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.
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.
DK: 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?
DK: 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.