Cerebral gourmand's food for thought

The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik
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Cerebral gourmand's food for thought

The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik

by Christopher Hirst

From a star writer at the New Yorker, this book is largely about French food. But the title comes from our own Fergus Henderson, the nose-to-tail maestro of St John restaurant in London. "I don't understand how a young couple can begin life by buying a sofa or television," he told Gopnik. "Don't they know the table comes first?" This is Gopnik in a nutshell. As he states in an introductory amuse-bouche: "I love to eat. I love to eat simple food and I love to eat fancy food. I love to eat out and I love to eat at home."

Don't be fooled by the straight talking. The subsequent investigation into "the meaning of food" is one of the few cerebral books on culinary matters deserving a place alongside Brillat-Savarin's Physiology of Taste and Richard Olney's Simple French Food. It is a relishable but odd literary banquet that can shift from startling acuity to baffling opacity in successive sentences. Gopnik is knowledgeable and insightful but his lofty pronouncements are occasionally wrong and sometimes plain batty, as in his comparison of fruit-enriched rice pudding to Keith Richards's guitar riff on "Start Me Up".

The book starts with a bravura consideration of restaurants. Gopnik maintains that this "primal scene of modern life... offers the hope of happiness that gives greedy sex the look of lighthearted love".

His brilliant elucidation of this phenomenon "thought up in Paris during a 25-year period before the French Revolution and in the 20 or so years after" is undermined when he crosses the Channel. Maintaining that our "weak restaurant culture" was due to drinking coffee in one place and alcohol in another, he asserts: "It was only after the proliferation of the espresso bar and the wine bar that London cooking began, 30 years ago, to become first-rate." In fact, they were a consequence of our rising food expectations rather than a cause.

Gopnik goes on to ponder home cooking, vegetarianism, taste, wine and food writing. Though astute about France, where he lived, Gopnik is prone to bizarre misconceptions about Britain, insisting that "no one did more to break down British puritanical injunctions against eating as a humane act, and a kind of art" than Bernard Levin and Kenneth Tynan.

Similarly, he showers praise on the worthy but dull Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America while ignoring its UK equivalent, the eccentric, entertaining and far more encyclopedic Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, which one imagines would be more to Gopnik's taste.

Gopnik shares Davidson's fondness for drollery and quirky tangents. His book is punctuated with favourite dishes, which crop up in so-called "emails" to Elizabeth Pennell, a Philadelphia-born food writer who displayed "extremely, almost scarily good taste" in her writings from London. The conversation is a little one-sided since Pennell died in 1936 but, like much else in this flamboyant and greedy book, she is a delicious discovery.