Flutterby™! : The United States of Arugula

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The United States of Arugula

2008-06-22 19:14:51.652525+00 by Dan Lyke 1 comments

In between carving out cuts in our lawn for the irrigation pipe for our pop-up sprinkler system, work, some embedded systems development I've been doing on my own, and a hike, I finished The United States of Arugula[Wiki], subtitled "The Sun-Dried, Cold-Pressed, Dark-Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution". It starts by quoting a 1931 New York Herald Tribune[Wiki] story announcing the new-fangled pizza ("...pronounced 'peet-za'...") to the unwashed masses, and follows through the James Beard[Wiki] and Julia Childs[Wiki] eras up to the modern overrunning of the Vegas buffets by the likes of Puck and Emeril.

I wanted to love this book. It started strong, it made me hungry, it got me cooking again, since we've moved my attentions to the kitchen have been mostly in the "what gets us fed" vein, and yet in trying to tell the story of a revolution not yet finished, it becomes a tragedy: In leaving us with the franchising of the celebrity chefs, rather than telling a tale of triumph over the bland processed factory foods of the middle of the last century, it drops us back into a "meet the new boss, same as...".

The last chapter is essentially the author, David Kamp, giving each of the modern celebrity chefs a turn-by-turn attack on Alice Waters[Wiki], and in those final few pages I nearly threw the book against the wall when I read:

... "McDonald's could have a huge impact," the activist Ronnie Cummins, the director of an advocacy group called the Organic Consumers Association, told The New York Times in 2005. "They could be the company that changes agriculture toward a more organic and sustainable model." And even if McDonald's did this for less than pure reasons — like, say, because they discovered that they could make a fortune selling a McNiman Bolinas Burger with organic lettuce and tomatoes and Marion Cunningham's All-Natural Special Sauce at a three-dollar markup over a Big Mac — well, what's the harm?

It's not that I deny the attractiveness of the "know what you're going to get" aspects of McDonald's, or even the appeals of standardization and mass-production, and, in fact, I get behind any efforts by the fast food giants to bring the quality of their product up. It's just that food is one of the strongest ritual elements in our lives, it's a cultural identity, and a strong reflection of our culture. If we celebrate the removal of art from the process, the subtleties and twists and influences of individual creative endeavor, if we assume that a restaurant is good because some personality who thinks we lack salt and butter in our diet manages to come up with a procedures manual that any kid out of cooking school can duplicate without too much effort, what are we celebrating in our culture?

In leaving those who'd turn food back into the GM style assembly line process, even if it is the metaphorical Cadillac brand, with the last word, Kamp[Wiki] puts a finalé on a symphony that's not nearly through all of its movements, and loses the opportunity to celebrate the things which could continue to inspire our culture. I want to go to the farmer's market and find things that I couldn't buy in the produce section of the local super market, I want the next generation to be aspiring to bring something more to the process than branding and investment acumen, I want them to be exploring the problem space and coming up with a diversity of solutions.

And in that way, I suppose the book succeeds. That he chronicles yet another revolution that isn't, that's stopped early in the popular mind, may yet inspire those of us who thirst for more.

[ related topics: Books Food Sociology Consumerism and advertising Pop Culture Economics McDonald's ]

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#Comment Re: made: 2008-06-24 17:51:32.532266+00 by: radix

You may get your wish for unexpected reasons: 1) cost of fuel and thus transportation will lead to more local food (I know I'm much more interested in local farmers' markets) 2) industrial food has poor quality control: current tomato salmonella outbreak that they can't seem to handle and a list from before that: e coli strawberries, peanut butter, ground beef... large scale seems to increase risk of widespread food contamination