Foodie Book Club Review: The United States of Arugula, How We Became a Gourmet Nation

The United States of Arugula

For the most part, many of us rarely think of history when it comes to food. Food is food. We love to eat, enjoy, share recipes and try new and exciting ingredients. Even I didn’t grasp the significance of its origins until halfway through this book. I was having a conversation with my baby brother about a well-known recipe site called Tastespotting (check out our stuff here). He was excited because every recipe was seemingly at his fingertips and he would no longer need to buy cookbooks. It set me off on a long, typical-of-me diatribe about the importance of cookbooks as influential and important historical record. That the history of our food, and the foundations of its major movements are just as important as any other in history because they say a lot about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

The idea that there was a time before serious food reviews, health food restaurants and an active movement against processed food and chemicals still amazes me. It says so much about the people who have gotten us to where we are now and how each of their contributions wove their way to what we’re able to enjoy effortlessly every day. Since starting this book I’ve gone on several library rampages, checking out everything from Beard to Waters, reading slowly and often multiple times their thoughts about ingredients and their recipes. I’ve become particularly attached to Alice Waters’s work. Her take on slow, simple food and ethical eating is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly extreme environment in the blogosphere. One sentence particularly jumped out at me:

“Waters was decidedly a sensualist and flavorist who had no truck with the puritanical types who saw nobility in deprivation or junky pseudo-proletarian diet choices.”

In this sentence she was talking particularly about the political revolutionaries who ate very basic, inexpensive food, but it also spoke to her later thoughts about the burgeoning mung-beans-and-tofu “natural” movement. As someone who straddles a lot of fences, the idea that you can champion healthy, ethical eating without stripping food down to nothing is a welcome ring to someone uninterested in food martyrdom and absolutes.

This book is a thorough but refreshingly fast-paced look at the origins of gourmet food and the green food movement without being snoody or narrow. It covers everything from French food to farmer’s markets. If you have no background in culinary arts it is chronologically well-organized and only gets a little complicated with some excessive name-dropping toward the end. Best of all, you get a traced history of how a few determined visionaries have changed not only how we think about food, but how its inspired our choices and contribution to the shaping of our history through our
choice of foods.

This is another book from the Foodie Book Club by (Never)Homemaker. I’m on hiatus from the club this month in order to get settled into the rigors of grad school life (among other things), but I will return for July’s book: The Kind Diet, by Alicia Silverstone. Stay tuned later today for our take on Classic Margherita Pizza inspired by Chef Wolfgang Puck and his first restaurant Spago!




Comments

  1. Hey! Great write-up. I wish I could have finished the book. I love being in this foodie book club. It’s introduced me to so many new (and good) reads. I’m the teaching assistant for a month-long course to London in July, so I don’t know if I’ll have time to read the this month or next month’s books. I’ve got a lot of required reads and will be pretty busy…..BUT I’m going to try to read them because they both sound so good.

  2. Thanks! I wish I could have kept up this month, but I knew it just wasn’t going to be possible with grad school and all the travel we have on the calendar. I hope the book club keeps going, not a lot of posts this month:(

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