Travel literature review: The Table Comes First

The Table Comes First: Family, France & the Meaning of Food by Adam Gopnik

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Rating: 3.5 out 5

Reviewed by Janine Eberle

Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel meets foodie culture in this intellectual engagement with the act of eating. You will have to be pretty committed to the movement the French call ‘Le Fooding’ to stick with this book – but if you are, and if you do, you’ll be rewarded with some fascinating insights into modern food culture, some enjoyable food travel and even the odd, loosely written recipe.

Adam Gopnik will be known to readers of The New Yorker as a long-time staff writer and blogger across a range of subjects. He and his family spent many years living in Paris, and his knowledge of that city seeps through the book’s pages. It begins with a wander through the history of the restaurant, which was invented in Paris, remarkably recently (pre-Revolution, which might not seem so recent but for the fact that they seem such a necessary part of civilisation).

There is a very philosophical slant to this book – it’s highfalutin stuff, considering that we’re talking about what is at heart a basic, animalistic act. The sensation of taste, for example, is demonstrated – through both high and low literary allusions and reference to some famous old French restaurants – to equate with morality. You might choke slightly on the stretch, but it’s an entertaining exercise. And some of the philosophy is too simple and perfectly stated not to seem true:

Something we have to do – eat – becomes something we care to do – dine – and then something we care to do becomes something we try to do with grace. Eating together is the civilizing act. We take urges, and turn them into tastes.

There’s not much actual travel in the early chapters of the book, but France, spiritual home of the gastronome, is ever-present. Gopnik is a confirmed Manhattanite, and trips to the outer boroughs – to a Bronx ‘chicken project’ and a vegetable farm in Brooklyn, are significant journeys.

But later there are pilgrimages: to meet the archbishop of nose-to-tail eating, Fergus Henderson, at his restaurant near the historic Smithfield meat market in London; to talk with the founders of Le Fooding in Paris, as they try to reinvigorate the stagnating French food scene; and to meet chefs whose extreme inventiveness emphasises that stagnation, the Adrià brothers, in Barcelona. 

Ultimately, for Gopnik, meaning resides in the food you make yourself, for family. He includes a series of imagined emails with Elizabeth Pennell, a contemporary of Virginia Woolf and vanguard feminist and foodie, with whom he shares recipe tips and talks passionately about things he loves to cook. These contain some nice moments, like ‘Eggs are little miracles; one minute slime, the next a meal’ and an explanation of what rice pudding and Keith Richards have in common. It’s these little make-you-smile insights, as much as the grander musings, that make this book this a satisfying repast.

Janine Eberle works in guidebook product development at Lonely Planet, and travels primarily to eat.

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