The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food

The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food
Adam Gopnik
Quercus, 304pp, £18.99

Adam Gopnik is the nearest thing there is - in the English-speaking world, at any rate - to a philosopher of food. Instead of addressing the kinds of question that preoccupy most food writers - "Is the River Café better than Moro?", "Does Arborio or carnaroli rice work best for a risotto?" - his approach is to get down and dirty with the fundamentals of gastronomy. The chapter headings of his latest book give a sense of this. "What's the Recipe?" he asks. "How Does Taste Happen?" In other words, don't go to Gopnik expecting to be told which trendy restaurant to eat at, or how to improve your filleting skills. Read him, rather, to gain an insight into why these things matter to us in the first place.

The Table Comes First collects some of Gopnik's food pieces from the past five years or so, written mostly for the New Yorker, where he is on the staff. At their best, these essays blend enormous erudition with great elegance of expression, and pack intellectual firepower too. In the opening piece, "Who Made the Restaurant?", he overturns the myth that the restaurant was a product of the French Revolution - a sort of redeployment scheme for the chefs of executed aristocrats - and shows that it originated in pre-revolutionary Paris as an expression of the Rousseauian cult of health and simplicity. Typically, Gopnik does not stop there: he also offers an intriguing explanation for the historical inferiority of British cooking (apparently, it's because we favour the pub over the café, and so segregate the consumption of caffeine and alcohol) and provides engrossing portraits of the two greatest food writers of the 18th century, Brillat-Savarin and Grimod de La Reynière.

When Gopnik turns his attention to more contemporary matters, he does so in such a way as to bring out their aspects of timelessness. He begins a piece entitled "Meat or Vegetables?" by profiling Fergus Henderson, the British chef responsible for pioneering the carnivorous "nose-to-tail" approach to cooking that has become voguish over the past decade. Next, his attention skips to the Parisian chef Alain Passard, who has developed the concept of a vegetable-based haute cuisine. This leads to a discussion of the relative merits of arguments in favour of meat and those in favour of vegetarianism. Then, in a brilliantly counter-intuitive final twist, he suggests that Henderson and Passard are really much the same, as they are both extremists, driven not by "moral logic" but by "an appetite for perversity".

Gopnik, who is fond of drawing distinctions, makes several in this book and does so inter­estingly. He suggests that there are just two schools of good food writing: the "mock-heroic" and the "mystical microcosmic". The former is comic and "treats the small ambitions of the eater as though they were big and noble", while the latter is "essentially poetic, and turns every remembered recipe into a meditation on hunger". The one flaw in this otherwise cast-iron theory is that it doesn't accommodate its own promulgator. He can be self-mocking, and often he writes poetically, but he is too versatile, too intellectually wide-ranging, to fit comfortably into either camp.

Another of his distinctions is between sincerity and earnestness. To be sincere is to believe something passionately whilst acknowledging that your beliefs may seem absurd to others. To be earnest is to admit no such possibility. Gopnik prefers sincerity to earnestness. The paradoxical outlook that the notion embodies - that of being completely serious while leaving room for self-mockery - goes to the heart of his whole approach to food.

Gopnik wants us to take food seriously, to believe that the table comes first. At the same time, he wants us to remember that food matters only in so far as we connect it with the broader project of living well, of staying at home with "our pleasures as much as our principles". Modern society, he suggests, is in danger of divorcing food from this larger purpose. "Having made food a fashionable object, we have ended by making eating a smaller subject," he writes. These essays are a reminder that gastronomy, in order to be profound, must also know its place.

William Skidelsky is the author of "Gourmet London" (Authentik Books, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying