Book Review: Adam Gopnik's 'The Table Comes First'

Le sigh: Gopnik mourns France’s fall from favor, but not flavor. Ferdinando Scianna / Magnum

If you're a critic and you haven't trumpeted the slowing pulse of French gastronomy, there's something wrong with you. Or so goes the fashion. It's only fair—France did invent high culinary competition as we know it. But if you're a regular person who just loves to eat, you may not flinch at the waning star of pot-au-feu or garlicky escargots.

In that air du temps, Adam Gopnik's forthcoming book, The Table Comes First: France, Family, and the Meaning of Food, indulges gourmands everywhere. And it's a refreshing defense of the nation responsible in so many ways for the way we eat now. In Gopnik's distinctive style, it is encyclopedic yet personal and funny, and it drives at deeper truths.

Gopnik is a Francophile who puts interlopers in the crowded books-on-Paris genre to shame. At the city's English-language bookshops, his 2000 bestseller Paris to the Moon—chronicling the five years he spent in France for The New Yorker—remains a top request. ("All the freaking time!" as one bookseller puts it.)

To hear Gopnik tell it, without the few decades bookending the French Revolution in the exact quarter of the Palais Royal near the Louvre, dinner wouldn't be the same, no matter where you are. But his story is more ambitious than a history of restaurants—it's about how we taste, dream, and argue about food. He explores the extremes of strict localism (exhibit A: Brooklyn tilapia). He gets into the heads of apparent adversaries—the meatless crowd and the whole-beast fiends, the Slow Food and molecular movements, the New and Old World wine advocates—and gives each its place in the grand foodie pantheon.

'The Table Comes First' By Adam Gopnik: A grand foodie tale. Brigitte Lacombe / Courtesy of Random House (left)

"We're at a moment when more people talk about food in America than ever before," Gopnik tells Newsweek. "But too much of the conversation is, in the American manner, too puritanical, too narrowly focused on the rights and wrongs of what's on the plate and not conceived in terms of the beautiful continuities of the table," he says. "We have to think about place and history and pleasure in order to talk well about our eggplant."

Gopnik's take on what makes eating glorious is at once sweeping and intimate. The book opens with a letter from a Résistance fighter to his parents, waxing nostalgic about favorite dinners before he is executed—real life-and-death stuff. But Gopnik doesn't gloss over French cuisine's decline. Instead, the book sets it in historical context: France has fallen out of favor, not flavor. And so instead of the priggish gloat that many critics muster, Gopnik's analysis is more of a sigh. (When the iconic La Côte Basque closes in Manhattan, he sounds a dirge: "So France is gone, France has fled, what was once an empire is like Byzantium just before the Turks won for good—merely a citadel.")

In that nuance, UNESCO's naming the French gastronomic meal as an "intangible cultural heritage of humanity" isn't gimmickry, as some jeered. "It is one of the real treasures of humanity, whatever happens to it next," Gopnik says. "Just as Venice is one of the other treasures of mankind, whether a new Venetian Frank Gehry emerges there or not."

In The Table Comes First, Gopnik does travel to Spain, to marvel at Catalan wizards of techno-emotional cuisine. But at the end of day, baking an "apricot soufflé, smelling like the kitchen you grew up in" is his Proustian madeleine. "Think of all the history, culinary and personal, that gets poured into that one good soufflé smell—from the invention of the French dessert cuisine in the 18th century to its migration to middle-class Americans in the 1960s. You smell Carême and Julia Child both at that moment." Suddenly every bite is an echo.