March 2012

Kerri Arsenault

Locus Pocus

Gopnik's Table Comes First

I read Adam Gopnik’s memoir Paris to the Moon umpteen times and read it each time I am bound for Paris. There is always something thrilling about those first few pages, encountering Paris through Gopnik’s eyes, a place he wanted to live since he was eight-years-old. He begins on rue Saint-Sulpice, a street in my favorite arrondissement, and describes an enchanting engraving he saw there of a train leaving Paris flying straight up into the sky. This is how I used to imagine Paris, and still do, as cheesy as it seems. In fact, any new place I alight, I always feel, even if briefly, the enormous possibilities, as endless as the sky itself. I just need the requisite magical flying train -- ŕ la Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang -- to get there.

It’s no coincidence I began reading Gopnik’s more recent collection The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food while planning an upcoming road trip from Paris to Bordeaux. Forever I harbored romantic visions about such a trip, picturing meals in a low-ceilinged country auberge with an open hearth, white tablecloths, creaky chairs, eating cassoulet or a confit du canard paired with a wine from the region (I think such a place does exist and Paula Wolfert, in writing The Cooking of South-West France, has surely been there). Gopnik’s book, it turns out, was no roadmap for my mawkish reverie, but his book was magical ride nonetheless.

The title is a bit of a misnomer because it promises a culinary romp through France with Gopnik’s charming family. With such expectations aside, Gopnik’s theoretical inquires about how we eat, what we eat, and whom we choose to eat with is easier to swallow. He examines these questions by rummaging around such trends as nose-to-tail eating, Le Fooding, localism, molecular cooking, and zealous vegetarianism. By doing so, he explores the parboiled arguments of "taste," good and bad. "We have mouth taste and we have moral taste,” Gopnik writes, though “moral” in this context signifies more than just ethical. He wants us to believe moral and mouth tastes are cyclical, evolving, linked. Gopnik uses the StarKist tuna ads of the sixties to adjudicate. Charlie, the beret wearing tuna, tries to convince Starkist that his outward appearance and sophistication foretold the quality of his fillet. “‘Charlie, StarKist don’t want tunas with good taste, StarKist wants tunas that taste good.’” StarKist is right that good taste starts with something tasting good, but as Gopnik argues, “moral taste expands from mouth taste.” In other words, if something looks good (as does Charlie the Tuna) that we are more likely to convince ourselves it tastes good too, even if it’s not necessarily better tasting. “They are all framing effects in which what we sense on our tongues is secondary to what we believe in our heads,” he writes. As I child, I would scarf down canned tuna mixed with mayo, stuffed inside a buttered and toasted hot dog roll. But back then, serve me fresh tuna that looked like tuna? Never would have happened even though fresh tuna, as I now know, tasted superior than the canned version. "Too fishy!" I declared about bluefin fillets, even though the canned stuff really smelled like cat food. But to a nine-year-old, a can was a neat package that couldn’t stare back at me.

Some critics zinged Gopnik for this book’s intellectual timbre, but anyone familiar with Gopnik knows his writing is infused with recherché reference, acerbic wit, strategic name-dropping, and a Francophile palette, a palette largely influenced by his mother. To his defense and for those not familiar with his work, he is a well-read and well-travelled man and he shares his abundant knowledge, like he shares his personal recipes, many of which I recorded (his roast chicken recipes are particularly appealing). There is also a tendency, at least by a large faction of Americans, to associate French cuisine with elitism, but Gopnik’s flick of the wrist appeal to Brillat-Savarin exists alongside his “lemon-up-the-bum chicken” and testimonials from Charlie the Tuna. The writing, subsequently, remains balanced, following the directive of his mother’s recipe for apricot and Grand-Marnier soufflé: “do not overbeat / do not underbeat!” A bit of scholarly detritus, buoyed by a cartoon fish makes this text richer just as Gopnik’s Béarnaise sauce is made richer by the addition of butter. The essays end up a cross between M.F.K. Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, and Roland Barthes: personal, zesty and naughty at times, and as cerebral as semiotics… like a good meal itself.

Intermittently, Gopnik crafts imaginary correspondences to Elizabeth Pennell (1862-1952), a lusty cook before her time. He affectionately calls her “The Nigella Lawson of the Age of Whistler” someone he identifies as having “extremely, almost scarily, good taste” and the “rare kind of food writer who makes you digress, turn from analytic scrutiny to ardent fantasy.” The device -- half fan mail and half diary -- works as a candid chance for Gopnik to let down his hair and get personal. Here is where you’ll find his family and his cooking, and through a lens more informal than erudite.

My dinner guests sometimes ask for my salad dressing recipe: “Why don’t you use measurements?!” Other times, I’m encouraged to substitute ingredients: “Let’s use turkey sausage instead of chorizo.” Taste. You can give someone your recipe for dressing, but you can’t give them your happy accidents, the temperature of your olive oil, the freshness of your garlic, the size of your whisk, the depth of your bowl, the amount of times you make your dressing. In other words, there are so many factors going making something, it’s almost impossible to convey its replication. “The recipe is a blueprint but also a red herring, a way to do something and a false summing up of a living process that can be handed on only be demonstration, a knack posing as knowledge,” Gopnik writes. Taste. It’s the single gesture on the plate epitomized by Alain Passard’s tomato salad. Passard, owner and chef of Michelin Red Guide three-star L’Arpege in Paris and owner of Château du Gros Chesnay in Fillé-sur-Sarthe, tells Gopnik: “‘The other day I made a plate of tomatoes -- just these tomatoes, sliced the right thickness, salted, and with a dab of balsamic. It was perfect.” The gardener nods seriously. “Of course, one gesture on the plate demands a thousand acts here in the garden.’” Taste is the moment when all good things come together and form something singularly satisfying, like how I feel when my simple dressing ingredients transform damp leafy blandness into a bowl of divine greens. The recipe? As Gopnik suggests, “Be me!”

Food, yes, but what’s the book got to do with family and France? Gopnik’s family is often in the periphery as sideline commentators, cooking muses, or brining inspiration. France serves as a backdrop no doubt, and a lifelong inspiration for him, its food and history as picturesque as the train station in the film Hugo. The themes are not as acutely manifest as his historical and analytical discussions of food, but they are there, like the secret ingredient in his roast chicken.

I met Gopnik, briefly, at a reading in San Francisco and sheepishly asked him to sign my dog-eared Paris to the Moon paperback, a book signing no-no, which he did graciously and then chatted for a few minutes about The Best American Essays, which he was editing that year. Naysayers, snark away; the man is no prima donna and knows his roast chicken. He’s sharp as a tack and to dumb down or broaden his writing to capture a wider audience about a subject so dear to him would be a culinary and literary travesty. He presupposes his readers are intelligent, and doesn’t condescend as does Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food -- “Sautéing is a very fast way of cooking over high heat” we are told. Anyone purchasing a cookbook by Alice Waters or knows who she is, I daresay, knows this. Gopnik, on the other hand, is not trying to start a Delicious Revolution.
For my impending road trip, I plan to drive a Fiat 500 through the small Pays de la Loire and Charente-Maritime villages where my ancestors came from and return on the magic flying train of the TGV, hopefully experiencing something as inspiring as that tomato salad in Fillé-sur-Sarthe.

You don’t have to own Le Creuset cookware (though you should anyway), know every French gastronome, or drop $200 on lunch to enjoy this book. It is written for and written by, someone who cooks with and serves it up with love.