Sex Chickens & “The United States of Arugula”

There is a giant chicken in my brain. Every time I try to tell you about David Kamp’s wonderful book “The United States of Arugula” the chicken appears and squawks out “bok bok bok.” I want to tell you about Kamp’s masterful storytelling skills, the way he treats America’s food icons like beloved superheroes, revealing their creation myths with comic book flair; or how he renders even the most obscure food figures with such loving detail. Only there’s that damn chicken. The chicken entered my brain at page 73 in Chapter Three, “The Food Establishment.” The chicken, you see, belonged to Craig Claiborne, whose name you may recognize from your mother’s New York Times cookbook. He was part of what Kamp calls “The Big Three” (the other two were James Beard and Julia Child) and, as Kamp documents, he led a tortured, self-destructive life. When drunk, he talked compulsively about sex and, according to Arthur Gelb–chief cultural correspondent of The New York Times while Claiborne was there, “He told me once, when we were drinking, that he and this little black kid, when they were small boys, would fool around with the farm animals. They would have sex with chickens.”

Craig Claiborne had sex with chickens.

There, I said it, now giant chicken be gone. (Giant chicken flies away.) That was hard to shake off. No matter how far away I got away from that tidbit on pg. 73, it’s the sort of thing that you don’t easily forget. In fact, I must confess, that forevermore when I see The New York Times Cookbook or Craig Claiborne’s name that chicken will return and I’ll have to cast it away again. Such is the power of food literature.

But there’s much more to David Kamp’s book than Craig Claiborne’s sex chicken. I’d say it’s pretty much required reading for anyone who wants to understand how the constellations in the sky of foodiedom all fit together, how they came to be constellations and why many of them still burn so brightly. (How’s that for an extended metaphor?) For example, it’s one thing to know that Wolfgang Puck was sent away by his parents at the tender young age of 14 to work in an Austrian hotel kitchen; it’s another to understand how his decision to open Spago with an open kitchen and a wood-burning oven (a vision carried out by his aggressive wife, Barbara Lazaroff) absolutely transformed not only California cuisine, but restaurants all across America. You know that California Pizza Kitchen in your mall? You can thank Wolfgang Puck for that.

Remember that scene in “The Devil Wears Prada” where Meryl Streep chastises Anne Hathaway for thinking that the color on the belt she’s picking doesn’t matter: “I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back” and then proceeds to explain how “you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” That’s the thrust of “The United States of Arugula”: how visionary taste-makers–from Julia Child and James Beard to Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse–have their hands in what’ll be on your plate tonight. It’s a fascinating story and one that’s rife with drama, intrigue, betrayal, and–yes–sex. For anyone interested in the history of food in the United States, this is the book for you.

MFK Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me”

On my night table sat two new books, purchased–somewhat irresponsibly–in hardcover: “Heat” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” My rule about hardcover is this: only buy something in hardcover if you’re going to read it right away. Well I read the first few chapters of “Heat,” thoroughly enjoyed them but felt that because it was based on an article I’d read several times (a profile of Mario Batali which appeared in The New Yorker a few years ago and which immediately became one of my favorite pieces of food journalism) the book didn’t feel very fresh. It felt like yesterday’s leftovers whipped into something new and delicious but still–at its core–leftovers. And then “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which everyone is raving over, is crisply written and smart and brainy but, as I turned the pages, it felt too nutritious, too good for me, too “this will improve my understanding of food” as opposed to something sexy, seductive and naughty. What was I craving? What did I need? A soft female voice called from the other room, the room where I keep my food books on a wobbly bookshelf. I followed the sound, the deep resonant voice and when I found its source, I knew this was what I needed, precisely the kind of book I need to read right now in my life: MFK Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me.”

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is an artist, a true artist, a craftsman with words who can tell a story so deftly that it sears itself into your brain permanently: her memories become your memories, her stories become your stories and suddenly you can’t remember if it was her grandmother or your grandmother who made jams in the kitchen, when you were young, while you watched and tasted the strawberry froth left over in the bowl. Was that you or Mary Frances on a cruise ship sailing back from Europe with Germans on board saluting Hitler as the waiter brings out dinner?

There’s a dream magic to this book–it’s so careful and smart and yet loose and funny in a way that only a real artist can make it. And the stories! These stories are unforgettable. Whether pulling her sister out of a convent to take her out for beer or riding a train into Austria with a political prisoner on board who makes a run for his life with deadly results, this is not a food book: it’s an action movie, it’s a poem, it’s a celebration and yet a deeply honest account of a human life. And, my God, what a life. To have lived a week in MFK’s shoes would fill many of our lifetimes.

There’s no snobbery to this book, there’s only honesty. It’s a very hard book to write about because it’s so personal. It submerges you into the mind of a profoundly intelligent, deeply passionate person and if you’re lucky enough to spend time there, you’ll come out changed, with your vision clearer and your lust for living (and eating) enhanced. And as it goes back on the shelf in the other room and I return to those books on my nightstand (which have been trumped by a book on 9/11, “The Looming Tower,” which feels like a responsible thing to read these days), I know that her voice might still call to me, beckoning me to return to the soft embrace of her prose, the cool snap of her humor, the clear tonic of her imagery. And though many books will grace my nightstand as I get older, one thing’s for sure: there will always be room on there for Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher.

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