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The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food

by Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik’s latest collection of essays examines the “question of food.” Best known as a writer for The New Yorker and now the author of the 2011 CBC Massey Lectures, Gopnik is a self-professed Francophile. Thus he has structured this book, aimed at the “intellectual foodie,” as more a history of Gallic cuisine than an examination of the way we eat today. Gopnik covers a range of topics, including the birth of the restaurant around the time of the French Revolution and the question of whether recipes can have a masculine quality. 

Interspersed among these essays are “e-mails” from Gopnik, here representing the modern man as home cook, to a long-dead English food writer. Gopnik learned to eat and cook well from his mother; the e-mails offer the opportunity to present his own recipes and reflect on the experience of cooking for his family.

What is frustrating throughout is Gopnik’s insistence on retaining the pose of the New Yorker aesthete. The high table of old-time French restaurants, complete with their plush red banquettes, is his primary love. But too often this adoration for refinement limits his view and throws up some peculiar ironies. His attempt to be an American locavore is a point of amusement, yet the notion of terroir – a term used by vintners to explicate the particular characteristics of a local soil – is particularly French, so why should the besotted author appear so dismissive of a North American variation on the same idea?

At times, reading The Table Comes First feels like being stuck with the bore at a party. But when Gopnik stops philosophizing and returns to the story – the French resistance fighter awaiting execution who writes a final letter to his parents about a favourite meal, or how the Adrià brothers changed the high table at Spain’s El Bulli restaurant – he is capable of reminding you why you read food writing in the first place.