When Adam Gopnik Explores Gastronomy

He lies awake at night on the Upper East Side and reads cookbooks

Adam Gopnik lies awake at night on the Upper East Side and reads cookbooks. He also reads Virgil and Thorsten Veblen, Michel Foucault and Günter Grass, Calvin Trillin and W. H. Auden. Then he cogitates on them and arrives at insights that might make him one of the most dangerous dining companions in all Manhattan.

The Table Comes First, the newest book from the longtime New Yorker contributor, purports to be an examination of the roots of modern food in 17th-century France. But France and history are merely launchpads whence Gopnik begins exploring, well, just about any topic that could be on the minds of serious eaters in America today.

This means arguments for vegetarianism and against buying local (and vice versa); the purpose of recipe-writing; the nature of personal taste; the remarkable resilience of the idea of what a restaurant should be; and the connection between Keith Richards and rice pudding. It’s all in quest of understanding how we give meaning to food and how food gives meaning to our lives.

Gopnik weaves these disparate threads together in the confident conversational style of someone eager to share revelations rather than rally true believers to the barricades. Instead of the bombast and overstatement that the Internet and 24-hour news channels breed, he is happy to persuade through charm and through flattering our intelligence, along with the command of an astonishing array of facts.

Therein lies the danger. His ability to cite Stephen Jay Gould, John D. MacDonald and the Gilgamesh epic as readily as Brillat-Savarin, M. F. K. Fisher and Michael Psilakis is more than a little dazzling. It’s also incredibly thought-provoking. Perhaps what Gopnik is after is not so much persuasion as seduction (a topic whose relationship to food he keenly appreciates).

And to what are we being seduced? Simply to thoughtfulness and to pleasure (two qualities Americans tend to view as opposites). To contemplation and curiosity rather than reflexive reliance on canned ideas about what makes for good cooking and good eating.

It’s radical, really, but also rather liberating. I suspect Gopnik doesn’t care whether you agree with his points of view when you’ve finished The Table Comes First. His goal seems to be making each of us aware of the sources of our own positions—and our own pleasures, so that we can pursue them best.

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Rachel Wharton is the editor of Edible Brooklyn. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.