Book Review: The Table Comes First

We shouldn’t intellectualize food, because that makes it too remote from our sensory pleasures; but we ought to talk as intelligently as we can about it, because otherwise it makes our sensory pleasures too remote from our minds. The knowledge that our senses are part of our intelligence is what makes us human. (Gopnik, p.8)

Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food is a thoughtful, thorough exploration of the historical and philosophical influences behind the food movement, exploring just why we care so much about what we eat (and drink).

Reading on the porch

Reading on the porch

Obviously, this book was right up my alley.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and the arguments Gopnik laid out. I enjoyed his conversational tone, presenting his well researched content in a friendly rather than academic format. My favorite section was Part II: Choosing at the Table, which included a chapter on the history of taste, a chapter on the “meat versus vegetables” approach to eating that we see today, and a chapter on localism.

I think it would still be worth cooking slowly, shopping locally, using the whole beast, not because these are acts that will demonstrably do something good but because we believe these things are good in themselves. We like them now. They do not ward off our later ills; they provide our present pleasures. (Gopnik, p.182)

Certainly, eating locally has provided me with plenty of pleasure–from my trips to the market, to joining a CSA, to getting creative with what is available in my region each season, cooking what I can buy locally is a huge source of joy in my own life. Not to mention the sense of community that is established by meeting the farmers, bakers, and entrepreneurs who bring their fare to the City Market each week.

Cherries and Peaches at the Market

Cherries and Peaches at the Market

The other sections of Gopnik’s book were enjoyable, but ultimately less interesting to me, personally, although great ideas were scattered throughout the book. Gopnik is certainly a Francophile—tracing the history of restaurants and wine back to French roots, and exploring new approaches to restaurant criticism through a French lens, but as a Hispanophile (yes, this is a word), I loved the section about elBulli.

While I appreciated Gopnik’s arguments and perspective, ultimately, I disagreed with his conclusion.

But above all, food matters for us as a daily symbol of the sacred, which means for secular people that it is a kind of sacred-in-itself (Gopnik, p. 308).

Something about this just rubs me the wrong way. It leaves me wanting to debate with Gopnik, to insist that while, yes, food may be a daily reminder of the sacred, even for secular folk, it does not necessarily become “sacred-in-itself”. Food reminds us that there is something more worth living for, worth pursuing, worth connecting to in this world. My interest in food is not a question of what is sacred, which to me implies worship, but about connection. Perhaps it is a connection to the company around the table with you, or to the natural world from which your food has come, or to the family memories that you recall while you are in the kitchen, or to a realization of your life’s goals and dreams–whatever it is, to me, cooking, gardening, paying attention to what you are eating is all about attuning your awareness to the connections between yourself and others.

But above all, food matters for us as a daily symbol of the sacred, which means for secular people that it is a kind of sacred-in-itself interconnected nature of humanity, and indeed all of nature.

Food blogs demonstrate this. Hundreds of thousands of people spend their time cooking and writing about food on a daily basis. They share stories from their families, from their kitchens, and from their tables. They form community with readers and with other bloggers. They create a scene where people are able to talk intelligently about food, to acknowledge the “sensory pleasure” of eating as something important to our humanity.

Have you read Gopnik’s book? What did you think?

3 Comments

  1. cottercrunch · · Reply

    this sounds like a good read! definitely going to look into it.

    1. Lindsey · · Reply

      Please let me know what you think if you do read it!!

  2. Simon Says: Daily Food Quote, July 29, 2013 | The Rambling Epicure · · Reply

    […] Book Review: The Table Comes First […]

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