Food for Thought from ‘The United States of Arugula’

by Kim on March 16, 2011 · 6 comments

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Between Andi’s beginning of the semester madness and my week with a cold that makes me want to hide under my covers, we’ve been a little slow about getting some discussions up about David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula, our most recent pick for BookClubSandwich.

To whet your appetite for the discussion post which should go up tomorrow, I pulled some of my favorite thought-provoking quotes from the book, which looks at the evolution of American food through the chefs and foodies that helped make it possible.

In the introduction, Kamp suggests that the shift in American food is more an evolution than a revolution, a growing connection between different food philosophies into a cultural obsession with what we eat:

In truth, the American food revolution has really been more of a food evolution, a series of overlapping movements and subtle shifts, punctuated by the occasional seismic jolt. If there’s a major difference between now and the sixties and seventies, it’s that the scale is so much larger; culinary sophisticated is no longer the province of a tiny gourmet elite. The historically unrivaled run of prosperity in the United States in the eighties and nineties, compounded by the culinary advances that had to excited Time and Newsweek in the previous decades, has led to the creation of an expanded leisure class that treats food as a a cultural pastime, something you can follow the way you follow sports or the movies.

Given that I live in Madison, Wisconsin, a place that reveres our weekly farmers market and is constantly open to new restaurants, I can’t say that I disagree with that statement. However, I sometimes think Madison is an anomaly, and the rest of the world acts differently.

In the conclusion, he returns to an idea I find especially relevant — the growing food divide that’s setting up the sort of class-related connotations idea of gourmet food can have.

At it’s current juncture, the story of American food is dominated by two phenomena: the “national eating disorder,” to use a phrase coined by the food writer and UC-Berkley journalism professor Michael Pollan, that finds many American obsessing about being thin while getting still fatter, lurching from one faddist diet to the next … and eating too many processed foods; and the quantum leap forward in ingredient availability and culinary sophistication that is described in this book. The problem is that these two phenomena have been running on parallel tracks, with some segments of the population depending evermore on fast food, and other segments getting deeper and deeper into foodie connoisseurship and/or organic, biodynamic, and “slow” foods.

The trick, the task America faces, is to get these two parallel tracks to converge.

I think it was Michael Pollan who pointed out that calorie for calorie, fast food is still a better bargain than fresh fruits and vegetables. Eating well means investing both time and money into food, which is something not everyone can afford. Is it possible to say American food has really evolved if there is still a huge part of the population that cannot economically be a part of it?

Take a minute to savor and digest some of these tidbits and tell me what you think. Are Kamp’s conclusions satisfying, or do they leave you hungry for more? If that’s the case, leave your thoughts here and/or head over to Estella’s Revenge tomorrow where I’m sure she’ll have many more intelligent comments to get started.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeane March 16, 2011 at 7:35 pm

I remember being shocked when I first realized, as a teen, that the cheapest food is also the unhealthiest. There seems something so wrong with that. Years later my husband and I tried to start buying healthier food- not just more produce but fresher stuff, from farmer’s markets and organic when we could. It costs quite a bit more- but also tastes and satisfies better. Now I grow a bit of my own, which costs less money-wise, but more invested in time and actual work!

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Kim March 19, 2011 at 8:26 am

Jeane: I didn’t come to that realization until I was in college and buying my own food, and it was equally distressing. I wish I had a green thumb and space to grow some of my own food, but that’s just not in the cards right now. I am going to start a little herb garden this summer though — I’m excited!

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Ash March 17, 2011 at 7:35 pm

I hate to watch people buy food because it is cheap because I know it is filled with grease, chemicals, and badness that will do them no good even if it fills their tummies. Groceries in America are cheaper than most other places in the world, even if they seem expensive to us.

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Kim March 19, 2011 at 8:26 am

Ash: I do too. I get fast food every once in awhile, but am always grossed out by it. I do hope something happens to change the subsidy system here in the U.S. to make healthier foods cheaper.

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Patti Smith March 19, 2011 at 9:36 am

I’m ashamed to admit that I came to this realization late in life :( I find it to be just another way of the classes being divided with working class and those who live in poverty getting the worst deals of all. I consider our family to be middle class and it is getting more and more difficult to feed my family good, wholesome food. For example, a regular gallon of milk costs around $3-4 in my grocery store…while the Horizon Organic milk costs at least twice that (I ain’t kiddin’). Now, I’m not fussing at Horizon…I understand the politics of smaller farms, more overhead etc. etc. etc. I just find it ridiculous that our government has let our food producing systems get so out of control. I choose to pay the extra for the organic bc I have 3 daughters all with some characteristics of ADD, anxiety, etc…many ailments that are directly correlated to some of the additives in our foods. It just makes me angry. I started a garden last year and canned (for the first time) enough tomatoes that I didn’t have to buy any canned tomatoes all year long :):) I will do the same this year! I was intrigued by the realization in Kamp’s book that the back to the earth eating “evolution” or “revolution” ;) has been in full force for quite some time…it just takes some of us a while to notice ;)

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Kim March 21, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Patti: I was surprised about the evolution/revolution idea too. I’ve only come into the whole food and food-related issues recently, so it always seems surprising to me that it’s older, which is silly. I liked the way he discussed Julia Child, since I wouldn’t have necessarily made the connection from her into the current notions of food without reading the book.

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