Adam Gopnik’s Guide to Gastronomy as a Life Force

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 31 2011 6:59 AM

Stirring the Pot

Adam Gopnik’s guide to gastronomy as a life force.

I wish this book, The Table Comes First, didn't have to be a book. I wish it could be a dinner table, instead, with maybe six people sitting around it—not in a jammed-full New York restaurant where everyone is bellowing over the sound system but in somebody's home, where we've all been invited to eat and talk. And I wish Adam Gopnik were at the table, leaning forward intently as the plates come and go, yakking away happily about food and history and Paris and cookbooks and life, just as he does in these pages. Then the rest of us guests could jump in and interrupt him whenever we want, probably knocking over a wine glass in our enthusiasm: "What do you mean, there were no 'big books of recipes' before the 19th century? Hannah Glasse, 1747, indispensable for the next hundred years!" "You don’t really think our current food obsession is the 'father' of the obesity crisis, do you? People are getting fat from eating heirloom tomatoes—poverty and junk food have nothing to do with it?" "Good grief, Adam, listen to your own language—'men' don't invite 'girls' to dinner anymore, and they haven't since about 1972."

Now that's what I would call a dinner party. In fact, although I don't know Gopnik, I bet he would have as good a time as the rest of us as he fields all the horrified exclamations that get tossed his way. His premises and declarations on food may be full of holes, but he's never dogmatic; and, anyway, he's far more entranced by ideas than he is by facts. What flows through all the fantasies and ruminations and the excited if precarious insights he's gathered up here is a deep fascination with gastronomy as a life force and with the way it's awakened and flourished over the last couple of centuries. The book is loosely structured around what he calls "the two pillars of modern eating"—restaurants and home cooking—but the more important organizing principle is Gopnik himself, who acts as reporter, historian, participant and philosopher as he leads us on a kind of walking tour of the food world.

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Or, rather, his food world, and that's why it's sometimes hard to keep up. Food writing is self-referential almost by definition. Gopnik's heroes in the trade, notably Calvin Trillin and A.J. Liebling, are at the center of every sentence they write about food, whether or not they happen to be describing their own experience. But both, I think, would call themselves reporters and leave it at that. Gopnik works differently. He deploys many genres of writing simultaneously, with history and imagination and opinion often sharing space in the same paragraph, even the same thought. It's an exuberant style, and it's designed to be enjoyed, but if you're the sort of reader who anxiously scrutinizes sentences for what they say, you're going to need an invitation to that imaginary dinner party.

Here's an example. The restaurant, he announces, "is the primal scene of modern life. Most modern urban people mark their lives by their moments in cafes and restaurants, just as ancient people marked their time on earth by visits to the local oracle." Now at this point I could simply continue reading ("Hmmm, interesting comparison he's got there, first Delphi, then Olive Garden ..."). Or, more satisfyingly, I could project myself right over to that dinner table and start frantically waving a breadstick. ("For heaven's sake, Adam—'most' amounts to you and about six other modern urban people, all of whom live in New York and have disposable income by the bagful.")

Or there's the page where he credits the British journalists Bernard Levin and Kenneth Tynan with leading England out of the culinary dark ages in the 1960s and '70s. "No one did more to break down British puritan injunctions against eating as a humane act, and a kind of art," he asserts. "They were both utterly devoted to great food, which they identified, as most educated people did at that time, with Continental three-star cooking." Argh! Where to begin?

Elizabeth David, recognized as a soul-stirring culinary evangelist the moment A Book of Mediterranean Food appeared in 1950, was on the case a good 10 years earlier than these guys and never thought for a second that great food had to come from an expensive restaurant. (To wit: "In the shade of the lemon grove I break off a hunch of bread, sprinkle it with the delicious fruity olive oil, empty my glass of sour white Capri wine; and remember that Norman Douglas once wrote that whoever has helped us to a larger understanding is entitled to our gratitude for all time." Humane! Art! Not a restaurant in sight!) By the 1970s, in fact, even the Francophile Julia Child was losing interest in overhyped three-star French restaurants; she preferred the simpler places, which seemed to her much more characteristically French. And if "most educated people" believed anything about food in those days, it was that Elizabeth David and Julia Child—ardent spokeswomen for the home kitchen—held the keys to the kingdom.

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