A Book I’ve Been Reading

I’m almost done with a book I got for Christmas, The United States of Arugula, by David Kamp, which, in short, is a history of celebrity chefdom in America, beginning with Julia Child, James Beard, and Craig Claiborne (though Craig was only a writer who worked closely with a chef by the name of Pierre Franey who didn’t get a byline in any article for years, despite the fact that he was the force behind the food), and I’ve just gotten to Emeril.  It turns out that Emeril’s big break was creating a special for Commander’s Palace that incorporated lamb.

I’m somewhat surprised by that—for me, lamb is a no-brainer: one of the few meats that really incorporates its own flavor anymore (what with factory-minded agricultural methods robbing most other meats of their identities)—I find a great deal of pleasure in most lamb preparations.  The Brennans (owners of Commander’s Palace) apparently didn’t agree with me on the subject before Emeril changed their minds.

“‘I went to Ella Brennan and said, “Have you ever run lamb here?” and she said, “It’s impossible, it’ll never sell—New Orleanians hate lamb,”‘ Lagasse says.  ‘So I asked her to at least let me try it as a special: rack of lamb with Creole mustard crust, apple mint relish, and rosemary mashed potatoes.  And we sold out the first night.  I ran it again the following week, and it sold out again.  A couple of weeks go by and I’ve got Ella coming to me saying, “You know, Dick [Brennan] and I decide we’re gonna give you the right-hand side of the menu.  Be creative but don’t be out there.”‘” [page 302]

I’m extremely surprised that the dish that gave Emeril his big break was so straightforward.  I mean, when you think about it, apple mint relish isn’t so far flung from mint flavored apple jelly, the classic accompaniment to lamb dishes (one of my favorite Simpsons quotes comes from Grandpa Abe who in one episode says, “Call me mint jelly ’cause I’m on the lam!”); and a mustard crust on lamb rack is one of the most played-out ways that any continental cuisine restaurant serves the damned thing.  Though, I suppose played out in 2007 indicates that it was new and different twenty-odd years ago when Lagasse was the chef at Commander’s.

What I’ve really enjoyed about the book, though, is discovering the pedigree behind some of my most cherished food beliefs: how fresh and local snowballed out of being a mantra for a very small number of knowledgeable individuals into a rallying cry for people across the country; the development from Julia Child helping home cooks across the country discover their inner gourmet to 24/7 food programming on a dedicated cable channel.  Though the USA is admittedly a late arrival on the world gourmet stage, it’s fascinating to see how (and how quickly) we’ve graduated from jello molds with various scary inclusions to rack of lamb with creole mustard, etc.

Kamp’s history of the Untied States’ culinary pedigree is a fascinating read that clued me in to the indirect influences of many great culinary thinkers with whom I hadn’t previously been familiar have had on the way I perceive the world of food and the culinary landscape of America.

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