonsylt'), more potatoes, meat stews ('kalops', for example), potatoes, meat loaf ('köttfarslimpa'), cabbage, and onions. Really, quite boring even if good, but this is not Swedish food today. I have heard that the two most popular dinners in Sweden are now spaghetti and meat- or tomato sauce (like this!) and pizza, which is similar to common family dinners here in the US. It is the Italian take-over! :) (Those of you that live in Sweden can correct me if you like).

Arugula is ruccola in Swedish (Eruca sativa in Latin), and has become the symbol of elitist food snobbery in the US, at least the Republican Party thinks so. I love another species also called arugula, the Italian 'Rustica' kind (the species is Diplotaxis tenuifolia). We have Rustica growing in our garden as a perennial, self-seeding weed. It is so good, especially with beets. After reading this book I am grateful we have all the food options we have - dinner tonight will be locally raised herb-marinated poissons (young chickens), served maybe with green chili and cilantro polenta produced in Pennsylvania and fresh artichokes from California. Mmmm...

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