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We're midway through the great American food holiday otherwise known as Thanksgiving weekend. Most of the country has had food on the brain as well as on the plate for days. Some of us think about food more often.
Adam Gopnik, columnist for The New Yorker, not only thinks about food but also thinks about why he thinks about food. In his latest collection of essays, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, Gopnick talks about everything from wine to potatoes and from Food TV to food in literature. Nothing is sacred and little is left forgotten.
Starting with the rise of the first true restaurants (in Paris, of course), Gopnik explores the changing culture of the 1700s that prompted people to leave their dining rooms to have a meal with friends and family in public. He then goes on to discuss the history and evolution of a variety of food topics, including recipes and cookbooks, the nature of taste, food movements, food writing, and kitchen skills.
There is so much packed into The Table Comes First, it's difficult to describe the depth and breadth of Gopnik's essays. Thus let me step back from the content for a minute to talk about style. I found Gopnik's enthusiasm to be contagious and appreciated how he was able to tie his explorations of food history into a personal experience. I also loved his many references to all kinds of books and writers, such as Rousseau, Darwin, M. F. K. Fisher, and Robert B. Parker. In the chapter on taste, he even cites a very popular young adult paranormal series:
One of the most piquant details in the Twilight saga, as any father of a prepubescent girl can tell you, is that the good vampires of the Cullen Clan refer to their voracious consumption of fresh animal blood as "vegetarianism"--and although I suppose some indignant vegetarian has objected, no one within the confines of the series ever disputes the designation. (p. 93)Finally, one of my favorite sections was Gopnik's attempt to be a locovore in New York City. He took his kids with him on a foraging trip through Central Park with "Wildman" Steve Brill, talked to a rooftop beekeeper, and visited two working farms within the city limits. He also learned a thing or two:
If there was something to be learned, it's that the question of locality is one that can be either narrow and parched or board and humanizing. . . . To shorten the food chain is to pull it close, close enough to put that face on one's food and a familiar place on one's plate. To eat something local is to meet someone nearby. We had put the city . . . on a plate and eaten it up. The plates had stories, where they normally have only food. (p. 169)If you're interested in food history, food writing, food in literature, or any food issue, you'll find a lot to keep you both entertained and informed in The Table Comes First.
I reviewed the unabridged audio edition of the book (Recorded Books; 11 hr, 4 min), read by the author for AudioFile magazine.
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