Stirring the Pot

Adam Gopnik’s guide to gastronomy as a life force.

I wish this book, The Table Comes First, didn’t have to be a book. I wish it could be a dinner table, instead, with maybe six people sitting around it—not in a jammed-full New York restaurant where everyone is bellowing over the sound system but in somebody’s home, where we’ve all been invited to eat and talk. And I wish Adam Gopnik were at the table, leaning forward intently as the plates come and go, yakking away happily about food and history and Paris and cookbooks and life, just as he does in these pages. Then the rest of us guests could jump in and interrupt him whenever we want, probably knocking over a wine glass in our enthusiasm: “What do you mean, there were no ‘big books of recipes’ before the 19th century? Hannah Glasse, 1747, indispensable for the next hundred years!” “You don’t really think our current food obsession is the ‘father’ of the obesity crisis, do you? People are getting fat from eating heirloom tomatoes—poverty and junk food have nothing to do with it?” “Good grief, Adam, listen to your own language—‘men’ don’t invite ‘girls’ to dinner anymore, and they haven’t since about 1972.”

Now that’s what I would call a dinner party. In fact, although I don’t know Gopnik, I bet he would have as good a time as the rest of us as he fields all the horrified exclamations that get tossed his way. His premises and declarations on food may be full of holes, but he’s never dogmatic; and, anyway, he’s far more entranced by ideas than he is by facts. What flows through all the fantasies and ruminations and the excited if precarious insights he’s gathered up here is a deep fascination with gastronomy as a life force and with the way it’s awakened and flourished over the last couple of centuries. The book is loosely structured around what he calls “the two pillars of modern eating”—restaurants and home cooking—but the more important organizing principle is Gopnik himself, who acts as reporter, historian, participant and philosopher as he leads us on a kind of walking tour of the food world.

Or, rather, his food world, and that’s why it’s sometimes hard to keep up. Food writing is self-referential almost by definition. Gopnik’s heroes in the trade, notably Calvin Trillin and A.J. Liebling, are at the center of every sentence they write about food, whether or not they happen to be describing their own experience. But both, I think, would call themselves reporters and leave it at that. Gopnik works differently. He deploys many genres of writing simultaneously, with history and imagination and opinion often sharing space in the same paragraph, even the same thought. It’s an exuberant style, and it’s designed to be enjoyed, but if you’re the sort of reader who anxiously scrutinizes sentences for what they say, you’re going to need an invitation to that imaginary dinner party.

Here’s an example. The restaurant, he announces, “is the primal scene of modern life. Most modern urban people mark their lives by their moments in cafes and restaurants, just as ancient people marked their time on earth by visits to the local oracle.” Now at this point I could simply continue reading (“Hmmm, interesting comparison he’s got there, first Delphi, then Olive Garden …”). Or, more satisfyingly, I could project myself right over to that dinner table and start frantically waving a breadstick. (“For heaven’s sake, Adam—‘most’ amounts to you and about six other modern urban people, all of whom live in New York and have disposable income by the bagful.”)

Or there’s the page where he credits the British journalists Bernard Levin and Kenneth Tynan with leading England out of the culinary dark ages in the 1960s and ‘70s. “No one did more to break down British puritan injunctions against eating as a humane act, and a kind of art,” he asserts. “They were both utterly devoted to great food, which they identified, as most educated people did at that time, with Continental three-star cooking.” Argh! Where to begin?

Elizabeth David, recognized as a soul-stirring culinary evangelist the moment A Book of Mediterranean Food appeared in 1950, was on the case a good 10 years earlier than these guys and never thought for a second that great food had to come from an expensive restaurant. (To wit: “In the shade of the lemon grove I break off a hunch of bread, sprinkle it with the delicious fruity olive oil, empty my glass of sour white Capri wine; and remember that Norman Douglas once wrote that whoever has helped us to a larger understanding is entitled to our gratitude for all time.” Humane! Art! Not a restaurant in sight!) By the 1970s, in fact, even the Francophile Julia Child was losing interest in overhyped three-star French restaurants; she preferred the simpler places, which seemed to her much more characteristically French. And if “most educated people” believed anything about food in those days, it was that Elizabeth David and Julia Child—ardent spokeswomen for the home kitchen—held the keys to the kingdom.

So it’s something of a project to read this book with the care it deserves, even when Gopnik leads us into a venue where he’s completely at home, namely his own kitchen. Gopnik is the cook in his family, and these chapters feature recipes for his specialties, including braised lamb, roast chicken, and rice pudding. Clearly he’s drawn to the literary possibilities here: He’s one of those food-lovers who reads cookbooks at night as if they were novels, not so much for the how-to but for the why, and the for-whom, and the what-might-have-happened-after-dinner. Perhaps that’s why he’s chosen to weave his own recipes into a kind of epistolary novel, writing a series of letters—emails, to be precise—to a woman he sees as his gastronomic soul mate, though they’ve never met and never will.

Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855-1936) was an American writer and cookbook collector who lived abroad for many years and contributed essays on cookery to the Pall Mall Gazette. Those essays were published 1896 under the title The Feasts of Autolycus (and are now available in paperback from the University of Illinois Press as The Delights of Delicate Eating). In an era when appetite was considered unbecoming in a lady, Pennell was rapturous about food, discerning about ingredients, knowledgeable about technique, and unabashed about the pursuit of pleasure at the table. The moment he discovered her book, Gopnik was smitten, and he pours out his culinary heart to her in email after email. “The more I learn about you the more extraordinary you seem,” he writes. “I like that you call cooking ‘cookery.’ … I like your Francophilia, too. … When I’m eating, or shopping, I carry on a conversation with you. … And here’s the thing: with this dish, with the dark, dense spices, it doesn’t really matter if you brown the lamb first or not.”

Wholly carried away, he starts reading one of her other books—and suddenly his tone grows cold. Apparently Pennell was openly anti-Semitic, and wrote once that she found it a “tragedy” to see the streets of Philadelphia, her birthplace, swarming with Jewish immigrants. Philadelphia is where Gopnik was born, too; he had loved that mystical connection with her. Now he’s so stricken with guilt that he prepares what he calls “penitent foods”—wild salmon, broccoli, and brown rice, a meal chosen for the “tang of austerity.” (“You know, Adam, at something like $24 a pound for the salmon, I’m not sure there’s enough austerity here even for a tang.”)

But take a look at Pennell’s food writing, and you may decide that Gopnik isn’t feeling anywhere near guilty enough. He doesn’t even mention her nostalgia for the Old South, which pops up in her essay on chicken (“to see, in the mind’s eye, the old, black, fat, smiling mammie, in gorgeous bandana turban, and the little black piccaninnies bringing in relays of hot muffins. Oh, the happy days of the long ago!”). Why on earth did he fall head over heels for this prose in the first place? Ornate and arch, Pennell’s style is as out of date as her palate.

When the little delicate spring onion is smelt in the land, a shame, indeed, it would be to waste its tender virginal freshness upon sauce and soup. Rather refrain from touching it with sharp knife or cruel chopper, but in its graceful maiden form boil it, smother it in rich pure cream, and serve it on toast, to the unspeakable delectation of the devout. Life yields few more precious moments.

In the end, Gopnik largely forgives her for the bigotry, figuring that no era is blameless by the standards of later times and that we, too, will be harshly judged by our descendants. That still doesn’t explain his fondness for the writing, but my best guess is that he doesn’t see anything wrong with it. In a sense these two really are soul mates, despite their very different voices and politics. For both of them, eating a glorious meal is only half the pleasure. The other half is talking about it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a pinch, they’d both choose the latter. But why make them choose? There’s plenty of room at the table for Pennell, and though she’s certain to be passionately cross-examined, she’s more than capable of a vigorous defense. Hours later, when we’ve all had seconds on dessert and are drifting off, hoarse and exhilarated, into the quiet of night, I can imagine Gopnik going straight to his desk and writing it all down, blissfully.