Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Adam Gopnik's The Table Comes First

What's today? December 28th? And I'd like to complete my Books Read in 2011 post by this weekend, especially since classes start up again on Tuesday (remorselessly early!)

So . . . the book I just turned the last page of is Adam Gopnik's The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. The "family" and "France" references in the title, I will admit, set me up to expect more anecdotes of the daily domestic as well as more, hmmmm, road trip tales? Not sure if that's precisely what I was hoping for, but it accounts for a slight reservation I had throughout. And yet, I found the book interesting, informative -- quite erudite, really -- and Gopnik's meditations are worthy, thoughtful, often engaging. The book constitutes an idiosyncratic cultural history of a specific stream of cuisine -- that which runs primarily from France through to America (by which Gopnik generally means the United States of) although with an interesting foray or two -- Barcelona, London. . .

Gopnik argues convincingly, if gently, with Jonathan Safran Foer (as that writer's food prescriptions represent the animal rights' movement) -- acceding some of his central points, but thoughtfully remonstrating with recourse to our carnivorous/omnivorous animal natures. He links other, broader and more historical politics to food, considering whether this or that movement in foodie culture is Right or Left-Wing, centrist or quietist, and he pays some attention to class and food. Race, ethnicity, and food beyond the Northwest hemisphere -- indeed beyond the trans-Atlantic trajectory from France to New York -- play only a small part in his meditations.

It's oddly obvious, isn't it, that I held some distance from this book, as much as I thought it worthwhile and even as I enjoyed Gopnik's observations. I suppose, overall, I found it too cerebral -- I can see why Gopnik chose to maintain this stance, eschewing the potentially gimmicky approaches of including recipes which might have brought readers closer to the family table (he writes fairly early in the book about his deliberations over this very concern). Still, I was most engaged when he moved closer to the stove or the chopping board. As much as the title announces that "the table comes first," he spends more time time surveying cookbooks than sitting around a meal.

Still, his survey is fascinating and convincing, if not always completely satisfying. I'd happily recommend the book, however, even if I pushed away from the table still a wee bit hungry. . .

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