The New Yorker writer explains how a croissant convinced him to move back from Paris, and what French food should learn from soccer.
Essayist, lecturer and author Adam Gopnik has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1986, contributing pieces spanning art and baseball, Paris and politics—though we’re partial to his food pieces, of course. His essay collections Paris to the Moon and Through the Children’s Gate document his family’s journey from New York to the French capital and back, while Angels and Ages, his most recent work, is a short book on Lincoln and Darwin. He lives near the Guggenheim with his wife, Martha Parker, and two children, Lucca and Olivia. We stopped in on a Saturday afternoon to learn what fuels him.
Edible Manhattan: The coffee smells delicious.
Adam Gopnik: Martha is from an Icelandic background and they are caffeine-addicted to the point where they drink coffee at 11 at night to settle their systems. My theory is that there’s a recessive gene amongst Icelanders, which keeps their blood pressure low, so they need caffeine to keep warm. Martha believes in coffee the way Catholics believe in communion wine. Every year she gets another coffee maker, which she fetishizes and worships and then the god fails and we have a new one, so we have been through more coffee makers than anyone else. This is the latest, sort of our Easter Island idol, the Moccamaster, which is quite beautiful but Martha’s not entirely convinced that it makes coffee that’s as strong as it needs to be. For her, it must be extremely thick and powerful. Saturdays I use the Chemex, which makes the best coffee, but when it’s seven in the morning and we have to have caffeine instantly it has to be “punch a button.”
EM: I see you’ve got a bag from City Bakery.
AG: City Bakery’s pretzel croissant is the reason we moved back to New York. Well, we’d just moved back from Paris and were still in that sort of in-between, “Why did we move, why are we here?” Peter Hoffman had sweetly had a dinner at Savoy on the occasion, one of his wonderful series, where I’d met Dan Barber, who said, “You gotta try this thing, the guy’s done something I think is really brilliant: He’s combined a soft pretzel and a croissant.” I was dubious and then we got them and I thought this is genius and it’s the sort of thing that could only happen in New York. Only here would somebody have the brains and the balls to do something like that. That’s what New York does, it’s this amazingly composite, mongrelizing, hybridizing city. So we finally said yeah, for Dalton and the pretzel croissant. Not necessarily in that order.
EM: How often do you eat in?
AG: Basically I cook five nights a week. Martha Parker: Once when the kids were little and Adam was going on a trip lecturing, one of them said with a kind of desperation, “What will we eat?” I had to reassure them.
AG: My mother taught me to cook. My favorite thing was beef stroganoff, and on my 12th birthday she said, “You can make it, I’ll show you how.” She showed me all the little tricks—like you have to take the sauce out and mix it with the sour cream so it doesn’t curdle—and I thought it was just remarkable that you could actually make these things. That’s when I started cooking. My mother is a genuinely great cook. I guess every boy’s mom is a great cook but she is really a great cook. She’s a creature of obsessions and when I was a kid she was obsessed with grand French cooking so she would do a coulibiac of salmon and her own croissants and, you know, beef Wellington and those kinds of things.
MP: I used to go over to Adam’s house sometimes to pick him up for a class at McGill, and his mother would have, by eight in the morning, made croissants, pain au chocolat, and, if it was the season, blueberry tarts and they’d be cooling.
AG: She was just a woman of tireless energy. She was a professor of linguistics, but she’s just insanely energetic and loves to cook. I still do a lot of her things. Her roast chicken and her soufflés— my mother truly does a better soufflé than any soufflé I have eaten anywhere, including anywhere in France. She did them the classic French way, insisted on beating egg whites in an unlined copper bowl. She taught herself, she’s an uncanny woman. She’ll be here next weekend.
EM: You’re working on a book about food.
AG: I’m doing an expanded collection of all my food writing from the New Yorker from the past 25 years, essays on recipes and restaurants and the histories of these things, an attempt to move people from thinking about cooking and eating as something medicinal that will make you and the planet healthy to thinking about it being a much broader part of the way we live and the way our values change and get expressed. It’s going to be called The Table Comes First (I think), which comes from something Fergus Henderson once said to me: “I can never understand how young couples starting off buy a television or a sofa or a bed. Don’t they know the table comes first? You can sleep under the table but you can’t eat on the bed.” I thought that was wonderful. In a way, the table even comes before the kitchen.
EM: Loving France as you do—and having been raised on your mother’s croissants—what do you think about how French cuisine has been displaced in New York?
AG: It’s a very funny thing. A deep love of French civilization and Parisian life is one of the strongest of my emotions, and when anyone attacks French cooking I become wildly Francophile and want to eat nothing but saddle of lamb with sauce chasseur or the like. But I recognize that when I’m here cooking at nights I’m doing green curries and penne all’amatriciana and Cajun blackened tuna—those are the things I cooked over the last couple of nights, because we had various things in the fridge—I’m aware of it and I have very complicated feelings about it. It’s one of the things I’m going to try to write about.
My theory is that someone will hybridize North African cooking with classic French cooking because that is sort of the vernacular cooking now of France. Couscous, that’s what people eat the way we eat pizza. You’d think there’d be a two-star place in Paris where you could get fantastic Maghrebian cooking done at the highest level. The thing that rescued French soccer was exactly that fusion. Zidane, the greatest French soccer player who ever lived, was an Algerian kid who became the icon of French soccer—but there is no Zidane of French cooking. Maybe somewhere right now a young boy is growing up in the slums of Marseilles to play that role.
(Note from) Alice’s Restaurant
When I wrote about Alice Waters she sent us back a fax— those were the days of faxes—that was so dear and so passionately phrased that she was thrilled about the piece in a way that she hadn’t been since the Dalai Lama came to Chez Panisse and we were just hugely touched by it. Alice is, for us as she is for everybody, a kind of heroine so we keep it up as a talisman of good fortune and generosity.
Mother Country Syrup
We are Canadian by origin and maple syrup is extremely important. Every Saturday morning we do waffles with Canadian maple syrup in honor of our lost homeland.
Morocco via Fairway
One of the things I picked up in France was a love for North African cooking. If I were a better cook I would put up my own preserved lemons, which I love to cook with. One of the kids’ favorite things is tagine of lamb. These are from Morocco and they’re really very good. From Fairway.
We had a very dear friend who’s gone now, Richard Avedon, he was Lucca’s godfather and he had the habit of offering Champagne to his friends in a very ordinary way, every night, all the time, not seeing it as something for special occasions but something you just had as part of the daily small pleasures of life. Then you could sit and talk about art and life and music and the meaning of things. Martha and I were debauched and corrupted by this habit and so it’s something that we do for its own sake and also in memory of him. My theory is that Champagne is the one thing you can’t duplicate. I have no need for expensive wines, I think you can enjoy a nice pinot noir from California for $11 just as happily as a great wine from Burgundy. But I always tell the kids the two things that I want them to take through life: “Be kind” and “there’s no such thing as domestic Champagne.”
We have two clocks, both of which tell incorrect time, in New York and Paris. The idea of two clocks is sort of ridiculous. It’s the easiest calculation in the world, you just add six. They’re more for the pleasure of feeling you have a foot in both worlds.
This is a picture of Lucca when he was 2½. His godfather got him a chef’s outfit in a child’s size. So I dressed him in it one morning and we fired Martha as sous-chef because she was too slow. At some point he was fired and Olivia is now sous-chef.
The Taste of France
We have three kinds of mustard because I feel mustard is really sort of the taste of France. I’m always searching for the perfect mustard sauce. One I do, a sauce for poulet moutarde, is reduced white wine, crème fraîche—a lot of it—and then mustard, off heat, and then chopped tarragon thrown in. That’s my standard all-purpose sauce.
Le Menu du Temps Perdu
This is my single most precious possession apart from my children. It is the menu for the dinner they gave for Gustave Eiffel on the night the Eiffel Tower opened, the 13th of April, 1889. Martha gave this to me for my birthday one year. I love that it shows all of Eiffel’s earlier masterpieces, which we tend to forget about since they’re in various places in the French empire, and I love just to look at the menu, how much they ate: saddle of lamb with herbs, absinthe sorbet, ducks, lobster . It sums up the Belle Époque in France and also the idea that to celebrate this masterpiece of modernity they had this wonderful huge dinner, it’s such an image. I like to think about all the distinguished people and for me there’s a certain pathos, too, because they have no idea what’s coming, no idea of the horrors of the 20th century that will betray their optimism.
Life (Doesn’t) Imitate Art
That’s a painting by our friend Bruce McCall, who’s illustrating this new children’s book I’ve written for Olivia. I did the catalog essay for his last show and he very sweetly offered us the painting of one of his New Yorker covers and we chose this one. The joke, obviously, is that you have this New York deli doing French things: ice-cold Champagne, caviar on a bagel, foie gras sandwiches, copies of Le Monde instead of the Post. Every deli in New York is called a “gourmet deli” but there’s nothing gourmet about them. It’s out of the genius of Bruce McCall. He’s like no one else.
Kirk’s Kitchen Legacy
This is the world’s best barbecue sauce. Lucca’s other godfather, Kirk Varnedoe, whom we much miss, introduced us to this, and it’s been one of our mainstays for 25 years. It’s from Savannah, from a restaurant called Johnny Harris, when Lucca and I flew down for the dedication of the museum we went there. It’s the best barbecue sauce—tart, vinegary, not sweet at all. You have to send away for a case. We’re very low. I think that’s the last one.
Waiting for Gopnik
This is an engraving by Winslow Homer from the 1870s. We always loved it because I have to go on the road a lot—what we call the Perpetual Tuition Tour—and when we first came back to New York I was on the road sort of endlessly, and this image of the fisherman’s family looked exactly like Lucca, Martha and Olivia waiting for him to come back with the fish, or in this case with the check for tuition.
We got that just yesterday at the farmers market. It’s that good hardneck garlic. That’s wonderful.