Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Eat, Think, Gossip
While I was in the States in October, I was lucky enough to acquire a copy of this book, The United States of Arugula by David Kamp, which I'd been wanting to read for some time. Foodie-ism, if I may be forgiven the term, is an interesting cultural phenomenon, and hardly restricted to the United States, although the degree of it there and the swiftness with which it arrived can be unnerving. Furthermore, this book ties in with a couple of others which have been getting a lot of discussion recently, most notably Bill Buford's Heat, and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, , the former of which I've read, the latter not. I did, however, read Pollan's great article on "nutritionism" on Sunday, and suddenly a bunch of stuff came together in my head. Now let me see if I can disentangle it.
Kamp's story begins with pioneers like James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne, each of whom had an individual way of awakening postwar Americans towards the possibilities of what they put on their tables. Beard's approach was that of the hearty bon-vivant, a man's man who wasn't afraid to mess it up in the kitchen to produce good-tasting, all-American food, and who was particularly adept at that manliest of all pursuits, outdoor cooking -- although he could also whip out a mean loaf of bread. Child and Claiborne, on the other hand, were lucky enough to come onto the scene just as America's Francophilia was initiated by Jacqueline Kennedy's love of French food and put into high gear by the restaurant at the French Pavillion of the 1964-65 World's Fair on Flushing Meadows on Long Island. Child had taken cooking lessons in Paris while her husband was employed there and came back to the States determined to turn Americans onto this amazing cuisine. Claiborne, for his part, was reviewing restaurants for the New York Times and got to watch the phenomenon grow, eventually hooking up with one of the chefs who'd worked at the Fair, Pierre Franey, to make the Times' food section the template for all other American newspapers'.
But the story really becomes important when the idea of eating well leaves the expensive restaurants and democratizes by merging -- in California, of course -- the impulse for fine cooking with the search for perfect ingredients, which latter was an inevitable product of the hippie-driven natural foods movement. The central figure for this was -- and, really, still is -- Alice Waters of Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant, and the early chaos of that revolutionary place is a story which meets Kamp's skills head-on. The intrigue, the musical beds, the drug use, and above all the titanic egos on display are perfect fodder for his Vanity Fair sensibility. Still, he never loses sight of the Big Picture, which was that ultimately this was a very, very successful movement, one which soon expanded past the California borders and into other states, and also expanded past the restaurant business into producers like Celestial Seasonings and Ben & Jerry's and -- especially -- into the grocery business through America's Whole Foods chain (which started in a building near my house in Austin which is now a laundromat).
The book's momentum is such that you're just swept away by the stories, and the skillful way Kamp joins them all together. The Food Network! Iron Chef! The Zagat Survey! Mark Miller! Tony Bourdain! It really is a great read. Except...
Except three really important figures in my own telling of this story are missing, two entirely, and one mentioned in passing for something I don't consider his most important contribution to the story. And, in a really, really backhanded way, this also reflects on Pollan's essay. Let me take these three missing persons in roughly chronological order.
First is Edna Lewis. who died last February at the age of 90. Mrs. Lewis was, unlike anyone else I can find in Kamp's book, black, and she learned how to cook the traditional way from the traditional sources. Untraditionally, however, she left for New York at the age of 16, and, after a short time as a domestic, became known as a cook. She ruthlessly pursued that career, doing private catering work and finally taking over the kitchen at Barney Josephson's Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, a hangout for all manner of lefties and jazz fans. She worked in several other restaurants, gave cooking lessons, and kept up her catering business, and in 1972, put out her first cookbook, The Edna Lewis Cookbook. Four years later came The Taste of Country Cooking, which made her reputation. I finally caught up with her (in a manner of speaking) in the late '80s, when she was brought in as executive chef to help rescue Brooklyn's fabled Gage & Tollner steakhouse. I remember going there with a group which included two German friends who loved to cook, and on the way out, one of them bought one of her cookbooks -- one I already had -- at the cashier. "You won't be able to make any of that back home," I warned her. "I don't care," she said. "Anyone who takes this much care knows things I don't know, and they're things I can turn to my own uses. This is a very wise woman." And she nailed it.
Edna Lewis was fanatical about two things: paying attention and having the perfect ingredients. Observing what you were doing while you were doing it so that it became part of you was obviously something she'd picked up from her mentors. And having perfect ingredients, although it was considered eccentric when she first came into the public's notice, is now a sine qua non of any good cooking. It wasn't so much that Mrs. Lewis brought Southern cooking north, but that she brought what she considered Southern practice public. And yet, she is ignored in Kamp's book.
The second figure is Raymond Sokolov, mentioned in passing as the guy who replaced Craig Claiborne as the Times' restaurant reviewer. Which he was, at the beginning of his career. He also became, through his books and his column in, of all places, Natural History magazine, one of the first to make the point that there were a lot of native American ingredients and foodways which were vanishing thanks to Big Agriculture and the Interstate highway system. I'm not even sure his 1981 book, Fading Feast: A Compendium of Disappearing American Regional Foods is still in print. While writing other books, including a cook's apprentice narrative which pre-dated Buford's Heat by a couple of decades, The Saucier's Apprentice, which also serves as a practical guide to classic French sauces. But it was his sounding the klaxon about the "fading feast" which puts Sokolov in line for mention in this book, because people heard the alarm and responded to it, which has at least as much to do with the current greenmarket revival as Alice Waters and the guys in Union Square. (Due diligence: I worked under Sokolov during the years I was a cultural correspondent for the Wall Street Journal Europe, and had dinner with him once or twice, and although he can be a tough editor, I really like the guy).
The third missing figure here is one you can link to from the list over there on the side of the page: John Thorne. Thorne is far more of an outsider than the other two, but once again, I consider him important to the American food story for his doggedness in seeking out historical precedents and attempting to reproduce classic bygone dishes at a time when this was something very few were doing, as well as his non-gor-may attitude, and, most importantly, his ability to render that attitude and the reasoning leading up to it in absolutely crystal-clear prose. Thorne's never been in much of a position to deal with classic French cuisine, having spent his formative cooking years in rural Maine and, now, in Massachusetts, but his was the absolutely perfect recipe for cornmeal pancakes I cooked this past Sunday morning and when I heard he was investigating Louisiana Cajun and Creole cuisine for his book Serious Pig, I was happy to pass on to him all the knowledge -- and recipes -- I had. (He wound up quoting me). I'm happy to have noticed that, after a slight interruption, he seems to be publishing the Simple Cooking newsletter again, and you could do yourself no bigger favor if you like to cook -- and, just as importantly, if you want to read some of the best-written, best-thought-out writing on food and foodways -- than to send the Thornes money for a year's subscription.
What all three of these figures have in common is what breakaway cookbook author Eric Gower calls "mindfulness," a being-there-in-the-moment approach to the not-so-simple acts of cooking and eating. This kind of mindfulness is at the core of the approach Pollan is suggesting in his long essay -- and about as far away from the celebrity-driven honky-tonk of the second half of Kamp's book as you can get. It's also, I'm utterly convinced, at the heart of healthy, sane living, something I may not always achieve, but not for the lack of these exemplars' lessons. In short, I'm glad I read Kamp's book, for the scandal and for his attempt to structure a story which didn't seem to want to sit still. But I do think it's necessary to point out that that's not all there is to the story.