David Kamp traces Americans’ taste for lattes and specialty produce to the food revolution born in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto in the 1960s. In his new book, The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, the contributing editor to GQ and Vanity Fair examines the cultural evolution of food in the United States—and provides plenty of juicy tidbits about the wild, early days of Chez Panisse.
How much time did you spend in this area researching your book?
I didn’t want to be one of those people who parachutes in from the East Coast and makes glib comments about the People’s Republic of Berkeley. Over the three years I spent researching the book, I came out several times. I interviewed Narsai David, who was at the Pot Luck years before Chez Panisse existed. And I interviewed Marion Cunningham in Walnut Creek, in the kitchen where she tested all those recipes in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
Just before your book came out, Vanity Fair ran an excerpt in its big Tom Cruise baby pictures issue. Did you get much response?
I never would have guessed that Suri Cruise would move copies of my book because people read the excerpt after they looked at the baby pictures, but I’ll take it. People seem surprised to see food people written about as human beings—people who laugh, cry, and have sex, instead of being these jolly PBS foodies they are used to.
Speaking of sex—and drugs—you write about former Chez Panisse chef Jeremiah Tower as the most colorful of culinary characters.
Well, Jeremiah is a gift to any writer. So is Willy Bishop, [Tower’s] former sous chez, who lost his palate to menthol cigarettes but was a maestro in the kitchen. Those two are hard to top in terms of outsized characters in the East Bay.
You hold foodies in high esteem, claiming that people like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse are influential to American culture in Mark Twain–like proportions.
Yes! I want to know who these people are and what makes them tick. I don’t see why food is trivialized in our culture. We give a damn about the movies so much, but I get so much more out of what I eat every day than I do from any movie I see. Food is enormously important to us—not to be corny, but it’s what nourishes our souls.
How has the East Bay shaped gourmet tastes across the country?
There are so many examples, like Todd Koons, a Chez Panisse alumnus who has started up a company called Epic Roots that has brought bagged, fresh mâche into 40 different states—into supermarkets no less. Talk about a niche product. You’ve got to give him credit for that. Another example is Steve Sullivan, who turned Acme bread into a great artisan brand. I just noticed that Wendy’s fast food is now advertising a sandwich that comes on “artisan” bread. I question how authentic Wendy’s artisan bread is, but Steve Sullivan did it for real.
What was the best meal you’ve had in the East Bay?
I’m a breakfast fiend. I like going to Oliveto Café and having the breakfast pizza with pancetta or to Café Fanny, where something as simple as an egg or oatmeal can be incredibly fresh. Having ingredients like those is sheer pleasure; transcendently wonderful. You guys are spoiled in the Bay Area. The quality of the ingredients [is so high], the microclimates are so ideal, that everything just tastes better. I asked Narsai David why all this has happened in the East Bay, and he said, “Location, location, location.”