The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik
by Frankie Whitman
I was randomly selected to provide this write-up of the SFPFS recent book club SIG. While random, it was appropriate — I was the person who recommended it, having gone to see Gopnik last October in conversation about the book. And, alas, I was one of the very few, or maybe the only person who actually read the book in its entirety. And perhaps that statement sums it up for the book club. Our group was highly critical of this book.
Others have not been so harsh. For example, a review in The Atlantic had this to say:
“It’s history, nutrition, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology all rolled up into one delectable streusel of insight and illumination, in Gopnik’s unapologetically intelligent yet charmingly witty style. …Deeply fascinating and absorbingly written, The Table Comes First is the kind of read you’ll want to devour in one sitting, despite its Thanksgiving-sized 320-page heft.”
And in Slate, in an article titled “Stirring the Pot” (sound familiar?) by Laura Shapiro, she wrote, “I wish this book, The Table Comes First, didn’t have to be a book. I wish it could be a dinner table, instead, with maybe six people sitting around it—not in a jammed-full New York restaurant where everyone is bellowing over the sound system but in somebody’s home, where we’ve all been invited to eat and talk. And I wish Adam Gopnik were at the table, leaning forward intently as the plates come and go, yakking away happily about food and history and Paris and cookbooks and life, just as he does in these pages.”
In truth, not all reviewers loved the book, but none were as critical as our little group. Gopnik is a sort of Renaissance man and so has lots to say about everything. And words are his passion. However, we seemed to agree that the book needed a good editing and could only imagine that his editor was someone just out of college who was afraid to criticize this famous and revered essayist.
We also thought it curious that there were no acknowledgements. Really?
But here were some interesting take-aways:
• Two of the biggest differences between home cooking and restaurant cooking are heat and salt.
• Two secret ingredients that make anything taste better, “but not together, of course,” are anchovies and bacon.
We’ll save you a lot of work: read the book as essays, and pick your essays carefully. They are not all satisfying. We liked his chapter on the whole locavore movement, “Near or Far?” I personally loved the chapter on desserts and El Bulli titled “Endings.” And the chapter on our latest fixation on meat titled “Meat or Vegetable?” was entertaining and worth reading.
So don’t give up. There are some gems here. And there are several copies of the book floating around from book club members who would be delighted to share—or even get the book off their bookshelf!