No matter how much you love to eat, reading about food can be a bore. How much do you really care about the subtleties of a lobster bisque when you're not partaking? Food people, however, are endlessly fascinating, as David Kamp proves in The United States of Arugula, his rollicking and gossipy history of ''how we became a gourmet nation.'' Skipping the rote paeans to extra-virgin olive oil, Kamp, a Vanity Fair writer, zeroes in on the characters who have helped us, over the last 50-odd years, embrace it.
No novelist could invent a wackier bunch. First, there was fat, gay James Beard, ''the Bosc pear body draped in a striped apron'' proffering platters of pork chops in the 1950s; then came Julia Child, that ''towering, skinny, middle-aged woman in pearls and an unreconstructed Smith '34 hairdo'' explicating boeuf bourguignon in the '60s. A decade later, sanctimonious Alice Waters tossed baby greens at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., while her former colleague and erstwhile lover, Jeremiah Tower, dissed her as ''too Berkeley'' in the '80s. Today, we have Martha and Mario. Threaded through the soap opera is the food itself, quietly getting more interesting until, as Kamp writes, ''it is, in short, a great time to be an eater.''