Miami Book Fair

Truth at the table: Adam Gopnik explores the morals and manners of food

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.”

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?”