Sunday, January 17, 2010

What I'm Reading Now: The United States of Arugula

Okay, not exactly "now," because I finally finished it over the holidays. And yes, I'm late to the party, because the book has been out for a long time. So shoot me.

Anyway, The United States of Arugula by David Kamp was the last book I finished, and it was not at all what I expected. I picked it up, cheap, at a used bookstore (or should that be a used-book store? whatever.) and bought it just because I knew it was a quite popular book about food. Hey, if a title like that is in the paperback rack for fifty cents, it's hard to refuse.

After recently reading one of Michael Pollen's books, I was sort of expecting more of the same - nutrition, factory farming, the history of various foodstuffs - but instead, this was more about the people of food. The introduction starts with a 1939 quote from Clementine Paddleford, a woman I'd never heard of, but am now intrigued by.

And of course it chronicles the writers and restaurant owners and critics and the different food movements that were spawned because of (or in spite of) those people.

My downfall, in reading this book, was that it mentioned so many other books, mostly cookbooks. And I have a really, really bad cookbook habit.

When I stumbled upon a Clementine Paddleford cookbook, of course I had to snag it. Before, I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought, but now this was part of history. In many cases, though, I already had the books mentioned, or at least I had books by those authors. The other good news is that used cookbooks are usually fairly cheap, so my shelf space may suffer more than my wallet.

In some cases, though, the book helped me winnow thought the "find one of these days" list I had of old cookbooks by past luminaries of the cooking world. Some of those cookbook authors were quite prolific, but that doesn't mean all the books are gems. While I don't mind having a few titles by the same person, if I'm going to have to choose from among a dozen titles, I'd rather know which one or two were the best of the bunch. In particular, Kamp sorted through James Beard's many cookbooks, noting which were true classics and which were less inspired.

While I'd heard of many of the people Kamp talked about, it was in isolation. Julia Child was the French Chef and James Beard was that cooking guy, and Alice Waters was, well, Alice Waters. And Escoffier was ... somebody important. But this book managed to tie them all together in a way that makes sense. And it makes the food trends make more sense, too.

Next up: Milk
No, I'm not thirsty. It's the title of a book.