The Table Comes First, By Adam Gopnik

A New York gourmet with superb taste – except in Britain

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The Independent Culture

This chewy and nutritious work from a star New Yorker writer is largely about French gastronomy, but the title comes from London's nose-to-tail maestro Fergus Henderson.

"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?" The table is also Gopnik's favourite spot. "I love to eat. I love to eat simple food andI 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. It 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 light-hearted 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" goes off the boil when he crosses the Channel. Gopnik oddly maintains that our "weak restaurant culture" was due to drinking coffee in one place, alcohol in another.

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" than Bernard Levin and Kenneth Tynan. He showers praise on the dull Oxford Encyclopaedia of Food and Drink in America while ignoring its UK equivalent, the richly entertaining Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson.

Though he offers nothing so vulgar as a recipe, Gopnik includes useful tips for a few favourite dishes: braised lamb with prunes and saffron, scrambled eggs, rice pudding. These appear in so-called "emails" to Elizabeth Pennell, a Philadelphia-born food writer who displayed "almost scarily good taste". The conversation is a little one-sided since Pennell died in 1936 but, like much else in Gopnik's flamboyant feast, she is a delicious discovery.