November 22, 2011

In his 2002 essay “A Purim Story,” Adam Gopnik describes what sounds like a religious experience, but what others might just call brunch.

“The next day I decided to return to the only Jewish tradition with which I was at all confident,” he writes, “and that was having smoked fish at eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings. Every Sunday morning throughout my childhood my grandfather would arrive with the spread — salty lox and unctuous sable and dry whitefish and sweet pickled salmon.”

That story is not included in Gopnik’s wonderful new book, “The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food.” But then again, in a way, it is. A boy and his food memories are not easily parted: trust me, I know. The mysterious power of that ritual — the most specifically Jewish act in Gopnik’s otherwise secular upbringing — must have, in some way, compelled Gopnik to embark on the journey described in his new book. 

Because “The Table Comes First” is, first and foremost, about the hold — beyond hunger and appetite — that food has on us.

“If our questions of food matter,” he writes in the introduction, “it is because they imply most of the big fights about who we are — our notion of clan and nation, identity and individual.”

I read that line and thought, “Hey, that’s what I think.” So, of course, I arranged to meet Gopnik, a staff writer at The New Yorker, on his book tour through Los Angeles. I fantasized we’d share a long, hopefully French meal with lots of wine and high-calorie bonding. I settled for a quick visit over warm coffee between tour appearances.

We sat down in the B&B-esque lobby of The Georgian Hotel in Santa Monica. Gopnik’s book-jacket photo shows him in full-on New Yorker intellectual intimidation pose: staring straight at the camera, eyes focused, thinning hair over a deeply furrowed brow. Unposed, he is much more amiable — a quick laugher, an enthusiastic talker. I once interviewed “Mad Men” creator Matt Weiner and came away thinking no one in the world spoke faster or in more complete and polished paragraphs. Adam Gopnik makes Matt Weiner sound like Rick Perry.

No ordinary food book, I said to Gopnik, begins with the story of a condemned resistance fighter recounting memories of favorite meals. His does. In France, circa 1942, Jacques Decour, about to face a Gestapo firing squad, spent his last hours composing a letter to his parents, recalling all the great meals he had eaten.

Take that, Rachel Ray.

“I wanted to say to the reader, the stakes are very high here,” Gopnik explained. “It’s not just about food; it’s something else.”

That “something else” is what Gopnik uncovers in the course of his meticulous reporting and research. 

He spends a lot of time in the past, exploring the “twin pillars” of our food culture — restaurants and recipes.

The word restaurant, he reports, first appeared in France in 1750 — the name for the restorative beef or chicken bouillon that inn owners served to weary travelers.

But what cemented the restaurant as a social and cultural force, what brought people and food together outside of kitchens and castles, was a law passed after the French Revolution that made it legal to sell coffee and wine in the same place.

“Without good strong coffee and red wine,” Gopnik writes in one of the greatest and truest sentences in the history of food writing, “it isn’t possible to have good restaurants.”

Cafés, Gopnik goes on to argue, are more important than restaurants in the spread of food culture: The twin drugs of caffeine and alcohol work a kind of social magic.  

If cafés kick-started Western civilization by encouraging us to eat good food together, our contemporary obsession with food challenges us to find the right way to enjoy it.

Exploring what this modern obsession says about food takes Gopnik into the world of the farm-obsessed locavores, the flesh-eating fanaticism of Fergus Henderson and the meat-abhorring high horsiness of Jonathan Safran Foer. Gopnik also describes an enviable interlude spent with the Michelin-starred vegetarian chef Alain Passard. Who says you have to suffer for your art? 

But eventually, the writer zeros in on his discovery: Food, he explains, doesn’t just have a flavor taste; it also has a “moral taste.”   

“The Orthodox Jew likes the flavor of brisket at the Seder,” he writes, “but his liking it is something more than fashion. It is a moral taste — in his eyes, eating brisket is an ethical position.”

Moral tastes can and do change with cultures and time, but they are as intrinsic to flavor as salty or sour. 

“Diet,” Gopnik observes, “is always the site of ritual convincing itself that it is reason.”

Unlike so many food books these days, Gopnik doesn’t wrestle with the right way to eat as much as he observes our constant and enduring need to sauce our appetite with morality.

“Whatever the real meaning of eating is,” he tells me, “it’s not about making super-fine discriminations beyond the point of sanity; it’s not even about saving our lives or saving the planet. … Pleasure is an adequate principle in itself.”

This tension between pleasure and principle fascinates Gopnik. When I tell him about my own food dilemmas — my wife, the rabbi, is strictly kosher, while I’m … not so much — he reverses the interview.

“If you asked your wife, how would she explain, as an intellectual living in this time, why she eats kosher?” he asks.

“She believes,” I say. “It’s not about reason.”

Gopnik eats the answer up.

“This is my point,” he says. “It’s simultaneously deeply ridiculous, and it’s genuinely significant. And worth doing. That’s the secret of life.”

Yes, you heard him right: In his book and right there at The Georgian, Gopnik offers up the secret to life — to somehow live with the awareness of its eternal importance and essential absurdity at the same time.

“You need to be both ironic and serious,” he said. “You need to have enough distance from your passions to see their absurdity. But also to grant them the necessity.”

How else to make sense of the spell food casts on us far beyond our need to eat?

Gopnik understands, and in our last moments together, nailed it.

“We often are uneasy with the idea that food is art; it seems a little precious to us and rightly so,” he told me. “But no one ever has any difficulty with the idea that food is, essentially, faith.

“Every community, every tribe, every group, every civilization invents a way of eating that expresses who they are, and that is, ultimately, that’s really the answer. It’s not about taste, as important as taste is. It’s not about the farm, as important as that is. It’s not even about the planet. It’s about who we are and how we take our necessities.”

I leap in and tell Gopnik that this is exactly what I’ve been trying to get at in my Foodaism blog. Just as our souls are housed in our bodies, our spirit comes through in what, and how, we eat.

“We feed our flesh to feed our souls,” I say. 

“Exactly,” Gopnik says, “Who said that?” 

“Me,” I say.  

In his new book, Gopnik actually says the same thing, but better. About Decour, the doomed resistance fighter, and his final food memories, he writes, “It was the closest he could come, as close as he needed to come, to an idea of the sacred.”

Gopnik might as well be writing about himself, at age 7, holding his grandfather’s hand in front of the deli counter, facing a heaven of smoked fish.

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