Passion Points: Food/Wine
It seems that anyone who considers themselves a lover of Paris has not only a favorite corner bistro and neighborhood walk in the City of Light but also a favorite chapter in Adam Gopnik’s 2000 book From Paris to the Moon. (For me it’s a toss-up between the Ritz pool, the Thanksgiving and the carousel in the Jardin du Luxembourg chapters.) Few contemporary writers have captured the French capital and its people with such a brilliant mix of intellect, insight, honesty and whimsy as Gopnik, the longtime writer for The New Yorker, multiple National Magazine Award-winner and acclaimed essayist (he wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on U.S. culture). In his newest book The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, (www.amazon.com) the writer returns to France, covering everything from the conception of the modern-day restaurant (born, bien sûr, in Paris) to the current le fooding movement, which is impacting its dining culture today. Brilliantly blending philosophy, wit and Gopnik’s personal observations and experiences, the book is must-have for any foodie.
Gopnik, who lives in New York City with his wife and two children, spoke to Indagare about the work, about his own favorite dining traditions and about hypermnesia in Paris (and yes, we had to look up that word, too).
How long has The Table Comes First been in the works?
In one way its been in the works for 25 years because I started writing about food when I started at The New Yorker in 1986. But the idea of actually doing a book using this material really came to me two years ago. I wanted something that I could feel truly engaged in. Then I came upon the Jacques Decour letter that opens the book and realized that I wanted to write about questions of food and the humane anthropology of food.
How do you think dining customs would be different if the concept of a restaurant had originated in city other than Paris?
This is part of the comedy of writing about food: it’s not as though they weren’t eating just as much in London, Sofia, Vienna and all other cities in the 19th-century. That’s what makes food such an interesting topic—it’s both crafted and essential. In France, it was a confluence of things: you had a relative abundance of farms and agriculture, a need for semi-private spaces in the new world of enlightenment, and a growing food scene and a number of writers who drove this scene. It’s very much like Renaissance painting in Florence in the 15th-century. There were lots of towns that had good painters in them, but for some reason the Florentines were uniquely competitive, arguing about who was painting better and they had people writing about it. I think that had a big role.
How often do you return to Paris and how do you experience the city today?
It’s a complicated experience now because our love of Paris as a place is loaded with nostalgia for the children’s childhoods, because that was where our kids, Luke especially, grew up. He’s a wonderful seventeen-year-old now who plays the electric guitar but we still see the four-year-old playing in the Luxembourg gardens. There are many places filled with hypermnesia – too much memory. When we’re back we do the same things we’ve always done: go to cafés, museums, bookstores, the same half dozen bistros, and above all, we visit our friends.
What is the first thing you do when you return to Paris?
The first thing the kids like to do when we arrive off an overnight flight, is get a really good omelette in a French café and crêpe Nutella at a little outdoor crêpe place on Place St.-Germain-des-Prés. Now that they’re older, the one common pleasure both kids have is shopping, and in July they have those regulated sales in Paris, so we do that as well.
You wrote so memorably about exploring Paris with a young child. What do you think makes the city so family friendly?
With the constant proviso that if you can afford it, it’s an ideal place to raise really young kids. Once school starts, I think it turns into a very long day for the kids. French children get a fabulous education but they also get a lot of daily negativity at school, and that was one of the reasons we came home.
Stipulating we could keep them all at a top level of excellence, there are three at different levels. Le Grand Véfour, the oldest of my three picks, has a wonderful chef and the most beautiful room. The Brasserie de L’Ile, (1, Place De L’Ile Geneve; 33 (0)22 311 0888) on Ile St.-Louis, is a simple place with a great spirit, and Balzar, our old favorite, has had a change in owners but seems to have settled in well. Those aren’t necessarily the first places I would go to eat, but I would be broken-hearted if any of them vanished. In New York, I’m afraid it works rather the opposite way around, maybe that’s one of the big differences between the cities. Two of my favorite restaurants in New York have closed in recent years: Chanterelle and Savoy. I wish we could have kept both of those open but I also would love to see at least one great old-fashioned restaurant stay open, like La Grenouille. My other New York favorite is Blue Hill.
Where can one find the most authentic French food in New York?
French cuisine doesn’t have one authentic line: there’s brasserie food, there’s bistro food, there’s bourgeois food (like veal chop with mustard sauce and filet mignon with béarnaise sauce). We find a lot of good brasserie food in New York at places, for example at Quatorze Bis (323 East 79 Street; 212-535-1414). Brasseries are everywhere, it’s not hard to find a good cassoulet or poulet frites, and we have a lot of creative and inventive three- and four-star restaurants like Jean-Georges (1 Central Park West; 212-229-3900) and Daniel. But if you’re in the mood, as I often am, for the middle-ground, like onion soup, salmon with lentils and chocolate mousse, it’s harder to find.
You write about food fads in The Table Comes First. Are there any current ones you think will turn from trend into classic?
Recently I ate at a wonderful restaurant in Cambridge called Craigie on Main, (853 Main Street, Cambridge, MA; 617-497-5511) where they patiently and lovingly detail the provenance and origins of every single thing on the menu. Obviously this is a fad in one way and something that people will grow weary of in the long run, because it’s so unduly elaborate. But at the same time, it’s a great accomplishment because by becoming acutely aware of where our food comes from, we have a sense of place in a time where so much of life seems to be spent in the homogenized economy section of an airplane.
What about Le Fooding? Would you describe your take on it as love-hate?
Le Fooding is a young food movement in Paris that aims to democratize and celebrate food on a more level playing field. I would say I have a love/bewilderment or befuddlement relationship with it. The group is genuinely reforming the status of French cooking that I have lamented. Their guide is wonderful, and it has a chance of altering things, and I really respect that the movement is made up of young people. My wife teases me because I find the women of Le Fooding so beguiling, but it’s not insignificant considering that for so many generations French food writing was an affair of middle-aged men with three chins. Identifying food writing with youth and vitality is an important change.
What is your family’s most-loved holiday and/or dining ritual?
We are an ecumenical holiday-friendly family. We have Thanksgiving, Christmas, a Seder, and my children’s birthdays (they share the same date). I do a big brined turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I like to do a very American Thanksgiving with Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, pecan-dried cherry-cornbread-sausage stuffing. My children tease me because they say “anything we do twice is a tradition for you, Dad,” but we really do have a Thanksgiving tradition: we get our turkey from the wonderful butchers in the Grand Central Market and take it home on the subway. Some people hang meat in a smokehouse, it gives it a special taste. Ours is “subway turkey.” At Christmas I make Olivia’s potatoes: mashed potatoes with truffle butter and a chestnut stuffing.
If you could create your perfect three-course meal drawing from meals you have had through the years, what would it be?
For my favorite meal I would go French but keep it simple: start with a dozen oysters, either salty French or sweet American, then filet of beef with béarnaise sauce, pommes soufflé, and Garnier soufflé for dessert. It couldn’t be simpler.
Who besides your family would be your ideal dining companions?
Oscar Wilde, Samuel Johnson, Kenneth Tynan and Orson Welles. But I think the party would be a mess, as I have learned from experience that dinner parties can only have one great talker, one dominant presence. So there would be mutual resentment, but I would like to see them all together because they’re great wits and great writers and all loved good food. I should have a woman in there too, shouldn’t I? I’d love to have Virginia Wolfe but she was a bit of a food fuss. I would definitely include Elizabeth Pennell, the woman with whom I ‘email’ in my book. Working on a book is a bit like riding a stationary bike: there’s a moment when you get into a groove. When I started writing the email-to-Elizabeth Pennell chapters, I realized this could really be a book. I could write to her and sneak in history and recipes, too.
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