The Table Comes First:
Family, France and The Meaning of Food.
Reviewed by Sara Sterley
The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, Adam Gopnik’s newest book, is a fascinating and careful study of the role of the table, and, therefore, food, in modern life. Weaving in personal stories and favorite recipes, Gopnik takes the reader on an adventure beginning with the very first food “scene” in Paris and tracing its effects throughout the Western world.
For Gopnik, the “two pillars of modern eating are the restaurant and the recipe book.” Restaurants are so common today that we don’t often give thought to a time before their abundance, but Gopnik traces their emergence to Paris just prior to the French Revolution. Gopnik argues convincingly that the first restaurants were democratizing spaces in which people of all classes co-mingled in a public space, many for the first time. Similarly, Gopnik uncovers the history of the cookbook. He finds that “the recipe book is younger than the novel, more dewy-eyed than the end of slavery,” despite our assumptions that cookbooks of some sort are as old as cooking. In his research into this history, he finds a new hero: Elizabeth Pennell, the now-overlooked English writer who merged the cookbook with the memoir around the turn of the twentieth century. Throughout the rest of The Table Comes First, Gopnik uses imaginary emails to Elizabeth Pennell to share some of his more personal insights into his study of the modern table, as well as some of his own family’s favorite recipes.
After we come to the table, says Gopnik, so do the choices associated with the table. Eating at a restaurant, our choices are laid out before us on the menu. At home, our choices come before we even start cooking with what ingredients to purchase and which recipe to follow. At others’ tables, Gopnik writes, “we have to pray that they have chosen, and chosen well.”
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