Sunday, December 11, 2011

"The Table Comes First," By Adam Gopknik

Eat this book!

How far things have come since Yippie philosopher Abbie Hoffman's publisher invited consumers to "Steal This Book," by giving it that very title.

Maybe author Adam Gopnik remembers former French President Francois Mitterand remarking that the United States was "a country waiting to be entertained" when he launched a body of work that mixed food and literature quite so lovingly.

A few chapters into "The Table Comes First," and you may very well try to eat it, or at least take a crack at one of the half-recipes he drops in throughout the essay.

It may be the case that the enjoyment of Gopnik's book rises inversely as one's familiarity with "food writing" drops. That was the case here. highwayscribery cannot say if the food talk contained is food news, only that everything else about it was fun.

Subtitling his essay, "Family, France, and the Meaning of Food," the author stakes out a large swath of human interest and then highlights the ties binding food to our larger life.

"The Table Comes First," passes from the particular (food) to the universal, reading in the tea leaves of peoples' food choices their politics, history, culture, the French Revolution, and the reasons for Catalonian cuisine (to name a few).

In doing so, the book becomes something for everybody, which is somewhat the point: Everybody loves food.

By way of one example, Gopnik discusses a "rule of three" he applies to cooking and life-living.

"Is there a pattern of making here, more universal than it might at first seem?" he asks. "Jasper Johns once said, with the high, significant disingenuousness of faux-naif genius, that the way to make art is to take something and do something to it and then do something else to it."

And it is applied to cooking how?

"There is first the raw thing, then there is the transformative act, and then there is the personal embroidery" and then back to the larger world, "Something borrowed, something done, something only I can do. Natures Way; Our Tribe's Way' My Way. Or else History, My Time, My Talent."

You may or may not find that particular line of analysis useful to your life, but it's a good bet other things Gopnik writes, while conjuring butterscotch pudding from scratch, will ring true.

The writer, who is a remnant of the old Manhattan talky-smart crowd, and writes for no less than "The New Yorker," has a whimsical touch, though there will be times you'll have to bear down and work a little.

It should be worth it.

The investigation into how restaurants came about, took form, and held it, is interesting stuff especially for those who frequent them. It is light fare (pun intended) yet thought-provoking.

The writer provides an exacting yet almost apolitical look at the meat debate. He puts the "local" strain of food-eating to the test in New York and comes out less-than-convinced the means are resulting in the desired ends (while ingesting a good-sounding repast).

Gopnik hews not to any ideology. He pulls what is good for his diet and mind from raging trends, rejects what does not work, and lets food-love be his guide.

The second half, less historical and less researched, lags a little by comparison. Still there are conversations with top chefs and culinary thinkers in "The Table Comes First," that enlighten.

And those who have only heard in passing what happened at elBulli outside Barcelona will enjoy the insider's view of the process Gopnik provides towards the end. Others mystified by "molecular" cuisine may find their nerves calmed, or irritated further by the contents.

Where the writer seems to be going, without banging the gong too hard, is that breaking bread has a sacred component. A strong one. That may not be a revelation, but how and why are worthwhile topics in this world where everything has already been written or said.

"Losing our faith in art is, in a secular culture," Gopnik closes, "what losing our faith in God was to a religious one."

Frothy dinner guest though he may be, a "Tea Party" invitation is probably not be forthcoming.

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