Food for Thought
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Adam Gopnik: Questions of food
In this excerpt from his latest book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, The New Yorker columnist and 2011 Massey Lecturer Adam Gopnik reflects on the roots of our current food obsession.
Having made food a more fashionable object, we have ended by making eating a smaller subject. When "gastronomy" was on the margins of attention it seemed big because it was an unexpected way to get at everything -- the nature of hunger; the meaning of appetite; the patterns and traces of desire; tradition, in the way that recipes are passed mother to son; and history, in the way that spices mix and, in mixing, mix peoples. You could envision through the modest lens of pleasure, as through a keyhole, a whole world; and the compression and odd shape of the keyhole made the picture more dramatic. Now the door is wide open, but somehow we see less, or notice less, anyway. Betrayed by its enlargement, food becomes less intimate the more intensely it is made to matter.
I love to eat. I love to eat simple food and I love to eat fancy food. I love to eat out and I love to eat at home. I love the Grand Véfour in Paris, where the banquettes are made of velvet and the food is filled with truffles, and I love the coffee shop down the street, where the eggs all come with greasy potatoes. I've loved to eat since I was little, when my mother, a terrific cook, would make all the dishes, large and small, near and far. I learned early on the simple path between eating well and feeling happy. And, as all eaters do, I also early on learned the short, sudden path between desire and disappointment: my first strong taste memory is of taking a deep bitter swig of vanilla extract in a dark closet into which I had sneaked the bottle, sure that something that smelled that good had to taste good, too. (It doesn't.) If all my pleasures are gathered around the table, all my disillusions taste bitter, like that vanilla.
Getting older, with children of my own, I was trained enough to cook for them -- my wife's feminist mother had purposefully neglected her daughter's kitchen tuition. And, over the years, I wrote a lot about cooking and eating, as a writer is bound to dwell on the things he loves. But though I had written happily about what food tasted like and what it looked like and also about the odd personalities of the people who made the best food, I was left, decades on, wondering: what did it really mean? Why did we care? What was, so to speak, the subject of food? The attempts to make food "art" I found embarrassing, and the attempts to make it adventure I found absurd. I recognized sexual politics in that effort, the result of traditionally women's work now being done by men, including me. Men being men, they had to assert themselves by trying not to seem too obviously feminine, pretending that cooking was really just as macho as NASCAR, and so producing the taste for rattlesnake testicle ragout. And with the coming of Mr. Perfect, something more insidious happened: the sheer brunt and dailiness of women's real lives -- the everyday dance women still must do for family life to go on --was subtly undermined by the cooking husband, or host. (Putting on an apron and making a sauce is the easiest of household chores, and a neat way to escape doing the others.)
Adam Gopnik's latest book is The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. Author of the beloved best seller Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. He lives in New York City with his wife and their two children.
Adam Gopnik photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe