Adam Gopnik’s new book, The Table Comes First, considers food in its many and varied contexts: social, political, personal, philosophical, aesthetic. Gopnik is also the author of Paris to the Moon and Through the Children’s Gate, among other books, and he has been a staff writer at The New Yorker for 25 years. (His first piece for that magazine, about the Montreal Expos and Italian art, ran in the May 19, 1986 issue.)
We corresponded over email about food writing vs. art criticism, the “house style” of The New Yorker, game 6 of the most recent World Series, and more.
Slate: Your background is in art history. In what ways is writing about food like writing about art? In what ways is it not like that at all?
Adam Gopnik: The job of trying to make first-hand sensual experience—this picture, that plate—into second-order sentences (“It looks like…” “It tasted nearly as if …”) is approximately always the same. You wrestle with association, metaphor, analogy, trying to get it right, and then usually discover that the barest hint sends the strongest message. (Look at Hemingway’s descriptions, or M.F.K. Fisher’s—almost never anything “sumptuous” or even particularly extended in either, but the experience registered in one or two small surprising adjectives. Whitney Balliett’s capture of Monk’s piano playing—”vinegary, dissonant, gothic”—is a favorite of mine.)
You also discover that assertion—what a cook says about a taste, for instance (“Birthday cake is the most denatured thing on earth,” another favorite of mine, from a young pastry chef)—is often oddly more effective, just as evocation, than detailed description.
But then all writing poses that same predicament: Whether Updike trying to pin down the pubic hair of a suburban housewife or the poor food writer trying to capture the quiddity of a plate of bouillon, there’s always a struggle, and then a space that can’t quite be spanned. Sentences are always like bridges between the first-order world and the second, and they always shake in the wind of reality, like the ones over Amazonian abysses in Indiana Jones movies. Of course, art historians usually evade the problem entirely by not really writing about the art, but rather about the social history that surrounds it—and too many gastronomic historians, I add grumpily, do the same, making food history into a series of tableaux of clichéd scenes (the housewife in the ‘50s, the French chef in the 1920s) that leave the actual experience outside. That’s why—eerily anticipating your next question!—I wanted to include emails that included real recipes. The greasy facts of lemon and chicken and anchovies and bacon are the basis on which even the airiest food writing rests.
Slate: The Table Comes First includes email messages you wrote to the American writer and cookbook collector Elizabeth Robins Pennell—never expecting a reply, as Ms. Pennell died in 1936. What prompted the epistolary format? And why email, instead of old-fashioned letters?
Gopnik: When I discovered Pennell I thought that the key thing about her, easily missed, were not her gifts as a stylist, real though they were, but the title she applied to her collected work: The Diary Of A Greedy Woman. A woman claiming sensual, even erotic appetite, in a time when this was discouraged. It made a nice balance: a greedy woman from a century ago; a cooking man from now. I chose to write emails because all my letters take that form these days—my life is merely emails interrupted by caffeine—and I thought there was something nicely ironic about using them: if we could write to the dead, we would surely send them our messages ethereally, and how better than by email, which is never quite material? But basically I wanted to write to Pennell in order to find a way to add narrative recipes to the book. I particularly wanted to get my simple lamb with anchovies and bacon and white wine, and my three recipes for rice pudding, on the page. The drama and surprise that she eventually supplied, as I discovered her sometimes ugly social attitudes (some of which I was aware of from the beginning; authors play with these things) was serendipity.
Slate: You suggest that when men began cooking more, some of those men imported a macho attitude to the kitchen. To what extent do you think men and women still have distinct attitudes about cooking and food, and how much do you think those attitudes have changed?
Gopnik: There are as many attitudes to cooking as there are people cooking, of course, but I do think that cooking guys tend—I am a guilty party here—to take, or get, undue credit for domestic virtue, when in truth cooking is the most painless and in its ways ostentatious of the domestic chores. Even in a house where the husband cooks, it’s usually left to the wife or woman to judge. This was, though, mostly a gentle joke made for my wife’s benefit. I described in Through the Children’s Gate her ability to locate a lost TV remote at a thousand miles distance through sheer Sherlockian deduction of children’s usual behavior. That’s the kind of thing I could never do.
Slate: You’ve now been a staff writer at The New Yorker for, I believe, 25 years. In what ways do you think The New Yorker has shaped your writing? Have you ever found yourself resisting or struggling with the magazine’s style?
Gopnik: All claims to a consistent house style at the magazine are consistently denied, and always have been, on the decent grounds that whatever is in common among, say, E.B. White, Edmund Wilson, and Veronica Geng—or, for that matter among me, David Remnick, Malcolm Gladwell, Alec Wilkinson, Larissa MacFarquhar, Anthony Lane, and Louis Menand—is certainly less than what divides us. And yet … in truth I do think there’s a house style, or a collective house choir-voicing, whose continued existence I will confess that I hope to defend, having already spent the majority of my years semi-perpetuating it.
Name its parts? First, a faith in the particular, in the facticity of things—this thing here rather than that thing, a tendency to love ideas but bend them back towards objects; it’s nice to have a theory about Barcelona cooking, but you can only earn it by going to Barcelona and talking to the cooks there. (Yes, of course, this depends on having a magazine that can afford to buy a plane ticket—an economy ticket, that is—to Spain, a lucky thing for writers these days.)
Next, an almost excessive value placed on humor, a belief that—Hiroshima perhaps aside—funny sentences can never be bad ones.
Finally, a faith in a faux naïf-manner—though that term seems derogatory for something essentially positive. I mean an absence of the malice and bad faith that mark too much journalism, in this age especially—an openness to experience, a well-wishingness, a willingness to be wide-eyed in the face of new material even at the risk of seeming a little silly or insufficiently self-protective and knowing. This isn’t to say that at The New Yorker “we” don’t criticize or even attack, from time to time, but on the whole we try to do it with a tone more good-humored than angry; compare Mencken and Liebling, often mistaken as twin stylists, and you see the difference between heavy-handed Teutonic mockery and the ideal ironic, stinging, New Yorker tone.
Of course, there are limitations to the style—anger and lust and malice are part of anyone’s emotional cabinet, and it isn’t by accident that Updike kept most of it for his novels. But in an age of malice and bad faith on many sides, I reread White or Thurber or Mitchell and am reminded again that good writing is done, as I said in my elegy for Salinger, with an active eye and ear and an ardent heart, and in no other way. “A wild exactitude,” as Joseph Mitchell himself called it—getting it down right without the dullness of journalism; putting it down right and still making it sing. In an age where fatuous knowingness appoints itself intelligence, and abuse parades as wit, there is much to be said for that open heart and eye.
Slate: Game 6 of this year’s World Series was hailed as an instant classic by some, and derided as a comedy of errors by others. Were you watching? If so, considering your interest in both baseball and aesthetics, I’m curious: How do you rule?
Gopnik: Horrible confession: I went to sleep after the Rangers went up—by, what was it, three runs?—and missed the beautiful comeback. My love for baseball, as I wrote in a blog entry a year and a half ago, has disturbingly lessened in the past few years, for reasons that are murky to me; my allegiance to hockey, as I wrote at numbing length in the lectures on the cultural history of winter that are being broadcast this week on the CBC in Canada, remains strong. Some of my loss of love for baseball has to do with the end of the Montreal Expos, some with the genuinely too-fluid nature of talent moving so rapidly from team to team—which is surely only fair to the players, but makes even the thin illusion of common purpose between fan and players more jeeringly self-parodying than ever before. And then, truly, a lot has to do with the sheer lateness of the games. The World Series is played in my doubtless too-nostalgic imagination in some kind of autumn afternoon light, and seeing it exclusively in the bitter chill of midnight breaks the spell of even the best of games.