In his newest book, writer Adam Gopnik tackles nothing less than the meaning of food, from the rise of the restaurant in pre-revolutionary France to today’s foodie culture.
Organic ingredients, the locavore movement, vegetarianism, wine writing, molecular gastronomy, the convention of ending a meal with something sweet — dessert! — all get the Gopnik treatment in his enthusiastic pursuit of the intellectual foundation for how we eat and why we eat what we eat.
But on this day, less than a week after Superstorm Sandy, when Gopnik’s New York home is brimming with storm refugees more focused on electricity than heirloom tomatoes, the discussion quickly gets to the universal bottom line: What’s for dinner?
“I’m one of those people for whom life is dinner,” says Gopnik, who appears Thursday at Miami Book Fair International. “I love dinner. I love the ritual of it. I love the table setting. Most of all, I love to eat dinner.”
He’s the chief cook for his wife and two children, and the addition of four Sandy refugees (plus two dogs) really comes down to a bigger pot on the stove. His “secret” ingredients for livening up a dish? Anchovies and bacon.
Always an avid eater eying the next meal — he calls it possessing “the glutton button” — he says a stint in Paris during the ’90s expanded his food horizons. And while his work has included books for adults and children along with New Yorker pieces ranging from fiction to criticism, he had been thinking for years of collecting his food essays into the book that became The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food (Vintage, $15.99).
“I’d been writing about eating and drinking since I started at The New Yorker 25 years ago, if that’s imaginable, and I always had in back of my mind a collection of food writing on that list of 10 books you hope to do,” he says.
A 2005 conversation with British chef Fergus Henderson, advocate of the nose-to-tail school of eating, yielded a comment that set the framework – and title — for the book. Why, the chef wondered aloud, did young couples buy a sofa or TV before a dining table? The table, he told Gopnik, comes first.
The author was struck by the simple statement, that the table is the heart of the home, the center point from which everything else — relationships, work, love — radiates.
Then Gopnik ran across a 1942 letter from a member of the French resistance about to be shot who instructed his parents to have the sorts of meals — “but not sadly, please!”— that he would never again eat: “Questions of food, you see, have taken on great importance.”
For Gopnik, seeker of pleasures and truths at the table, that felt like the opening for his book: “My heart sort of seized up.” The book, he thought, could be more than “just a romp through French cooking.”
A food-based narrative can be “deeply intimate, personal writing,” notes Miami novelist Diana Abu-Jaber, who wrote a culinary memoir, The Language of Baklava.
“It’s a significant metaphor to work with. It’s about the body and yet by talking about the physical experience, it also adds up to the emotional and familial and even spiritual. It’s the kind of metaphor that encapsulates a great deal in a very small space.”