Food for Thought

David Kamp discusses his obsession with food culture

David Kamp is obsessed with food. His popular 2006 book, The United States of Arugula, is the culmination of this obsession, investigating “how food in America got better and how it hopped the fence from the ghettos of home economics and snobby gourmandism to the expansive realm of popular culture.”

Kamp’s impressively researched, surprisingly irreverent narrative focuses on, among others, the three figures most responsible for this shift: James Beard, the first cookbook writer to garner a large, devoted readership; Julia Child, the “beloved, warbling giantess from Pasadena who demystified sophisticated French cookery for average Americans”; and Charles Claiborne of The New York Times, “who turned food writing into a bona fide arm of journalism and invented the make-or-break, starred restaurant review.”

Kamp — who is also the author of hilarious “snob dictionaries” on Rock music, film, food and wine and is a writer/editor at GQ and Vanity Fair — recently answered a few questions in advance of his appearance at The Mercantile Library on Tuesday.

CityBeat: Why did you decide to focus the book’s narrative on Beard, Child and Claiborne?
David Kamp:
I didn’t approach the book from ground level. I didn’t make it a demographic study of how people were shopping in groceries and supermarkets from 1900 to 2006. I decided to approach it from what you might call a tastemaker angle: Who are the central figures who changed the way we thought about food and about cooking and about eating out. What’s fascinating about this sea change in the way America regards food is that it really was driven by individuals. It was the contributions of a relative few that really did alter the course of how we approach food. And those three, in particular, had such a huge impact.

CB: One of the interesting things about the book is the way in which you delve into the various key figures’ personal lives and motivations, which, as far as I know, had never been done with most of these people.
In food, there’s always a sort of weird taboo about looking at people in that way — that you had to treat them preciously as these twee little PBS figures. I’ve actually gotten a lot of criticism for getting into their sexuality — Claiborne and Beard were gay men, 26 which actually played a huge role shaping who they were and why they chose the fields they chose — looking into what made them tick, their mental states, their aspirations, their frustrations, their rivalries. I really wanted to show, like any cultural figures, why they did what they did. But to write about food people this way is somehow a big violation of food world etiquette to certain readers.

CB: I first became aware of you via the snob dictionaries. Where does this interest in investigating these rabidly passionate cultural subsets come from?
Well, they’re humor books that look at the idea that in any area of cultural endeavor there are always going to be a group who have this kind of proprietary grip on the latest trends and the received wisdom of what is sacred. Like, “Only I know about Serrano Ham” or “Only I know about Iggy and the Stooges” or “Only I know about Andre Tarkovsky” or “Only I know about biodynamic wine.” It’s partly humor and partly what I might call gentle self-loathing. I recognize that I might have my own tendencies toward being an enthusiast of Rock music, of film and of eating and drinking wine.

The United States of Arugula is meant to be a fun read, but it’s actually very reportorial in its examination of American attitudes towards food and eating habits. The Food Snob’s Dictionary is the flip side to that — let’s not be too analytical, let’s not take it too seriously and let’s just admit that when you look at a menu and see such descriptors as “grass-fed beef” or “linecaught trout” or “fennel pollen” it is ridiculous. It’s great in a way, but it’s also abjectly silly.

DAVID KAMP speaks at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday as part of The Mercantile Library's Hearth & Home series. Find out more about the event here.

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