the table comes first-adam gopnik

family, france, and the meaning of food

i felt the effect of this book before i even read it. being the cookbook store’s pick for last year’s food + thought biography star, it spent a lot of time on my holds’ list. sometime in the winter, i decided to rearrange my furniture in my living room (at that point, it was really only the table) to reflect the idea that the table comes first. all of my solo time and entertaining time revolved around the table, so why shouldn’t it be in the centre of the room? it has only shifted slightly with the addition of my comfortable seating (for reading purposes, of course), and i’m so glad that i’ve finally read this. the ideas are simultaneously everything i’ve ever thought and a whole new way of thinking about things. just like the most delicious food.

“The truth that variety is the spice of life carries within it the implicit recognition that monotony is the daily meal.” (73)

“In truth, much, perhaps most, of the good in our lives comes from recognizing the fragile and temporary basis of what we choose to do, and then doing it anyway. We don’t have to believe in natural or absolute grammar to believe in beautiful sentences. We don’t have to believe in natural monogamy to work at a happy marriage. All the good stuff is at once universal and overwhelming, and local, tempered by taste, finely articulated to the place and moment. When we have a child in a foreign country, it is all foreign and all child. When we have an omelet in Spain, it is all Spain and all omelet. When we eat beautifully in 2011, we are both free diners and prisoners of the table of our time.” (107)

“The very best of what Passard is doing-say, the cucumber broth with herb ravioli-is as straightforward as a vegetable garden and as complex as the system that makes it run.” (141)

ps. nice approach to using e-mails as a framework for this story…

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3 thoughts on “the table comes first-adam gopnik

  1. food fight:

    “Now the door is wide open, but somehow we see less, or notice less, anyway. Betrayed by its enlargement, food becomes less intimate the more intensely it is made to matter.” (6)

    “Eating himself to death may have been neurotic, but it was Liebling’s conscious neurosis, chosen to make a point. Anyone could diet; it took a real man to die of gout.” (92)

    “All rat races look the same to everyone but the rats who are running in them.” (105)

    this reminds me of the wordsworth rat stencil that said “you might win the race, but you’re still a rat.”

    “We don’t make arguments for things we do anyway; we only make arguments to stop ourselves from doing them. Proslavery arguments appeared in the American South not in advance but only in reaction to abolitionism. Women’s inferiority was so self-evident even to our great-great-grandfathers (if not their wives) that they had only a handful of old saws and religious injunctions to point to to justify it; it took John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor to end it with a fiendishly well-formed case. We don’t need an argument to eat cheeseburgers until we stop eating them.” (134)

    “Embrace your carcass. If you aren’t prepared to eat hearts and hooves, then you aren’t fit to be a carnivore. One might even argue that the man who eats the whole beast, and the man who eats no beasts, are engaged in the same kind of ethical inquiry. But one would probably not argue this way if one were a pig.” (140)

    “And then even the best shell beans, cleaned and simmered, are like sentences in that nobody actually appreciates them as much as they deserve to be appreciated. Shell beans are several steps more delicious, lighter and finer, than dried beans, let alone canned beans; but the sad truth is that nobody really cares beans about beans, and not many eaters can tell the fresh kind from the dried, or even the canned.” (200)

    “Why does rice pudding, in any of its forms, have this ritual resonance? The answer, I think, lies simply in the slowness of its achievement. Eggs are little miracles; one minute slime, the next a meal. Meats are primal. But a rice pudding develops in slow and gradual stages-not even stages, /phases/, a slow and gradual field, passing from inedible hard grains and unpalatable raw eggs and milk to some combined, involved, semisoupy, semicereal, sweet and starchy but both at once delight. Rice pudding is like life: it’s hard at first, gradually thickens, and ends well enough to make you wish you could have it again. No wonder we use it to mark life’s passages.” (221)

  2. critical eating:

    “The two pillars of modern eating are the restaurant and the recipe book. The restaurant is the place where all eating out takes place; the recipe is the thing with which all home cooking starts. Both are modern. Until the nineteenth century, big books of recipes did not exist, and there was no place to go and eat in exchange for money that was like the places we go now.” (11)

    “Though they sometimes witness the end of our love lives, restaurants have a ring of hope about them, a note of innocent celebration that makes them the right background for seduction. The man who asks the girl to dinner is not, after all, actually suggesting sex except by the airiest remote inference; he is pretending to be a better man than that: let’s meet, talk, try. The restaurant offers the hope of happiness that gives greedy sex the look of lighthearted love, and, in the erotic sphere as much as the eating sphere, turns raw hunger into formal appetite. The restaurant offers not seduction but what precedes seduction, the false promise of pure motives.” (15)

    “Loneliness is not the ‘price’ of liberty but part of the profit we take from it. The restaurant’s moral glory, like that of the library and the department store-another nineteenth-century bourgeois invention-is its semiprivate state, for semi-ness is the special half-tint of bourgeois societies. The bowling league has been replaced not by solitary bowling but, more decisively, by the gym, another classic semiprivate place: on the bike you read your newspaper as you pedal in a low row of solitudes.” (51)

    “The recipe is, in this way, our richest instance of the force and the power of abstract rules. All messages change as they’re re-sent, but messages not sent never get received. Life is like green curry.” (72)

    “We recognize the concept of sweat equity in recipe writing: if you have labored nightly over a stove in a restaurant kitchen cooking the thing, then you can write it down, even if its origins lie ultimately not in your own mind but in someone else’s cooking. But if you have merely written down what someone else wrote down first, having cooked it in the meanwhile, it isn’t yours.” (76)

    “Wine writing or tasting is no more fraudulent than music criticism or art appreciation, which are also crucially dependent on context and expectations, on social context at least as constricting as those that govern mouth taste. All the things that make us human-the nature of our social lives, our taste for competitions and our capacity for learning new games-make the distinction between acquired taste and authentic taste, trendy taste and true taste, meaningless in any discussion about real life.” (107)

    “Now that all the record stores are closed, and the bookstores are closing-oh God, you caught only the very beginnings of the record industry, and can’t imagine the glory of the record store at its height!-the spice stores are the last browsing places left. If we were truly virtuous, we would smell and taste each kind, and note the difference-I’m sure they exist-and do a cinnamon tasting, as, at the fancy places now, they do tastings of red volcanic salt against black basalt salt, or whatever.” (119)

    “Spleen! Spleen is a very fine, perfectly framed organ. In fact, your spleen swells when you’re in love! How can you resist an organ that does that?” (125)

    “I have written such harsh things in this book about the appeal to nature that to insert it here even as a plausible hypothesis seems rank hypocrisy in search of a hamburger. Yet arguments from nature that say we ought to do something-eat one way rather than another-are different from those that warn how hard it is to stop ourselves from doing something that our bodies are designed to do. We can eat the way we choose-but we can’t choose not to eat.” (135-6)

    “Mario and the Iron Chefs are there because they have finish-they’re good at what they do, rather than being freakishly who they are. Being good at what you do is so odd and rare a thing in life now that just showing someone being good at something is enough to hold several million people. Even the contest shows make at least a pretense at excellence: the viewer can’t taste the food but Padma can, and the alarming sternness of the judgement at least stimulates, pantomimes, the idea of something being at stake in the act of craft.” (195-6)

    “The act of reading is always a matter of a task begun as much as of a message understood, something that begins on a flat surface, a counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.” (204)

    “All artists in all fields despise all critics all the time. (They may like the individual critic, but they despise his conviction that he has a right to criticize.) Still, there are levels of loathing, as there are circles in Hell. Writers at least recognize that the critic is a writer, and shares a table, if not an agent. Magicians, on the extreme edge, despair of those outside their circle ever knowing the difference between a trick that anyone can buy for six dollars and sleight of hand that only two people have learned in six years. Chefs are close to magicians in their certainty that their critics cannot tell the difference between something that takes time, thought, and talent and something that dazzles only by surprise, perversity, and snob appeal. But, even more than magicians, chefs depend on the good opinion of those whose opinions they cannot think are worth having-and the nature of Loiseau’s cooking left him open to the exhaustion of critics.” (208)

    “We live in a tapas civilization-quick-hitting bursts of information and gossip and malice-and a veal chop with butter and mustard sauce or a filet of beef with pastry and peppercorns suddenly seem as dated as the four-hundred-page novel brooding on a single woman’s plight.” (231)

  3. la cuisine:

    “A modern French meal not including both (even if the caffeine sometimes takes the degenerate form of tea, and the alcohol of spirits) is impossible to imagine. Dinner with water is dinner for prisoners. A modern meal is a drama unfolding between the Opening Drink and the Concluding Coffee, with the several acts passing between the libations.” (31)

    “I worry about French food in the new age of spices and world cooking, as one might worry about English damp in the age of global warming, or about Canadian civility under the stress of imported talk radio. Something that one just took for granted as a fixed feature of the world suddenly seems fragile and fugitive, even ailing-even, perhaps, on its way out.” (225)

    “As Camdeborde said that, I suddenly saw the right analogy: Le Fooding was to cooking what the New Wave was to French cinema. The hidden goal was to Americanize French food without becoming American, just as the New Wave, back in the fifties and sixties, was about taking in Hollywood virtues without being Hollywoodized-taking in some of the energy and optimism and informality that the French still associate with American movies while reimagining them as something distinctly French. It had a similar cast of characters, with Cammas as Andre Bazin, the propagandist; Rubin as the anathematized Eric Rohmer; Jego as Truffaut, the humanist-revolutionary; and Camdeborde as Godard, the serious radical. Like the New Wave filmmakers, these chefs had a vague sense of what they wanted, combined with a vigorous determination to achieve it, whatever the hell it was. Both were movements to remake French audiences in the light of American attitudes-to refashion their expectations as much as to create a new kind of object. The idea was that we had to change taste in order to change art. Appreciating old movies in a new way was as much a part of the legacy of the New Wave as making new ones. Eating with a new attitude was as important to Le Fooding as actually eating something new. The creative act in cooking was to change the style of criticism.” (244-5)

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