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'Arugula' dishes about beginnings of gourmet trend

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Wal-Mart's going to stock organic food, the McDonald's website has a section called "From the Farm to the Table," and appetizer menus at chain restaurants list Thai pizza and Tuscan dip right next to Buffalo wings.

What, exactly, is going on here?

David Kamp -- longtime writer for Vanity Fair and GQ, friend of chef Mario Batali, and inveterate food-lover -- says the American palate has been shaped by a "food evolution" that's been building for several decades.

In fact, he says, "Food is one area of American life where things just continue to improve."

Those who rhapsodize over goat cheese, extra-virgin olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and other so-called gourmet items will surely agree.

The United States of Arugula is a page-turner filled with fascinating footnotes, delicious dish about bold-faced names and an in-depth look at the ways in which a series of food pioneers touched off a revolution. From farmers to journalists, chefs to kitchen-equipment retailers, the broadening of America's culinary horizons has had a profound impact on the business of food.

Kamp's an excellent writer. He uses his prodigious research, sly humor and storytelling skills to illuminate the back stories of well-known food-centric businesses such as Chez Panisse, Williams-Sonoma and the Zagat guides.

He evenhandedly recounts foibles and missteps even as he celebrates the entrepreneurial derring-do that has provided Americans with new cuisines.

Kamp cites "The Big Three" -- James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne -- as pioneers who started America on the path to a new gustatory perspective. These three changed "how food in America ... hopped the fence from the ghettos of home economics and snobby gourmandism to the expansive realm of popular culture."

World War II had an important effect on the food business in America, including an influx of talented kitchen workers from France; a railroad system that could transport cattle and improved refrigeration systems that bolstered beef storage; and a postwar flood of grain that gave cattle farmers the ability to raise animals year-round.

In addition, America's growing interest in France proved fertile ground for a kitchenwares store with a Parisian ambience, stocked with all the latest French tools: Williams-Sonoma opened its doors in 1956 and is still strong.

Kamp takes the reader on the roller-coaster ride of food trends in American culture, from the French food Child so loved, to the focus on freshness emphasized by Beard, to the "California cuisine" first popularized in the 1970s by Alice Waters and her partners in Berkeley, Calif.-based Chez Panisse. A pasta primavera craze swept the nation in the 1970s. And then there was the arrival of radicchio and arugula in New York, adding a new excitement to salad.

The waves of culinary excitement had a profitable ripple effect. The appreciation for delights such as "baby" vegetables and goat cheese created new opportunities for specialty farmers. Enrollment increased at the Culinary Institute of America. Cuisinart food processors began to sell out at Williams-Sonoma and similar shops. And Wolfgang Puck's innovative pizzas and flair for restaurant design attracted the attention of Hollywood types and Japanese investors.

The 1990s saw the rise of the media conglomerate: Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse burst onto the scene as Americans' desire for gourmet coffee enabled Howard Schultz to rapidly expand his Starbucks empire.

Today, most Americans are familiar with Wolfgang Puck, Whole Foods or Dean & DeLuca, even if they're not yet frequent visitors to the local farmers' market. That's thanks to the media's enthusiasm for covering food as well as big-name chefs' continually expanding business portfolios. Lagasse, Batali and a host of others have expanded into formerly declasse Las Vegas, for example.

Yet, there is this paradox. The USA is filled with overweight people who eat far too many processed foods, even as our culinary sophistication and the availability of ingredients are unparalleled.

Kamp dreams of a day when McDonald's decides "to spurn the big commercial farms and instead build up a network of small, all-natural produce growers."

Until then, though, he sees nothing wrong with merging the gourmet with the commercial, the trendy with the traditional.

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

By David Kamp

Broadway Books, $26, 416 pages

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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