Food culture: The Story of Sushi, United States of Arugula

Trevor Corson, the author of The Story of Sushi, is a sushi concierge. For an undisclosed fee, he will impart the secrets of sushi to a private party or corporate group.
Corson knows and loves sushi, and loves to teach about it and that shapes his book. Casual sushi fans will learn surprising facts: sushi evolved from a dish of preserved, fermented fish. The “traditional sushi bar” arise from the post-WWII reconstruction period, when the American occupiers banned outdoor stands as a health hazard. The little cultural habits of American sushi eating aren’t authentic. Japanese eaters of sushi don’t mix wasabi and soy sauce; they dip the fish side of the sushi; and they use fingers not chopsticks. Readers will learn about the biology of fish and fermentation, subtle techniques of shaping rice and slicing fish.
With a cultural historian’s eye toward the evolution of sushi, and an educated palate, Corson is cheerful about many adaptations of sushi in American culture: the field is more open to newcomers, including women and people of various ethnicities. California rolls and western-style sushi bars have become popular in Japan. His dislikes – sweet, fried adaptations of sushi – are esthetic but not purist. He is sympathetic to working class people who see sushi as a source of jobs, celebrities drawn to fashionable tasty food; learned and creative scholars and artisans. He’s an esthete but not a snob.
David Kamp, the author of The United States of Arugula, enjoys food. He’s a second generation upper middle class foodie, the child of parents who went through phases of Julia Child, Moosewood, and “do everything the New York Times weekend section tells you to do.” Most of all, he loves chronicling the mores and foibles of upper middle class trendsetters. The United States of Arugula is at least as much about the rise of food publicity and celebrity as it is about food.
The book chronicles the rise of promoters of American food culture, from the francophile tastesetters Child, Beard and Claiborne, to California’s post-hippie promoters of fresh local food at Chez Panisse and Niman Ranch, to the celebrity chefs of the day before yesterday, with shows on the food channel and franchise extensions in Vegas.
Readers will learn the origins of numerous food trends that have flitted into fashion; baby lettuces, pizza with artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. An underlying theme of the book is food as fashion; an individual or group discovers or invents a style; popularizes it, and creates a career. Another theme is foodiehood as social climbing. The aspiring upper middle class uses culture as a badge of membership in the club, and chases the latest trends in cooking and restaurants to compete for social status.
Kamp has some self-awareness about food-snobbery — he’s a co-author of The Food Snob’s Dictionary. But it’s self-awareness of the Saul Steinberg New Yorker Map – poking fun of one’s own parochialism while celebrating it.
Readers will learn about the love affairs of Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, the drug and alcohol habits of various food celebrities. Kamp feels the need to take sides in various internecine feuds. For example, he quotes numerous rivals and detractors of Alice Waters, pioneer of the goat cheese/walnut/baby greens California local style. Over the years, she has struck some ex-friends, ex-lovers, and ex-acquaintances as smug, bossy, promiscuous, politically naive, and not a very good cook. The takedowns of Waters strike this reader as a “foodie” variant on “punching up” – drawing attention to oneself by criticizing someone who is popular in order to get attention. Waters didn’t have to be perfect to be a pioneer. Though she may be temperamentally unsuited to win the political battle for a sustainable food system, she has been a founding visionary, and that counts.
I enjoyed the book. It was fun to read about the origins of trends that played as the food version of life’s soundtrack. But it made me squirm a little. While I was reading the book there was butternut squash evangelized by a Full Belly Farm stall staff person waiting on my countertop. I craved raisins to go with it, inspired by childhood tzimmes. In the supermarket bulk bins, next to the golden raisins were tasty-looking sour cherries. I bought them instead. I mixed the squash with chopped walnuts and sour cherries. Yum, and wow. Farmers Market butternut squash bears no resemblance to the bland supermarket product. The sweet squash, tart cherries, and savory walnuts were a simple and inspired combination.
You see, I am also a bastard cultural stepchild of Alice Waters. At social events in the Bay Area, one of the perennial topics of conversation is local food. As someone who came up from middle class cookery in which canned mushroom soup was a major food group, I’ve looked to magazines and cookbooks and blogs for entree into broader worlds of tasty and sophisticated food. The pleasure and guilty self-recognition reminded me of the promo blurb on the 80’s classic “Preppy Handbook” — “look, Muffy, a book about us!”

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