Book Review:  “The Table Comes First” by Adam Gopnik

by Jan

In The Table Comes First Gopnik looks at food and dining from a                          The Table Comes Firstsociological and consumer point of view, including snobbery and food fads.

Veblen’s work, The Theory of the Leisure Class is about conspicuous consumption. The point of it is that it’s more about being conspicuous than consumption, ie. people need to show off while spending a lot of money. Some might want to separate themselves from the bourgeoisie, and the leisure class does this by taking on the mores and habits of say, the peasantry.

They can’t eat more to differentiate themselves because obesity is a sign of the lower middle class. So they eat local, seasonal and organic produce, or when they eat out, maybe some molecular gastronomy. It seems that the new best restaurants, for example Noma, combine extreme localism with molecular production. For Veblen, it’s all about status. “All rat races look the same to everyone but the rats who are running in them”. (p113)

Gopnik says that taste differences are value disputes. Green values are community, tradition, care, sustainability and pleasure. And on the industrial side: efficiency, prosperity, ease of choice and abundance. The Left is conservative while the industrial and populist right is progressive – “say goodbye to the family farm, the slow-cooked chicken, and conversely, cheap meat for everyone. Organic, local, slow – if this is what we want, it is, the counter argument goes the best way to go hungry. There is the silent spring of industrialized agriculture, but there is also the long silent summer of natural starvation”. (p117)

In 1825 Brillat-Savarin wrote The Physiology of Taste which was one of the first rule books putting gastronomy on a semi-scientific basis. It was a book about the extent of pleasures. “We chew with our molars, but eat with our minds.” A systematic study of soft power, Brillat-Savarin thought that needs become demands and desires, and that this became political through the civilizing act of the table. He thought the ideal eater was the gourmand, not the gourmet, ie. the glutton not a finicky eater. He inspired MFK Fisher to translate his work.

His rival, Grimod de la Reyniere, also suffered during the French Revolution. He sat it out in Beziers where he ate beautiful rustic food, and started to write about it. He also started the first regular food magazine: Almanach des Gourmands.

Brillat-Savarin and Grimod de la Reyniere are sincere in their passion for eating, for small discriminations, and appetite for order and system. But neither means exactly what they write. Brillat-Savarin wrote: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are”. And it’s a joke as much as a judgement, in the spirit of playfulness, similar to Mark Twain. Grimod de la Reyniere did the same thing.

Brillat-Savarin, the disillusioned liberal, remained a man of the Enlightenment, bringing order to the table. Grimod de la Reyniere, the reactionary, was counter-Enlightenment, seeking through pleasures of the table, salvation from all those scary absolutes. Both knew better than to plan the perfect meal.

Food writing was born in the wake of the French Revolution and the Terror. Brillat-Savarin’s writing on food is reformist and optimistic; Grimod de la Reyniere’s is defeatist and despairing. Among Grimod de la Reyniere’s circle a reactionary feeling sprang up romanticizing French food: it was seen as the cooking of the noble French peasant which had arrived in the cities.

Gopnik called some culinary historians “sizzlists”, ie. the atmosphere or sizzle is more important than the steak itself. The trouble with this reading of history is that underestimates the difficulty of doing things, as opposed to thinking about them. Gopnik says that it’s as hard to make good chicken soup as it is to create a reason that it’s good for you.  One of the big innovations in French cuisine is stock, providing a richer flavour, different from a pasta sauce or a spoonful of chutney beside a dish of curry.

Food on TV, according to Gopnik, celebrates in a debased and diminished form an idea of expertise and craft, which seems to be vanishing nowadays. So seeing a cook making something competently on TV is enough to attract millions of viewers. Being good at what you do seems to be a bit unusual, and so the target audience are eating takeaway while they’re watching a food show.

Le Fooding is a French food guide, whose name is insolently taken from English. “On the one side, Michelin, with its century of cultural expertise; on the other the Fooding guide born 10 years ago in an attempt to break the codes and finally offer real change to a gastronomy that its authors judge to be outdated.

Le Fooding seems earnest in the manner of the slow food movement; at others, it is merely festive, a good-time gang; at still others, it appears determined to wrench on the nationalist right, to a new home, in the libertarian centre” (p245)

Le Fooding sponsor mass picnics or “Foodings”, catered for by 3 star chefs, and the event is a cross between a buffet and a rock concert. They wanted to eat and drink with feeling; chefs who cooked from the heart, and not so much the culinary technicians.

Gopnik discovered a comment about Le Fooding, ie. that it’s not revolutionary or even original. All the customers want is a good restaurant which is not too expensive. That’s not novel. Another comment: that the conservatism of French cuisine motivated Nouvelle Cuisine in the 70s. It’s version of  Le Fooding Guide was Gault Millaut.

The top French restaurants were fine but not too imaginative. Gopnik’s opinion is that France was not short of good food, but short of think food. El Bulli and Fergus Henderson’s St John offer food which is supported by an idea, ie. molecular gastronomy, or nose-to-tail eating.

There are many food reform movements around the western world, eg. Slow Food, the Edible Schoolyard, vegan, localist etc. They share the idea that the industrial Americanised food economy is destructive of smaller traditional farms.

Le Fooding’s goal is to break down French food snobbery, and look to a different future, eg. pizzerias and quality fast food outlets –  no more false boundaries between people, brasseries, bistros, grand restaurants and the like. All that matters is talent. (p263)

And at the El Bulli, I began to see at last why the slow-food movement and techno-emotional cooking, though seemingly based on different premises – one reactionary and anti-technology, the other all technology and naïve futurism – have lived together at our mental table, as a combined part of the moral taste of our time, so easily. The Hestias of the Hearth, following Alice Waters, and the Willy Wonkas of the Chemistry Set, following the Adrias, were really united in another way, both allied as makers of true slow food. In a world given over to all forms of speed – speed-of-light communication in every sphere, where anything you write electronically is available everywhere on the planet immediately – the commitment to taking time is itself a commitment to a coherent set of values. You could go to Per Se, or you could eat at Chez Panisse, but in either case what you’re doing is going to eat. You’re not going to eat on your way somewhere else, or before some other thing, or hoping to get done in time for Dancing with the Stars. You’re going to eat in a world where you mostly eat to go.


This quote sums up the book entirely.