Page 2 – The Table Comes First
Gopnik begins his section on choice with a discussion of taste. My husband, Grant, and I very much enjoy craft beer. One of our favorite shared stories is of a birthday party I hosted for him a few years ago in which we had a fairly extensive blind beer tasting. I used mostly local microbrews with a few of Grant’s other favorites for the tasting, but I also sneaked in an American macro-brew or two, beers that one typically wouldn’t find at our (beer-snobbish) house. Grant was so disappointed to find that he either misidentified or didn’t like some of what he thought were his favorite beers. After reading Gopnik’s conclusions about taste, I read the following to Grant:
Doesn’t this mean that you’re saying that it’s [taste] all phony? That it’s a fraud or a fake? Just the opposite; what it shows is that the experience of taste is like all of our other experiences of meanings, produced by complicated frames and interactions and effects and all the richer for it. Wine writing and tasting is no more fraudulent than music criticism or art appreciation, which are also crucially dependent on context and expectations, on social context at least as constricting as those that govern mouth taste. All the things that make us human–the nature of our social lives, our taste for competitions and our capacity for learning new games–make the distinction between acquired taste and authentic taste, trendy taste and true taste, meaningless in any discussion about real life.
So just because Grant thought the Pacifica was actually a Miller Light when he didn’t know what he was drinking doesn’t mean that he is a beer phony (or maybe it does in some circles); Gopnik would argue that Grant enjoys the Pacifica because it takes him back to our honeymoon in Cabo San Lucas when we enjoyed entirely too many ice-cold Pacificas with lime on the beach. Of course taste is subjective, contends Gopnik.
From taste and choices, Gopnik turns to how we talk about the table. He delves into the vagaries of wine tasting and the wine critic, of whom he amusingly summarizes, “Remarkably, nowhere in wine writing…would a Martian learn that the first reason people drink wine is to get drunk.” He examines the evolution of food writing and criticism, deciding that today’s food critics sorely miss the point: “like so many other subjects, food writing is constricted within these ever-tighter circles of opinion when what we want from it is ever-broadening metaphors of common life.”
Finally, Gopnik turns to how we leave the table, and in so doing, he himself returns to Paris. As he proclaims in the book’s introduction, any discussion of food culture begins in France: “You don’t have to be too ardent a Francophile to see that thinking about the table and its rituals means thinking about France, about French history and French manners, just as you don’t have to be Anglophile to know that understanding liberalism and its rhetoric means thinking about England.” Gopnik reports on the modern food scene in Paris, and his travels eventually take him to Spain where a few chefs are revolutionizing the world of dessert. Using the sweet ending of dessert as a metaphor for our hopes for coming to the table in the first place, Gopnik writes
how much can the table truly reconcile–how sweetly can, or should, the rituals of social life reconcile us to our opposites? It is sentimental, surely, to pretend that the ugliness of life escapes the table; we rightly condemn the French intellectuals who made too easy a social peace with their occupiers…But we do want to sit down to dinner with people before they become Nazis, if it might help keep them from becoming so. It is not wrong to hope that the revelation of a common human touch, a common taste, shared and relished, can become itself an argument for humanity. We disapprove, and rightly, of those who sat down with the occupiers, but we smile, and often, at the countless travelers’ tales of violence averted by bread and salt and beer.
Unlike many home cooks, I don’t consider myself a Francophile. I don’t even own a copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Nevertheless, the subtitle and premise of The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food hooked me from first hearing of the book. I love food, and I love to read and dream about food. I figured Gopnik’s newest book had my name written all over it. And, while I did enjoy many of his insights, I struggled to connect with Gopnik throughout The Table Comes First. I think his premise was a good one: that so much of what makes us social creatures revolves around the table. I have finally concluded that the book lacks a fourth “f” word: faith. The secular Gopnik not only rarely discusses the role that faith plays in our coming to the table, but he seems to strive to dismiss its importance. Conversely, my faith plays an integral and fundamental part in my enjoyment of food and all that it entails. Nevertheless, I’m not sure I would have realized how much the two are connected for me prior to reading The Table Comes First, so for that, I am grateful to Gopnik.