Another in the series. This post should be called “What I’m Hurrying Through Before Amazon Claws Back My Library Loan.” Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First groans under the weight of its intent. He has emptied the larder, then decided cook it all at once and load up that table he urges newlyweds to purchase before looking for a couch or other furniture.
Gopnik covers the ancient and modern world, literally and figuratively, discussing spices that no one alive in the last centuries has tasted, Australian wines, and the birth of the restaurant following the French revolution.
He slips in a Calvin Trillin-esq approach to his children and food. They and he discover the joys of foraging for edible plants in New York but sneak into a deli at lunchtime in lieu of eating their haul. Reading about gathering at curbside in Manhattan, all I could think was lead! road salt! dog pee! The kids gather but refuse to hunt. No pigeon or squirrel. Nothing the gray category, they declare.
Among the best parts are his emails to Elizabeth Pennell who published Diary of a Greedy Woman in 1896. Gopnik is charmed by a woman who would call herself greedy and drinks wine wiith breakfast.
He weaves literary and culinary critique into a seamless whole: “Eating Gunter Grass’s flounder was actually like reading one of his novels: nutritious, but a little pale and starchy.” And there are telling metaphors as well. In writing about the use of food in literature, he points to Anthony Trollope’s novels with their indistinguishable parade of “chops or steaks or mutton.” “The dishes are the foam peanuts in the packaging of classic narrative.”
His sense of humor appears on almost every page. As his luncheon companions slug down many drinks and devour large portions of meat and dessert, he observes two lions of the publishing industry. “…Tina Brown and Helen Gurley Brown dined on water and lettuce…” He describes his beloved Ms. Pennell as “comfortably dead.”
He runs through many culinary successes – and one spectacular failure. It is an attempt at a dish recommended by Ms. Pennell called pommes soufflés. It sounds like potatoes that resemble little pooris and is made by slicing them thin and then frying them twice. Gopnik’s version failed to soufflé, except for one which he fed to the dog.
With its wide-ranging survey of literature, Gopnik should have called his work The Table and the Bookcase Come First.