“The United States of Arugula” by David Kamp

United States of Arugula coverI needed a break from fantasy, so today’s review is non-fiction: The United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution. I really love both food and history (see my reviews of Curry and Fannie’s Last Supper), so this book was a natural choice for me.

In the last 40 years, the predominant food culture in America has become “gourmet”. Salsa and sushi have gone from unknown to ubiquitous, and local ingredients,  specialty cooking tools and celebrity chefs have become routine. The United States of Arugula attempts to tell the story of how this happened.

This book is a fairly fun read, although it meanders quite a bit. We start with the Big Three that popularised inventive cooking and dining – James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne, and go all the way to Emeril Lagasse’s restaurant empire. Kamp has certainly done his research, and the text is packed with all kinds of little asides and tidbits that make the events in the book come to life.

Any revolution always begins with a few people, and it is always interesting to read about those people’s motivations and understand the movement itself in context. Kamp takes this a little too far, though and the book comes off as overly gossipy. Beard and Claiborne’s (among others) sexual preferences are exhumed in detail, and there’s a lot of focus on who did and didn’t get along. For instance, Graham Kerr, a contemporary of Julia Child who also had a popular cooking show, is introduced as “Everyone in the food world agreed on one person they could hate”, even though their hate of him had no bearing on any significant events. I wish that Kamp had instead devoted that space to the events he mentions omitting in his introduction.

Another problem with this book is that it was really hard to follow. I usually read epic fantasy and have no trouble keeping hundreds of characters straight in my head, but Kamp introduces so many names that it detracts from the flow of the book. Many of the people mentioned by name are only mentioned once, which adds to the confusion (is this a person I’m supposed to know?) Adding to this is Kamp’s love of tangents, he does not stick to one person or one chronological period or even one story. Chapter 2 starts off with an introduction of Pierre Franey entering the US, but jumps quickly to Jacques Pépin’s childhood, and then to French cooks’ propensity for local foods, to an explanation of “classic French cooking”, to a biography of Antonin Carême and so on… and when the book got back to Franey’s story after he gets off the boat, I had a hard time remembering who he was.

Aside from those two issues, the book was a great primer on recent food history in the United States.

The United States of Arugula by David Kamp
Broadway Books, 2007 | Buy the book

“Yes, Chef” by Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, Chef coverI’ve seen Marcus Samuelsson on a lot of TV shows and liked him a lot, so I was pretty stoked when I won Yes, Chef on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers programme.

Samuelsson has certainly had a very interesting life, and it was fascinating to read his perspective as an Ethiopian adopted by a Swedish family, transplanted to the US. I learned a lot about Sweden, the restaurant industry, Ethiopian spices, and a lot more, so I would recommend the book for that reason.

The negatives: this book is clearly ghost-written – even though it’s written in the first person, there’s a peculiar detachment to it which I found slightly off-putting. Also, Samuelsson is not always the most likeable of people, especially when he abandons his daughter and tries to justify it “without sounding like a jerk.”

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
Random House, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“Fannie’s Last Supper” by Christopher Kimball

Cover for Fannie's Last SupperI’m a big fan of America’s Test Kitchen, and I love reading about food and history, so I was really looking forward to reading Fannie’s Last Supper by its host and founder, Christopher Kimball.The book’s tagline is “Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook”, and is (purportedly) about recreating an elaborate dinner party from Victorian-era Boston, based on the recipes of Fannie Farmer, a famous cooking teacher and businesswoman from the time.

About the title – although Kimball was certainly inspired by his discovery of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook, I would not go as far as to say his meal was a recreation. He does not seem to respect Farmer as a cook or as a person, which makes for odd reading. His reactions to exact recreations of her dishes range from “inedible” to “truly horrible” to “rather uninspired” to “second rate.” (There is the occasional “good”, but it is rare.) This means that pretty much all of the recipes were changed quite a bit. A few of the recipes were even sourced entirely from other books, after Farmer was deemed unsatisfactory. This is all fine, but it seemed like false advertising.

The book is peppered with fascinating facts and insights into the world of the 19th century cook. The industrial revolution was changing cooking at an extremely rapid rate, plus domestic servants were no longer common. Kimball likens it to a music aficionado in the late 1990s (p. 193):

who used a turntable for his LP collection while relying on a large group of CDs and then a smattering of digital downloads from iTunes on his MP3 player.

I loved that description (although, what about cassette tapes? that’s what I used in the 90s) – I think it’s a great analogy.

I think the structure of the book could have been easier to read – part of it deals with the evolution in cooking methods and ingredients in the US, some of it is about how Boston’s food culture and how that changed (including random little details like the price of gelatin), some of it is about Fannie Farmer’s life, and then there’s the story of Kimball’s journey to making this dinner, testing recipes, finding silverware, etc. The trouble is that each chapter contains a bit of everything. I think it would’ve showcased the material far better if it had been better structured, although it is still really interesting.

I also appreciated a lot of the trouble that they went to to make the dinner accurate – mock turtle soup using calf-brains, and making gelatin from calf-feet stand out. It sounded like a horrendous amount of work.

Apparently PBS did a special to accompany the book (or vice versa), also called Fannie’s Last Supper. Here is the trailer for it. I really want to watch it, but I’m not sure how it can be obtained.

This is book 10 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Fannie’s Last Supper by Christopher Kimball
Hyperion, 2010 | Buy the book

“Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors” by Lizzie Collingham

Cover of "Curry" by Lizzie CollinghamA lot of the non-fiction that I’ve been reading lately has been about food and Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham is the latest in that trend. It describes the history of Indian food and how it was influenced by various invaders and immigrants. Collingham makes the argument that “authentic” Indian food has never really existed and shows the evolution of various Indian cuisines, both in cooking styles and use of ingredients.

I thought that this book would have a lot of speculation and conjecture, but it is actually meticulously researched – almost every paragraph contains a citation or two. Consequently, the book is a little bit prosaic, although it flows quite well and the wealth of information that it contains certainly makes the dryness excusable. The book starts off with a description of Indian cooking as described in early Ayurvedic texts, and then talks about how the Mughals, Portuguese and British, in particular, changed these methods.

It’s amazing to think about how many common Indian foods (potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, corn, custard apples, pineapples, chillies) are from the New World or Europe and were introduced to India in the seventeenth century or even later. I was especially surprised that chillies weren’t always part of Indian cuisine (although apparently chillies were adopted by Indians so quickly, that by the time they spread to some parts of Europe – Germany, Hungary etc. – they were believed to be indigenous to India.)

Another thing I found astonishing that the British had to set up a marketing campaign to get Indians to drink tea, given that India is currently the world’s largest producer and consumer of tea. They set up an Indian Tea Association, that among other things, went door-to-door demonstrating the proper preparation of tea, and during the Second World War, had “tea-vans” that provided Indian soldiers with tea and letter writers to keep in touch with their families while at war.

The book also details the culinary lives of the British living in India (“Anglo-Indians”) and to a lesser extent, other cultures. I found the change in British fashions absolutely fascinating – from authentically prepared curry, to the excesses of burra khana, to tinned salmon. The influence of Indian food all over the world (the West Indies, Pacific Islands, Japan) was also something I didn’t know much about, and I am glad it was included.

A couple of minor nitpicks – the notion of not eating food prepared by (or even come into contact with) an “impure” person (i.e. of a lower caste/different religion) seems incredibly archaic to me, but seems to have been pretty prevalent, according to Collingham. As an Indian, I would’ve liked it if she had been clearer that it is a relic of the past. Perhaps I’m just being too touchy, considering that this is a book dealing with history.

I also found the mention of the British divide-and-rule policy annoying, since it was only talked about in one paragraph, and I would have liked to hear more about the “apparently benign acts of cultural accommodation” by the British with regards to segregating food service by religion.

This is book 3 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham
Oxford University Press, 2006 | Buy the book