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.