In Gopnik’s case, that includes internal conflicts. “I have moral qualms and questions about meat eating,” he says, calling himself a “conscientious carnivore.” When the guilt piles up from too much hollandaise or too many soufflés, he makes a “repentance meal” of wild salmon, organic broccoli and brown rice. And yet, there he is the next minute, rubbing duck fat on a roasting chicken to make it taste better.
“I guess the one thing that I do believe is that medicinal eating is a bad idea. We are mortal creatures attached to our appetites. Butter and cream and goose fat are probably the least pernicious of the evils.”
He can see both sides of the debate over French cooking — precious birthright or too insular for its own good? — while also defending American bigger-is-better tendencies.
“As a Francophile, I would hate to ever see that great continuity of table ever altered. I want those bistros in business and a four-hour dinner, from champagne to Armagnac. I want all that. But as an observer, I recognize an unduly static culture creates a lot of frustration, with a real risk for the French of becoming stuck in place.”
The American culture of fast food and supersizing shouldn’t be mocked, either, he says. “That’s a reflection of general abundance. … Famine was the rule until recently.”
Part confessional, part recipe book, today’s food writing harkens to an earlier time, he says, when recipe books were written without precise measurements and assumed a degree of kitchen competence. Gopnik explores that style of writing in his discussions of the now-forgotten English food writer Elizabeth Pennell, whose 1896 Diary of a Greedy Woman entrances him — at first. Then he discovers she was anti-Semitic, specifically when it came to Russian Jews like Gopnik’s family.
It was a jarring moment for the author, who contemplated scrapping Pennell’s part before deciding that her story helps him ask a central, revealing question: “Who will you eat with and who won’t you eat with?”
Which brings us back to dinner. Last night’s meal for the storm refugees, Gopnik says, was a one-pot Greek affair he made from Gulf shrimp, spinach, feta cheese and orzo in tomato sauce with fresh mint, sautéed shallots and garlic confit.
“Decent shrimp and pasta and feta and tomato. … How wrong can you go?”