American Why

When a simple salad of arugula collides with “high-tech American” cuisine, what’s a modern American diner to do?

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the October 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

In last year’s book The United States of Arugula, author David Kamp explores how we became a nation of discerning gourmet eaters, how macaroni became “pasta,” Wonder Bread ceded ground to organic whole wheat, and burgers and fries gave way to sushi as a fast-food staple. As a consequence, we’ve also become a nation of food critics, such that since the 1970s, when the bitter Italian green known as arugula was first served in restaurants in the United States, the question on modern American diners’ lips has morphed from, “Do you have arugula on the menu?” to, “Do you have baby arugula on the menu?” then, “Where was the baby arugula grown?” and now, “Not arugula again?” {% display:image for:article image:1 align:left width:250 %}

So let’s say a modern American diner hears word of a new restaurant called Rocket, named after the British term for arugula—in fact, the restaurant’s staff even grows its own “rocket” on the roof. And she reads, somewhere, that the cuisine represents the “friction between technology and nature,” that it will offer “high-tech American” fare, a style the owner calls “American Sly.” Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to taste this new cuisine, the modern American diner climbs four flights of concrete steps to Rocket’s dining room, and is seated at a light blue plastic table on a dreary, concrete-framed open-air balcony—where a heavy gust of high-altitude wind promptly shatters a water glass and stirs up a tornado of paper menus. There, poised on the precipice of high-tech American Sly, the modern American diner picks up her knife and fork and cuts into … grilled salmon.

The salmon is pleasant enough, crisp-skinned and tender, topped by a fresh and toothsome cherry tomato and corn salad. There is even a pool of corn “foam” on top—a somewhat predictable, albeit legitimate, nod to “molecular gastronomy,” that trend of scientifically inspired cooking that the modern American diner has recently encountered in her bedside stack of food magazines. But the dish has hardly sparked any friction between technology and nature. They’re sly, all right, she thinks. They convinced me to pay $23 for a dish that’s been served in just about every restaurant in town for the past 10 years.

Nevertheless, she, like so many modern American diners, wants her arugula to taste sexy and new, so she returns a few weeks later for another meal. Ensconced in an indoor white-vinyl banquette with two modern American dining companions, she makes sure to choose the most surprising items on the menu, settling on a lamb corn dog, a carrot-and-lamb pancake and pierogies, of all things.

After a very long wait over watered-down modern American cocktails, a plate of bite-size Polish-style pierogies arrives. Remarkably rich, they seem brilliantly American in their nod to the country’s diverse heritage, served as they are over a porridgelike mixture of catfish (so Louisiana bayou!) and caraway (so Hungarian rustic!), topped with fried strands of deep purple beets (so Soviet kitsch!).

But then the $7 corn dog appears, and the modern American diner bites into not a very American staple born anew, but a corn-batter-wrapped lamb hot dog that, sadly, isn’t nearly as good as the ones sold for $1 at a little gas-station deli near her parents’ house in southern Oregon.

And while the layered “pancakes” with carrot and lamb suggest a kind of deconstructed lasagna, it seems as though the chef has broken it down into a few constituent parts—a one-dimensional reduction of carrot juice (made with xanthan gum, she later discovers), starchy pancakes, salty ground meat—and forgotten to put it back together again.

Similarly bewildering to the modern American diner is the one-note tone that all the servers adopt. Why do they all seem so bored? Why, when she lets forth a lighthearted giggle at the sight of the corn dog upon its arrival, does her waiter stare at her, blank and unblinking?

But in retrospect, the modern American diner could relate. On subsequent visits, she was also becoming bored. Bored with the menu’s entrées and sides—the black cod and green beans, the braised beef rib in a red wine jus.

Then, on what she assumed would be her last visit, she ordered the Rocket Roof Salad, a straightforward plate of arugula that had been harvested from the restaurant’s rooftop garden. The dainty greens were peppery and bold, subtly dressed with a simple vinaigrette. It was the best thing she’d eaten there, not because it represented anything new, but because it didn’t. And finally, the modern American diner realized that at this particular modern American restaurant, an arugula salad was still an arugula salad, a corn dog still a corn dog, an expensive piece of salmon still an expensive piece of salmon. And she wished the high-tech American Sly-sters would admit the same.

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