Just got back from a long lunch with a friend. Y’all don’t know this, but that’s the longest time I’ve been outside of my house in nearly three weeks. I’ve been sick that long. Started as a bad cold, then became a sinus infection, and now is something … I don’t know, it’s like that pile of gray snow that sits on the curb in early March and won’t melt. Lucky you, though: this is why I’ve been blogging so much, and why your comments get approved so quickly.
Anyway, I made sure to go by the bookstore and pick up a copy of Adam Gopnik’s latest book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. The only way this book could be more suited toward me is if “Faith” were in the title somewhere. But that would be too alliterative. You can’t have everything.
From the opening chapter:
We shouldn’t intellectualize food, because that makes it too remote from our sensory pleasures; but we ought to talk as intelligently as we can about it, because otherwise it makes our sensory pleasures too remote from our minds. The knowledge that our senses are part of our intelligence is what makes us human. We alone know our fun. The sweetness in our morning coffee is at once a feeling, an idea, and a memory. Eating is an intelligent act, or it’s merely an animal one. And what makes it intelligent is the company of other mouths and minds. All animals eat. An animal that eats and thinks must think big about what it is eating not to be taken for an animal.
… “I don’t understand how a young couple can begin life by buying a sofa or a television,” [British chef Fergus Henderson] said indignantly to me. “Don’t they know the table comes first?” The table comes first. The table comes first, before the meal and even before the kitchen where it’s made. It precedes everything in remaining the one plausible hearth of family life, the raft to ride down the river of our existence even in the hardest times. The table also comes first in the sense that its drama — the people who gather at it, the conversation that flows across it, and the pain and romance that happen around it — is more essential to our real lives, and also to the real life of food in the world, than any number of arguments about where the zucchini came from, and how far it had to travel before it got here. If our questions of food matter, it is because they imply most of the big fights about who we are — our notions of clan and nation, identity and the individual. Civilization is mostly the story of how seeds, meats, and ways to cook them travel from place to place. The parts of that story are surely things that everyone should know, if only because they lead us to who we are. If our questions of food are to hold out the promise of self-knowledge that gastronomy once offered, we can’t ask them outside of history.
And so, thinking about questions of food turned me back to the subject of France, the old home of the eaters we have become. All the spice routes passed through Paris. And if they no longer do as much as they once did, that is part of the story, too. You don’t have to be too ardent a Francophile to see that thinking about the table and its rituals means thinking about France, about French history and French manners, just as you don’t have to be an Anglophile to know that understanding liberalism and its rhetoric means thinking about England.
By now, reader, you will know if this book is for you. This book is for me.