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He's in the optimistic foodie camp

'United States of Arugula' author David Kamp says we've come a long way gastronomically

David Kamp's lively assessment of how far we've come as food mavens and who got us here in ``The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation," stands out from a sea of issue-oriented books written in the last few years. Instead of doom and gloom, Kamp is optimistic: about fast food, rising obesity, and encroaching industrialized food. He resolutely tells us that the glass half full.

A writer and editor for Vanity Fair and GQ, Kamp takes the long view, pointing out that less than a century ago, Clementine Paddleford had to explain what pizza was to New York Herald Tribune readers. Now, extra-virgin olive oil, sushi, artisanal cheeses, farmers' markets, and celebrity chefs are part of our culture.

Kamp, who spoke on the phone from New York, where he lives with wife, Aimee Bell, an editor at Vanity Fair; daughter, Lily, and son, Henry, says he's really a homebody. His daughter suggested the book's cover illustration, the Statue of Liberty holding a bunch of arugula. He chronicles the pantheon of chefs, food writers, even food-related businessmen -- from the late author James Beard to the New York-based specialty market Dean & Deluca.

Q. What will you be eating this evening?

A. Arroz con pollo. My brother-in-law is Cuban, and it's a family get-together. You see how immediately I answered your question. I come from a family that thinks about what to eat at night when they get up in the morning, and I've married into another one.

Q. The book is a scholarly history by a magazine writer. Why did you do it in this way?

A. I wanted to write it as an entertainment. As a history, to be sure, rigorously reported with lots of research. But a fun subject. My inspiration is A. J. Liebling [the late war correspondent who also wrote ``Between Meals"], although he had a greater capacity for eating than me. I took vicarious pleasure in his writing about meals in Paris. My day job is reporting; my passion is food. For too long, Americans have taken the subject of food too lightly. Too many stories about the damn movies, and too little about food.

Q. Why now? Do you think this is a watershed period in some way?

A. I'm reluctant to say it's a watershed period. But we are thinking about food a lot, in positive ways. We have available a greater and better variety of food as Americans than ever. There's always so much happening in food sections: heirlooms, restaurant openings, celebrity chefs. The examination of what food is good for us, and what is bad , is a sympton of wider interest in food. We lose sight of how far we've come.

Q. You make a point at the end of your book -- and actually this is the tone throughout -- of optimism. Since this is counter to Michael Pollan (``The Omnivore's Dilemma"), ``Fast Food Nation," and the spinach E coli crisis, do you think you're a glass - half-full guy ?

A. My book is about America's growing sense of discovery and pleasure in food since the 1930s and 1940s. It's frustrating that when people call me all they ask about is food sources and problems. Food in America has evolved. A lot of whining and legitimate criticism is a positive sign. And Pollan's book is actually very optimistic. The bad news shouldn't obscure the good.

Q. Even in the title, your book makes a case that this food awakening is a nationwide phenomenon. Is that true? Or will the intense cultures built around food stay on the coasts?

A. That hard-core foodiness is mostly a coastal thing. Still it's insulting to think that Middle America is just eating waffle fries. Look at Zingerman's [a bakery and specialty store] in Ann Arbor. Every big city has an equivalent. People have more catholic tastes than they did even 10 years ago. [Knopf cookbook editor] Judith Jones and Alice Waters [owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.] both have quotes in the book that in France it was not just the well-to-do who were willing to pay more for food. But average moms here are paying 50 cents to $1 more for organic milk. I have no problem saying people should pay more for food.

Q. You concentrate on the personalities and quirks of chefs and food gurus, sometimes revealing flaws. Do you think this is important?

A. I wanted to portray food people as human beings -- being sexual, argumentative, incandescent. A twee voice has predominated in writing about them. Part of what makes these people interesting is they are passionate. The sexual and gastronomical confluence is very relevant to who they are. What is funny is that people have beatified Alice Waters. Going into this book I had nothing but admiration for her, and presumed Wolfgang Puck [owner of Spago and other restaurants] would be a jerk. But when I did interviews about Puck, people basically liked the guy. But many were mixed about Waters. No one is purely critical about her, but will say she claims too much credit, or the more modern criticism is that she's too hectoring or too severe. I myself have admiration mixed with thinking she might not be the best messenger for her message.

Q. You concentrate as much on home cooking -- at least historically -- as restaurants. Do you cook?

A. People are not cooking seven days a week like they used to. Dinner is ad hoc -- cooking some nights, ordering in, eating out. Four nights it's me cooking, one night going out, the other ordering.

Q. What would you cook now?

A. We're easing into autumn so I always like to make a butternut squash soup. It goes well with roast chicken, my go-to roast chicken from Marcella Hazan with two lemons. Deborah Madison has a goat's milk panna cotta that's no longer impossible because now you can find goat's milk.

Q. Do you worry about calories?

A. I'm more or less a lucky guy. ``Pick your grandparents," as Julia Child said.

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