26 November 2011

Weekend Cooking: Review: The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.


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.

The Table Comes First at Powell's
The Table Comes First at Book Depository
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Published by Random House / Alfred A Knopf (Borzoi Books), 2011
ISBN-13: 9780307593450
Source: Review (audio), bought (print) (see review policy)
Rating: B+
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


TheBookGirl 11/26/11, 6:21 AM  

I love to read about food in all forms: cookbooks, food essays, chef/ restauranteur memoirs, and books about the science of food and nutrition. I think I would enjoy reading why he thinks he thinks about food so much since I do too :)
Hope you had a wonderful holiday!

Uniflame 11/26/11, 6:44 AM  

This book does sound interesting and entertaining. Now I am wondering if we would have something like this about our Dutch food culture as well :)

Marg 11/26/11, 6:44 AM  

Sounds like an interesting read! I had to think for a minute what locovore was! I soon realised. It is something that I haven't really thought too much although there are lots of broccoli and lettuce growers not too far away from where I live.

Michelle 11/26/11, 6:59 AM  

Man, I think about food all the time even though I can't eat much of it lately. LOL I so enjoy reading your posts so I can vicariously live it through you!

Amanda 11/26/11, 7:37 AM  

I'm definitely going to see if my library has this available as an audio!! It sounds like a fascinating book and the audio would be perfect. I much prefer my nonfiction in audio format for some reason.

Amanda 11/26/11, 7:39 AM  

Hmm...sadly, no. The print book is on order at the moment, so maybe the audio will follow soon. I got in the hold like for the print book, at least. Looks like there might be a bit of a wait, though.

Louise 11/26/11, 7:46 AM  

I heard about this book quite recently, and thought it sounded intriguing. Great to hear your very positive thoughts. I love wide ranging essays too. I've been meaning to read Gopnik's Paris to the Moon forever. Will add this to the ever increasing TBR.

Beth S. 11/26/11, 7:50 AM  

This book sounds like it's right up my alley. I love how your Weekend Cooking posts always alert me to food books I've never heard of.

BTW... just have to say "GO BLUE!" ;)

Louise 11/26/11, 8:23 AM  

Sorry, my first link didn't work- could you please delete it?

Carol @ There's Always Thyme to Cook 11/26/11, 8:26 AM  

I love how he "put the city on a plate!" Sounds like a very good read, interesting topic, I'm all for eating local, I wish we had more Farmer's markets around where I live. I enjoyed your review.

Heather @ girlichef.com 11/26/11, 8:37 AM  

This is definitely right up my alley. I think every action relates to food in some form, thought, or function. Adding it to "my list"!

bermudaonion 11/26/11, 9:06 AM  

I love it when an author's enthusiasm translates to the page like that. This sounds like a book I'd love.

Zibilee 11/26/11, 9:54 AM  

Oh, this sounds wonderful, and like it's a really full exploration of food in all it's stages. I would love to read this one, and have to be sure to check it out sometime. It seems that this would be something I would relish! Great review today!

Heather 11/26/11, 10:08 AM  

Sounds interesting, a bit like a literary buffet giving the reader a taste of each topic and urging them to dig deeper. It is odd to imagine that restaurants are a fairly new concept. Thanks for sharing.

Sheila (Bookjourney) 11/26/11, 10:11 AM  

I hadn't really thought about what brought people out of their homes to start eating more in public... that was enough right there to interest me in this book.

Margot 11/26/11, 11:29 AM  

I love good food writing. This book looks like it goes a little deeper than most.

nomadreader 11/26/11, 11:31 AM  

I've really enjoyed Gopnik's previous books (I read his book about raising children in Paris when I was in Paris, and it was divine!), and I'm eager to read this one. I never though to listen to it on audio, as I'm not much of an audio listener, but that sounds perfect for listening to when doing holiday cooking!

Buried In Print 11/26/11, 12:55 PM  

I like the way he expresses the idea of pulling the food chain closer: nice. I'm currently reading his latest, Winter, a collection of five lectures on the topic. I've divided them so that I read (and post about) only one lecture a week, so that I can make his writing last. Good stuff!

Memory 11/26/11, 1:50 PM  

This sounds fantastic. I've just added it to my library list.

caite 11/26/11, 2:22 PM  

A locovore in New York City? wow..that would be interesting to read..lol

Peggy@Peggy Ann's Post 11/26/11, 10:20 PM  

Sounds really fun to read! Might put this one on my Christmas Wishlist!

Peppermint Ph.D. 11/27/11, 1:13 AM  

I'm adding this one to my WishList...I love this kind of read. There's just so much more to food than just food. Have you read The United States of Arugula?

JoAnn 11/27/11, 8:41 AM  

Adding to my wishlist... not sure why I never considered the audio before now!

Lisa@ButteryBooks 11/27/11, 10:56 AM  

There is such a push these days to eat local and it makes a lot of sense. I like how he put the human aspect to it. Sounds like an awesome book.

Stacy at The Novel Life 11/27/11, 11:40 AM  

what an interesting sounding book! guess i never thought about the actual history of eating out, but as a cultural aspect that would be fascinating to research!

Beth(bookaholicmom) 11/27/11, 11:42 AM  

This sounds like a fascinating foodie read! I will be putting it on my list to read!

Tam Linsey 11/27/11, 1:04 PM  

What a great book review. I'm all about local, if I can get it, but I live in Alaska, so that can sometimes be hard to come by. To get around the issue, I raise much of my own food, from veggies and fruits to my very own beef and pork. (If you want to see some pictures, you can visit my website from the links above.)
Food brings people together - even on the Internet, it seems! Thanks, Beth!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 11/27/11, 3:02 PM  

We highlighted this at the bookshop a few weeks ago -- it got my attention then (but I haven't yet bought it). Your feature reminded me that it will make a perfect gift for my sister.

I love this quote "The plates had stories, where they normally have only food."

Karen White 11/27/11, 11:39 PM  

Great idea for foodie friend gifts. I have linked to my new post with a great flatbread recipe. Brought the cracker like ones to a post-Thanksgiving potluck and they were gobbled up.

Julie Goucher 11/28/11, 1:51 AM  

A late posting just added!

Andi 11/28/11, 10:56 AM  

This sounds fabulous, and I think it's a lot of what I thought I was getting when I tried to read The United States of Arugula several months ago. Will most definitely be keeping an eye out for this one. It's going on the Nook wishlist too. :)

Daryl 11/28/11, 12:18 PM  

Again, no food but lots of talk about it and photos from the windows of Robert, the restaurant in the Museum of Art & Design, overlooking Columbus Circle where the food vies with the view for your attention.

Julie P. 11/29/11, 6:23 AM  

This sounds perfect for foodies!

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