David Kamp: The Serious Eats Interview, Part 2

Editor's note: We've long been fans of David Kamp's work (author of The United States of Arugula and, now, along with Marion Rosenfeld, The Food Snob's Dictionary), so we turned loose Adam Roberts on him for a chat. What follows is the second part of a lengthy but entertaining interview. Here's Part One, if you missed it.

One of the things I found most fascinating in the book was the idea of objectivity and subjectivity and Giorgio DeLuca's discovery that food can be objectively good. How do you feel about that subject? Do you feel that good food can be objectively good or is it always a matter of taste?

People obviously have different preferences. But the idea that some food is good and some food isn't good—I kind of agree with DeLuca. It is kind of objective. I don't begrudge people their taste if they don't like Szechuan food. But the idea, or what DeLuca was saying, is that in America we're taught to be populist in a really dumb way. That there's good populism and bad populism. But to be populist in a dumb way is to say that Kraft Singles are just as good as Humboldt Fog. No, sorry, certain cheeses are much better than others. A really good chicken is much better than that dried-out Perdue stuff. It's one thing people are catching on to now is that you can actually care more about your food. There was almost a stigma to that for a while—it was an act of sedition to care too much about your food. It seemed un-American and oddly Frenchlike.

One issue that raises for me is the idea of class. If you can afford to get the best of everything, you can eat well, but if you can't afford it can you eat well?

Julia Child was someone who basically said you can just go to the supermarket and make all her recipes. And she's absolutely right that you can. You can do her recipes with cheap chicken. But that said, I think the very fact that farmers' markets are going way up in number and that your average chain supermarket, whether it's an A & P or a Wegman's, is slowly starting to resemble a Whole Foods or Dean and DeLuca in their produce and the quality of meat. It's an indication that Americans are changing. When you talk about the best of everything, I'm not talking about high-end foods like caviar or truffles. I'm talking about paying a little more for a better-quality chicken or a Niman Ranch steak instead of an agribusiness steak pumped full of hormones. That's not the best of everything, that's simply better quality. And, yes, that costs a bit more, but it cuts across class lines that people are embracing that kind of eating. That's what Michael Pollan argues. In other areas of our lives we care about quality—if we're buying a new DVD set, we'll pay $50 more because it's better quality. So why should it be that when it comes to what we're putting into our mouths and into our bodies that we'll buy the cheapest thing possible?

I think one of the things that's happening now is that the language of food from this more enlightened view is trickling down in a bad way. Like I went to buy Balsamic vinegar and I'd read you should always get Balsamic from Modena and I came home and I'd bought one that was $15 which I thought was surprisingly cheap and I took it home and it was crap. It was red wine vinegar with dark purple food coloring.

Which actually most Balsamic marketed in America is.

So my concern is that as these ideas begin to trickle down they're perverted in some way. Like the phrase "free-range chicken" isn't regulated in anyway—anybody can put it on their chicken in a store, right?

It's not a USDA regulated term, it was invented by Larry Forgione. But that said, you can just use your noggin and find out. I don't think you'll see free-range chickens in supermarkets, but if you're somewhere that's advertising free-range chicken, you can ask the farmer or the supplier what the real story is. But I think what you're talking about too is status. A lot of the things Dean and DeLuca popularized—extra virgin olive oil, Balsamic vinegar, and arugula and radicchio. In a funny way, they started out as status foods that rich yuppies bought just to name drop: "We're having an arugula and radicchio salad with balsamic," and everyone in 1983 would go: "Ooooooh." And the thing is: I don't it's necessarily the worst thing that these things start out as status symbols—we're seeing it right now with pork—I see it on Serious Eats all the time! When people are talking about jamon Iberico and people are ordering their hams in advance, getting in line for the bacon the way women jockey in line for the first $5,000 pocketbook available, there is that aspect to it. But, at the same time, a lot of good ideas start out with elitist or status-mad loonies; but once the hype settles down, they do emerge as good ideas and they do sort of disseminate into the popular culture. Starbucks started out as a more expensive coffee that was a more affordable darker roast. People talk about how dark it is or how it tastes burnt, but it's still a far superior product than the deli swill most people were drinking.

It seems like your outlook is a positive one—you have such an optimistic view in your book of where things are headed. And I'm certainly grateful that I'm living in a time when so much is available. But I still feel there's a divide—like when I go to my local grocery store across the street from where I live and a pork shoulder is $8 and then I go to the farmers' market—and this actually happened—and it was $28.


And that's a cheap cut of meat; it shouldn't be $28.

That's sort of it in a nutshell—the glory of what a great time it is to eat and the gulf that has to be bridged. Because first of all, here's where I go back to the admiration of the French chef. They could take the $8 pork shoulder and just through technique and slow cooking and patiently getting the maximum flavor of it, they can make something out of it. These chefs, even though they cook in fancy restaurants, they're the ones getting the most out of a cut of meat. And that's something most Americans can get behind. And this is what Julia Child and Jacques Pepin always preached—don't be intimidated by the idea of cooking. It doesn't have to be about shelling out bucks. It's just the sheer pleasure of cooking. As for the farmers' market pork shoulder, I do think that Judith Jones, who edited Julia Child, she and Alice Waters both said to me that one thing they noticed in Italy and France was that Europeans spent more of their general budget on food than Americans did. And I'm horribly against spending $28 on a pork shoulder—is that what you said, a pork shoulder?

Yes. I'm pretty sure it was the shoulder—it was a cheaper cut.

You can get caught up in the food snob aspect—which will bring us to the Food Snob's Dictionary in just a sec—you can get caught up into the ridiculous status obsessiveness and the holier-than-thou status race; but that said, there is some wisdom to what Judith Jones and Alice Waters say—come on, you pay for quality, we do it in other aspects of our lives whether we're buying cars or consumer electronic devices or house building materials but somehow, when it comes to food, we think it's horribly elitist to spend maybe $13 for a steak rather than $8. We're talking about a $5 difference in the cost of a meal, and that's considered "an Ivory tower take, Mr. Kamp," to spend $5 more a day for a meal. I can't stand that argument because people are still spending tons of money on iPhones and Treos and going to Best Buy. But if you spent $5 more a day on your food supply, that's considered elitist.

I have friends who'd never go to a nice restaurant but they'd spend $40 going to a bar.

I'm not even particularly a big fan of Whole Foods—but the punchline is everyone calls Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck," but no one ever calls Best Buy "Best Part of Your Paycheck." I find it ridiculous because people shell out so much money to have seven TVs in their homes, but if the average American were to spend $5 more a day on food, that'd be considered elitist or Ivory Tower. And I think lots of Americans are getting wise to that.

So, to transition to The Food Snob's Dictionary, what is a food snob? Do you mean that pejoratively?

Well there's a whole series of books. There's a Rock Snob's Dictionary, a Film Snob's Dictionary, and each book is predicated on the idea that anyone who has passion—whether rock music, film, or food—there's a certain ridiculousness to it. It is a pejorative term, but it also comes from good-natured self-loathing—my own ridiculous obsessions and occasional lapses into snobbier-than-thou attitudes in the food world. It does get ridiculous sometimes. You can take an authentic passion for food and then take it a few steps too far. Then you're the schmuck who's bragging about how he's fourteenth on the list to get a jamon Iberico shipped to him next year when they start coming through in 2008. Or, "I was eating the tri-colored arugula and radicchio salad in the 1960s before everyone else"—that propritariness of it. The Food Snob's Dictionary is having fun with the idea that it can go too far. So many food books that have come out in the last couple of years have been sort of joyless, and I'm someone who always wants to have fun with the subject. And I tip my hat to Serious Eats and Ed Levine because he has the same attitude.

How did you meet your collaborator on the book, Marion Rosenfeld?

Marion and I are old colleagues from Spy magazine, which was a great satirical New York monthly in the late '80s. Marion is somebody who's worked on a lot of food projects for TV and whatever, and she and I both had a satirical background and a food obsession, so it was a natural fit.

Is one of you more of a food snob than the other?

Marion is more of a food snob, actually. She's the one who knew about—for kitchen equipment, for example—I'm someone who'll use a GE electric-coil stove top, and she's the one who knew about the high-end refrigerators and having a Garland range. And instead of cheap knives, she'd have Japanese Global knives or Wüsthof knives.

It almost sounds like Star Wars culture—more cultish than snobbish. Just feeling passionately about something that most people would think of as small or insignificant.

It's obsessing like the Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons. And that hits the nail on the head because that guy has the perfect combination of patheticness and arrogance that some food snobs really do have. I think anyone who reads Serious Eats has a bit of food snob in them, as do I; but we can laugh about it. Because last summer, Ed Levine, when Serious Eats debuted, was writing about how much he loved thinly sliced lomo and figs, so naturally I went straight to Citarella and got thinly sliced lomo and figs. And that's kind of ridiculous, but it's also kind of wonderful. That's one kind of food snobbery. Then you have the pretend professionals who get a certain kind of refrigerator because that's what the pros do. I'm going to "mise" everything instead of doing my "kitchen prep." People who imitate the speech patterns and mannerisms of real chefs—that's what makes them like Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons.

OK, so as a last question, what did you have for dinner last night?

What I had last night was a very simple summer meal. It's not something that involved any technique whatsoever. We had lobsters—I'm in Connecticut right now, we have a weekend home—and our local Mason's lodge does a lobster boil every month to raise money for local college scholarships, so I got the lobster already boiled and split. It's not always about cooking technique. We got our corn from the 96-year-old farmer around the corner. You've ever seen those young moms with kid carriers on their chest? This 96-year-old farmer wears this chest-mounted pouch and he picks the corn and carries it in his chest. So we had the corn by the 96-year-old farmer. We had heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with some sea salt.

I'm glad I asked this question. This is right out of your dictionary.

That's what I'm saying. You can live the food snob dream without getting too ridiculous about it.

How many children do you have?

Two. They're 11 and 8.

Are they young food snobs?

They're a mixture of both. They're growing up in a world where sushi is common place and not exotica. Literally, when I was a young kid, sushi was really exotic, and croissants and scones were also exotic, and I only encountered them in big cities or a college town. So to encounter a croissant as a kid was mind-blowing, a rare treat. So my kids are exposed to so much more than to sushi and croissants. But that said, they still like a lot of kid crap, too. Part of that we try to resist, but part of that we let them have. Because part of childhood is having bad taste and growing up and growing out of your bad taste.

And socially it's hard for kids to bring heirloom tomatoes to school when other kids are eating Lunchables.

Well, we stay away from Lunchables because that's truly vile stuff, but that said, we don't put the clamps down on them, and we certainly let them eat their share of crap.

Then you're not totally a snob, then, I guess.

Like I said, you have to have bad taste as a child—you have to let them watch High School Musical, listen to teeny-bop radio, let them eat the crappy processed food—so they have something to aspire to.

Maybe your next book should be how to parent a young gourmet.

That sounds like the most pretentious thing possible.

Thanks so much for talking.

My pleasure.

This is the second of a two-part interview. Read Part One »