From the back cover of Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food.
Never before have we cared so much about food. It preoccupies our popular culture, our fantasies, and even our moralizing.
What is the meaning of food? Increasingly writers are attempting to wrestle with this question. A couple of the more interesting entries in this area are: Geneen Roth’s, Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything, attempts to show that how women eat provides a reflection on most of their views on life. Gabrielle Hamilton’s, Blood, Bones & Butter, The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, traces the way food has played a dominant part in her life and relationships, long before she ended up a restaurant owner.
Towards the top of this list should be Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. Gopnik opens his book with a letter written by Jacques Decour, a member of the French Resistance, executed by the Germans in 1942. The letter, though short, is loaded with references to meals and the significance they have held in Decour’s life.
In many ways the rest of the book consists of Gopnik’s efforts to find the same significance in the meals he eats. The title for the book shows up later in the first chapter when an indignant chef bemoans the fact that too many young couples put their focus on sofas and TVs. “Don’t they know the table comes first?” he asks.
Gopnik then proceeds to take his readers through the development of our modern eating habits by examining the development of the restaurant and the cookbook. Despite the somber tone that the book opened with, this unpacking of these two developments is lively and entertaining.
Along the way the reader is introduced to many of the key figures of the modern culinary movement such as Brillat-Savarin (whose last name I unfortunately associate with a line of rather poor frozen TV dinners). We are also introduced to the remarkable Elizabeth Pennell, who will serve as rhetorical foil to Gopnik throughout the book. Pennell might be described as the first superstar female foodie, and Gopnik’s interaction with her writings gives the reader a personalized history lesson on how our relationships with food have been transformed over the last three two centuries.
Throughout Gopnik also lets in on the relationship he shares with his family, and the way that food informs that relationship and vice-versa. This is all part of what appears to be the larger attempt of the book, which as I read it, is to find a grand meaning for life in food.
Not Quite There:
In the end, Gopnik doesn’t quite make it work. His last email to Elizabeth Pennell seems to suggest that food can’t overcome the feeling of loss when loved ones die, there is still an emptiness. At best he hopes that the fellowship of the table is one that may one day be shared beyond the grave, but he is not hopeful.
On the whole, The Table Comes First, does present one of the most cogent and holistic pictures of the role that food plays in our relationships. On top of that it is a lively and entertaining read. This book is one that should be on your food library shelf.