Sunday, October 14, 2007

food studies

When I was in San Francisco briefly this past June, I passed by a bar called "Social Studies." What a great name. So perfect! Plus you can have dorky quiz nights! But I can't find proof of it on the interwebs. I should have gone in and done some social studying of my own. Oh ho!

Was "Social Studies" at school just another word for "History"? I can't remember. See! This is why there's no way I'm naturally adept at these subjects. Because I have the memory of mouse brain. I'm pretty good at rushing around a maze-like contraption to find a chunk of cheese though. Not like neon orange cheese though. Puh-lease. I am a gourmand mouse-brain, thank you very much.

So I recently finished David Kamp's United States of Arugula, but not recently enough to have a bunch of cool, intriguing facts I learned from it to entice you to read it. This melting pot — no, mixed salad (oh ho! ok I'll stop doing that) — of information is admirably comprehensive and jam-packed (mm!) in that you can go through and find just about every foodie-related proper noun you can think of, but delivered in an easy to read reporting tone and an easy to read, near-gossipy dishiness. Mrowr! The latter might put people off, but it seems to resonate with the close-knitness of the food world and the undoubtably "character" characters which inhabit it.

I had sort of a 'duh' moment when I realized that not only were foods like pizza and sushi uncommon in the food-consciousness of Americans, but more recent terms like "free range" actually come from somewhere! And stores like Dean & Deluca and Williams-Sonoma are named after people! One thing I was delighted to learn and that I do recall is how Wolfgang Puck sort of originated with the Chinese chicken salad, an idea that has landed on menus far and wide, just one example of how certain innovations and innovators have influences that bloom geographically and across classes, in ways good and bad. (Here is a funny video of Margaret Cho talking about Asian chicken salad.)

Michael Ruhlman's The Reach of a Chef overlaps with US of Arugula in the discussion of the business part of being a famous chef and what that entails. Hello Las Vegas! Ruhlman's is a more intimate book, focusing on individual chefs like Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz in addition to giving us his own voice and experience. Ruhlman's writing is generally closer to my hungry heart, I think, but these two books are nice to read together. These times are interesting as we're able to watch "food studies" become this actual field, I guess, as the consciousness of consumers (well, errr, humans) grow.

P.S. I am glad I am young enough to have missed the fad of dishes like this: pear halves in green Jell-O topped with a dollop of mayonnaise and grated cheddar cheese. GROSS! And people complain about offal?!

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