on November 29, 2011
I was just looking at the reviews of this book, which I finished last night, and I'm in agreement with a couple of people here - this book can be entertaining at times, but as a whole it didn't work that well for me. I enjoy Gopnik's New Yorker pieces, or I did when I was taking the magazine. They were always well-written and to the point. However, in this book, his writing seemed to get away from him. Run-on sentences galore, and most chapters went on longer than they needed to. IMO, if a chapter FEELS long while I'm reading it, and I'm thinking, please, just get on with it already, some editing is in order. I also thought the emails to the long-dead English writer Elizabeth Pennell were unnecessary and didn't contribute to the book. Gopnik is obviously a very educated person and did a lot of research for the book, and some of it is very interesting, but compared to MFK Fisher, Ruth Reichl, and Laurie Colwin, to name a few, he doesn't measure up as a food writer. I don't have a post-grad degree, but I read a lot of books (including books about food, cooking and farming) and it just didn't entertain or enlighten me enough to recommend it.
on December 6, 2011
I'm a fan of his writing in general, and in fact his previous books were really good. I follow him on the New Yorker as well, and those articles are also generally well thought out and edited, also researched. This book is too long. It rambles through some interesting historical points, but while going nowhere. I read alot of food books, web sites, blogs, etc. and the information in the book makes me think that Mr Gopnik is completly out of touch with other food writing today. He says he loves food which you can see from his other writing, but this book desperately needed to be edited down to something more coherent and manageable. The emails are not really interesting enough to be in the book.
If your looking to buy an Adam Gopnik book, you can by any of the others and have a winner. If you want a book on gastronomy, French Cooking, or food history, there is a list a mile long that will serve you better.
To see Adam Gopnik on the byline of a New Yorker article is to realize that you are in for a treat of fine writing and trenchant observation. The same thing can be said of his earlier books Angels and Ages, Through the Children's Gate and From Paris to the Moon, all of which are kept on my favorite "close-at-hand" shelf. In many ways The Table Comes First echoes the best of Gopnik's work,especially in his meditations on the meaning and significance of food, its conception, preparation, and above all, consumption. (This book should not be read by anyone who is on a strict diet!).
Nevertheless I do feel there are some weaknesses in this book that are not characteristic of Gopnik's best writing. His meditations on the art of fine cooking and dining are indeed enticing, but they do tend to wax overlong at times and indeed become somewhat repetitious. I enjoyed much of his history of the development of the modern restaurant during the French Revolution, but I was disappointed that he didn't carry that history on with as much fine detail. And unfortunately "Family" and "France" take something of a back seat to "the meaning of Food" as far as emphasis and development go.
I did enjoy The Table Comes First very much, especially its reiteration of something that I had forgotten: that so much of what we now consider fine cuisine has its origins in the simplest of peasant cooking. This is a book to be read and savored, and if not kept on a shelf with your cookbooks, at least kept comfortably close by.
on January 24, 2012
Adam Gopnik's earlier book, Paris to the Moon, delighted me with its insight, charm and wit. So when I heard Gopnik interviewed on NPR about his latest book THE TABLE COMES FIRST, it became an instant must read. I am sorry to say this volume does not live up to expectations.
THE TABLE is meant to be the insightful exploration of the meaning of gathering for a meal at home or in a restaurant, as the jacket blurb promises. It is in reality a report on trends: localism, slow food, quantitative wine reviews and the so-called crisis in French cooking, with some observations about family and France along the way. Info that is timely, not timeless.
PARIS/MOON recreates the experience of living among the French. Gopnik's combination of close observation and historic review reveals what feels like the truth about French civilization-- a key to understanding the nation and people. And he does so with elan and many a bon mot.
In this work only his demi chapter on the origin of the cookbook recaptures the tone of delightful discovery, dry wit and ironic bewilderment I so much enjoy and admire in his earlier writing.
Gopnik devotes a chapter to `taste,' a topic that has entire books devoted to it. The question of Taste and her sisters Manners and Morals involves anthropology, sociology, history and religion. To squeeze it into just a chapter, the author covers huge swaths of intellectual territory at a brisk clip. His offering is (to use culinary metaphors) half baked, dense and hard to digest. After this didactic, half-convincing introduction of the main topic, the rest of the book feels flimsy. Instead of revealing immutable truths Gopnik's observations are just (well written) notes on trends and of passing interest.
To fill out the volume, Gopnik includes letters (actually emails) to his new favorite food writer Elizabeth Pennell. These missives are inspired by favorite recipes and give him the opportunity to really talk about the food he loves to cook and eat. They are lively, chatty and personal. Gopnik is a little bit in love with this long-dead "greedy woman" and like any man under a crush tries very hard to impress her and prove his worthiness. When he writes about food to Pennell he's really showing off, trying to provoke a return of affection through a combination of arcana, familiarity and shared experience. It's a pleasure to catch Gopnik in this unbuttoned, enthusiastic mode, but also a little embarrassing. The letters are to Pennell, so we are eavesdroppers. And since he's writing to another A-list foodie, his recipes are short on technical detail because she of course knows all the techniques and flavors.
Gopnik explains why certain contemporary faddists eat the way they do. He tries but, I think, falls short of delivering his key to the mythology of food. For a more illuminating, lasting and entertaining run at that challenge I recommend the works of the irrepressible Canadian teacher and lecturer Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner and Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal.
on September 24, 2014
Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food covers a wide range of topics, from profiles of restaurateurs to philosophical arguments regarding taste. I was drawn to the book because of the title and what the book might convey to me about French food culture and France in general. While France does play a role in Gipnik’s study, its role is less overt than what the title leads one to believe. Readers do not meet French families or gain much insight into modern-day French families' eating habits and recipes, in other words.
I did benefit from reading this book, however. It helped me recall aspects of European food history that I had learned at one time but had forgotten. I appreciated Gopnik’s chapter, “Who Made the Restaurant?” for just this reason. He offered a brief history of the French term, _restaurant_, and how it moves from meaning a healthy broth—a restorative—to a type of establishment where diners choose where and with whom they will eat, and where they also choose their meal from an a la carte menu. For that matter, the entire Part One, “Coming to the Table” is worth consideration because it analyzes a dining style that Westerners today are so familiar with that they simply take it for granted (be it eating at a Howard Johnson's or a fancy French restaurant). Gopnik places restaurant dining in a distinct time and place in food history, making this ordinary ritual seem quite extraordinary.
No matter where I was in Gopnik’s study, I discovered fascinating and important information about food culture. I knew little about the progression of alcoholic beverages during a formal meal, how it is common to begin with champagne and from there move to white wine to red, then liqueurs and brandies, and finally a sweet wine. This progression is largely an English invention, not French, and it happened in relatively recent times. Nor did I know much about the difference between the café and the restaurant, and Gopnik effectively explains that the restaurant is about the chef and what he or she chooses to cook, while the café is about the patrons, where “pleasure can be rented for the price of a coffee.” In what I consider a flash of brilliance, Gopnik uses the history of the café and the restaurant to get at why British food has historically been bad compared to French food.
Nonetheless, Gopnik’s narrative can become overwrought or disjointed. He flits from thing to thing, absorbed occasionally with his own rhetorical flourishes. Thus, it’s amusing when Gopnik, comparing gourmands to theater buffs, imagines that theater buffs would find that “an eighteenth-century Shakespeare performance would surely swing between recognizably sublime moments and weirdly remote rhetorical flourishes;” in many ways, that’s what Gopnik’s own book does. He has “recognizably sublime moments”, like when he offers an analysis of how seduction and sex relate to the restaurant’s cultural development, and then “weirdly remote rhetorical flourishes”, particularly when he composes these long, sometimes embarrassing emails to the long-dead female aesthete, Elizabeth Robbins Pennell (whose _Feasts of Autolycus_ is a culinary gem ).
Ultimately, I would recommend Gopnik's study to the committed food scholar and academic more so than to a casual food lover, even though Gopnik is himself a journalist, not an academic. The writing is at times overly dense and the argument convoluted; one has to work hard to extract from the book the important elements. It’s worth the labor if one lives and breathes food studies, but probably not as enticing for those who might instead enjoy curling up with some marvelously well-written and penetrating essays on food culture by Elizabeth David, Calvin Trillin, or indeed, Elizabeth Robins Pennell herself.
on September 2, 2012
"In cooking you begin with the ache and end with the object, where in most of the life of the appetites---courtship, marriage---you start with the object and end with the ache."
Do you see why I love Adam Gopnik? He can take the simplest of activities---like cooking, for example---and he can find great wisdom there. Half the time I don't understand what he's talking about as I'm reading along; it's only later, when I'm looking over his words again, that his thoughts become clear to me.
Here's another example of Gopnik's wisdom that often goes over my head in a first reading, truth that is wiser than simple information about cooking and eating: "It seems to me that the real spirit of localism---the thing most worth taking from it---is the joke: the playful idea of the pleasure of adventure, the idea, at the heart of most aesthetic pleasures, that by narrowing down, closing up, the area of our inquiry, we can broaden out and open up the possibilities of our pleasures."
And not only does he find deep wisdom in simple activity, but he shares his ruminations with a cleverness that few essayists display:
"Yes, of course, everybody's recipe is someone else's recipe, with the exception of those few rare new things that someone really did invent....But there is a recipe that has, so to speak, through suffering become yours, unlike those that you have simply copied out of a book. We recognize the concept of sweat equity in recipe writing: if you have labored nightly over a stove in a restaurant kitchen cooking the thing, then you can write it down, even if its origins lie ultimately not in your own mind but in someone else's cooking."
"The good food of twenty-five years ago always looks unhealthy; the good food of fifty years ago always looks unappetizing; and the good food of a hundred years ago always looks inedible."
"On the other hand, or in the other fork...."
And beneath his wisdom and his cleverness, Gopnik shares little tidbits of the craft that help us all:
Gopnik suggests that everything is better by adding a little saffron and cinnamon or bacon and anchovies.
He also shares the surprising truth that good cooks either go very hot or surprisingly cold. They have time.
on July 16, 2014
“The Table Comes First”
I became enamored by Adam Gopnik’s writing in the New Yorker and thus I looked forward to reading this book. However there is a world of difference between the short form of the New Yorker and the long form of a book. I was entranced by his dazzling use of the English language. But the length of the book may be too much of a good thing, depending on your patience.
You can seek the interesting parts and then go back and read the skipped sections if your motivation is there. In this spirit I recommend reading successively, all eight chapters beginning with the words “E-Mail to Elizabeth Pennel -----“. These chapters include a discussion of food preparation, which is of interest to more readers, and they constitute a complete sub-book.
Even so, Gopnik can not resist running his discussion into the far reaches of relevancy. Thus it happens that the seventh of said chapters discusses the appearance of anti-Semitism between old and new Jewish immigrants to the East Coast. This was a revelation to me; Salmon with Broccoli took a back seat.
Gopnik shows that Elizabeth Pennel lived in the late 19th century, and was “the first to see the Cookbook as a literary form”. Pages 62-74 discuss the life of Elizabeth Pennel and are an appropriate introduction to the imaginary “E-Mail” chapters, as well as to the rest of the book.
It is remarkable to experience the effortless flow of complex English that comes from the mind of Adam Gopnik . He dedicates his book in part to Calvin Trillin “who set the standard”. I was a fan of Trillin before I read Gopnik, and I do not understand.
on January 1, 2012
I absolutely love Adam Gopnik's writing. Paris to the Moon is one of my favorite nonfiction books--to me, a perfect combination of the public and the personal. Gopnik's strength is the ability to observe something carefully and well and then comment on it in ways that take it from the singular to the universal. My favorite parts of his writing are these careful rhapsodies, grounded in the real. I also love food writing, and have been reading anything I can get my hands on for at least the last decade. So when I heard he was coming out with a food book, I couldn't wait to read it. Now I've been carrying it around on my iPad for several weeks and can't get through more than a couple of pages at a time.
I loved the introduction, and his comment on how historically food writing has concerned itself more with what happens around the table than what's on it. (Yes, I thought, and that's what I hate about food tv). But it ground to a halt not long after that. I do recognize pieces here and there that appeared in the New Yorker, and they are better--more entertaining and tightly focused--than the material at surrounds it. But mostly the book just drags on. Gopnik rhapsodizes and rhapsodizes, but it's not balanced by his traditional research and sharp observations. And so it grows tedious. Skip this one and read anything else of his.
on January 4, 2012
According to legend, Winston Churchill once returned a dessert with an important message. "Waitress", he declared, "take back this pudding. It has no theme!"
The same can be said here, for this book is a pudding without a theme or, worse yet, without much purpose. There is virtually nothing in it that has not been written about before; it merely rehashes material on dishes, recipes, restaurants, wine, reviews and reviewers, all of it either familiar, obvious, trivial, or simply tiresome.
In traditional New Yorker magazine fashion, Gopnik dresses up this banal stew with clever little asides, literary references, insider gossip, and other such patronizing flourishes. It doesn't work. All that is thereby accomplished is to add an irritating parochial New York gloss.
What we have here, in short, is yet another fluff-ball of a book that need not have been published.
on December 28, 2011
As much as I like to read food writing, I do not get what I am looking for from Adam Gopnik. There are plenty of words--almost too many--and once in a while I find an interesting insight. In the end, I find myself craving more information about technique. Gopnik seems to look at dining as an extension of other sensory experiences and his comparing food and sexual experiences strikes me as being aside from the point. In this regard, his writing and my reading tastes are not compatible--although I do not mean to suggest he is all the time talking about some sexual equivalent of every food experience. Gopnik is no Jeffrey Steingarten and I much prefer the latter for his sense of manic experimentation with how food is best prepared.