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Review: The Table Comes first

Food is placed eloquently at the heart of life in Adam Gopnik's gastronomic reflections

    By Adam Gopnik
    Quercus, £18.99

    Certain American literary lions, the foremost being the late MFK Fisher, have pushed the genre of food-writing beyond its usual confines and shed light on philosophical issues. Adam Gopnik - staff-writer on the New Yorker, prize-winning journalist and author of two best-selling essay-collections - is among their number.

    In The Table Comes First, a sparkling collection of musings on life, liberty and the pursuit of gastronomic satisfaction, the narrative thrust is indicated by the subtitle: Family, France and the Meaning of Food. The curious title comes from a remark made by the great chef Fergus Henderson along the lines of - to paraphrase - when setting up home, get the table in place before anything else.

    Essay-grouping follows the pattern of a meal served à la russe - parts I to IV are delivered as a sequence of courses rather than everything on the table at once à la française. This is interspersed with imaginary email correspondence with Edwardian fellow-foodie Elizabeth Pennell (Diary of a Greedy Woman, 1896) allowing discussion of what's cooking in the Gopnik household today (lamb with anchovies, salmon with broccoli…).

    "Why do we care so much about our food?" Gopnik enquires, then continues: "There's a sociological explanation (as signal of status), a psychological explanation (it takes the place of sex), and a puritanical explanation (it's the simplest sign of virtue)." Part I (Coming to the Table) traces the origins of the restaurant to a restorative soup provided to weary sansculottes in revolutionary Paris. Part II (Choosing…) examines the chemistry of taste, fashions in recipe-books and the origins of foodisms, and puts forward the notion that finger-wagging vegetarians and committed carnivores are two sides of the same prejudice.

    Part III (Talking…) discusses why anyone would want to write a recipe at all. Part IV (Leaving…) heads back from whence it came, mostly Paris, for a taste of things to come.

    Adam is no longer a man for dessert. The reason, as with most who dine often and well, is the appearance of a paunch. Nevertheless, mindful of authorial responsibility, he visits elBulli and Noma in search of perfect sweetness.

    All of which is likely to be subsumed by Le Fooding, an anything-goes-as-long-as-it-works, anti-Michelin-star movement from Paris. The name to drop is Yves Camdeborde; the slogan, "no rules but excellence"; the style urban-aubergiste - country comes to town. Yes, Heston has done it already but kept the fancy prices.

    As is to be expected, Gopnik is prodigiously well-read. He admires Brillat-Savarin for literary brilliance, Ian Fleming for outright gluttony and Keith Richards for home-cooked shepherd's pie. But his all-time kitchen goddess remains fellow-American, Lizzie Pennell, the feisty feminist with whom he conducts Julie-and-Julia conversations at intervals throughout. So it comes as a bit of a shock when Liz suddenly reveals herself as rabidly antisemitic, the focus of her ire being the influx of impoverished Russian Jews, among them Adam Gopnik's not-so-distant forefathers, into a previously pleasant corner of Philadelphia. He forgives her in the end - sort of.

    What more can any reader ask than fine writing and intelligent argument from an author of strong opinions who is prepared to slaughter a whole herd of sacred cows and isn't afraid to get down and personal?

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