It’s the 1970s in Berkeley, California, and things are getting raunchy in the kitchen of Chez Panisse, where the cooks are busy revolutionizing high-end U.S. restaurant food — among other activities:
As dealers started showing up at the back door with regularity, [one cook] and some of his acquaintances got into increasingly harder stuff. “We were doing opium stuffing,” he says. “You stick it up your ass. Just a quarter of a gram, a little ball, and you bypass the alimentary canal. You don’t get nauseous — you just absorb it.”
That choice nugget comes from David Kamp’s new book United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, excerpted here.
Vanity Fair staff writer Kamp’s account of Chez Panisse’s early days is a great, ribald read. It recounts the epic clash between the elegant earth mother Alice Waters and the Falstaffian proto-celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower over the soul of what is probably the most influential restaurant in U.S. history. To the fallout from that battle — which took place first in the kitchen and then in the media (with occasional “casual” skirmishes in the bedroom) — we owe “the mantra of ‘fresh, local, seasonal ingredients’ now chanted by any chef or home cook of integrity,” Kamp claims.
It’s a sign of the times that celebrity chefs are now the subjects of tell-all celebrity journalism. Anthony Bourdain started the trend with his Henry Miller-style confessional rants in Kitchen Confidential. Bill Buford put a highbrow New Yorker spin on the genre with Heat, in which he gives a line-cook’s eye view of über-celebrity chef Mario Batali.
These entertaining books deliver backstage glimpses into rarefied worlds: the culinary playgrounds of the rich and famous. They offer limited insight, though, into what’s happening at dinner and breakfast tables across the United States. Bourdain and Buford don’t claim to; Kamp is a different story. Judging from his book’s title and the excerpt linked above, Kamp intends to use the formula to tease out insights on U.S. culinary history over the last 30 years. “Americans have ditched Cheez Whiz for Camembert,” he declares.
But have they? I can see why Kamp might think so. I’ve lived in Austin, Tex., and New York City, schlepping home from crowded food co-ops and farmers markets with bags stuffed with locally grown goodies and spectacular olive oil and coffee grown oceans away. It’s easy, in those bubbles of culinary foment, to think that everyone is in love with vibrant flavor and chanting tributes to “fresh, local, seasonal ingredients.”
Meanwhile, though, Monsanto dominates the U.S. seed market, obesity and diabetes rates rise, and middle class and low-income people are under increasing time pressure to accept crappy convenience food.
The culinary renaissance started by Julia Child and coalesced by the likes of Alice Waters is certainly an interesting topic; judging from the chapter excerpted above, Kamp delivers a highly readable treatment of it. But by no means does it tell the whole story of American food over the last half-century.
Gourmet Nation? Given the way processed corn and soy suffuses the American diet, and given how much of each derives from transgenic seed (45 percent and 85 percent, respectively), I can think of a more apt title for a recent history of American food: Genetically Modified Nation.