Adam Gopnik’s most recent book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, centers, like so many other recent volumes, around food. But rather than spend the chapters waxing ecstatic about obscure ingredients or pushing for specific notions of health, Gopnik, appropriately for a New Yorker staff writer, takes a headier tack. The Table Comes First isn’t so much about the actual edibles that land on a table, but rather, what gets the people sitting there. Think of this as an almost philosophical inquiry into food, but written for the (erudite) lay reader.
It’s a technique longtime Gopnik readers might recognize from both his work for the New Yorker and his best-known previous books, Paris to the Moon and Through the Children’s Gate: a Home in New York. While they’re deeply researched and bolstered by real-life observation, the author revels in using his obsessions as a jumping-off point. His food book is as much about food as an abstract concept as it is about heirloom tomatoes on a plate, while his writing on Paris concerns Paris as an idea as much as an actual contemporary city.
Accordingly, fans shouldn’t expect Gopnik’s appearance tonight at the Miami Book Fair International to follow a super linear format, either. While he’ll reference The Table Comes First, naturally, the rest of the evening might follow whatever intellectual flights of fancy both he and the attendees choose to follow. Salty Eggs caught up with Gopnik by phone last week to chat about his appearance, his most recent works, and upcoming projects. Here’s what he had to say.
8 p.m. Thursday, November 15 at the Miami-Dade College Wolfson Campus, Chapman Conference Center, Building 3, 2nd Floor, Room 3210. Admission is $10. Visit miamibookfair.com/events/an_evening_with_adam_gopnik.aspx
Salty Eggs: The event is titled “An Evening with Adam Gopnik.” Will you be focusing on your most recent book, then, or will you follow a different format?
Adam Gopnik: I will, because that’s the newest book I have out in bookstores right now. But that never lasts very long. I like to talk a bit more than read, and to tell a story or two. Then I take questions and people ask either about Paris, or ask about children and child-rearing and so on. So I suspect I’ll start talking about food, but the conversation will metamorphose into the other subjects.
If people ask you about Paris and child-rearing so often, what do you wish people would ask you about more?
I wrote a book about Lincoln and Darwin and the nature of liberal rhetoric a few years ago [Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life]. That’s a bit of an ugly duckling among my books, and that’s one I’m thinking about now, that’s relevant. I did a piece for the New Yorker web site recently about Obama’s brand of political intelligence, so I’ve been thinking of that a lot. What is a political intelligence? How is it different from an analytic intelligence or emotional intelligence?
So that got me thinking about Lincoln too, and I just got to see, last week, the Steven Spielberg Lincoln movie, so that’s on my mind, too. It’s a very good movie. So I would love if someone asks me about Lincoln!
How do any of your books tie back to your academic background in art history?
To tell you the truth, I went into art history partly because I love museums and pictures, but also because I chased a girl into the art history slide room once. It was also the easiest way to get to New York. I was a Canadian kid who wanted to move to the big city, and I got a fellowship to go study art history in New York. I never really wanted to be an art historian, though — I always wanted to be a writer.
I was lucky to study with a great teacher, and curate a show at MoMA, and write about art for a long time. But this is a very long-winded way of saying that art, as such, was never at the center of my passions. I was always as interested in other things, so I’ve just been lucky that I get to fake it full-time at the New Yorker.
How do you feel that the graduate work, though, helped with later cultural inquiry?
Um, not at all? The simple truth is of course, you learn a lot of good things in graduate school. You meet smart people and you learn about how to research a subject, which is still significant to me. The food book — though I hope it’s fun and a pleasurable read — involved a lot of reading about the history of restaurants and cooking.
So there’s a little piece of me that is forever a graduate student. I love going to the New York Public Library and getting a pile of books and watching the winter light fade on 42nd Street, then going home on the subway. You know the feeling, when you find that one weird fact that you think nobody else knows or sees the relevance of. So there’s still that pleasure.
In another way, then, the great Chekov once said that he spent his life as a writer trying to beat the peasant out of himself. I’ve spent most of my writing life trying to beat the graduate student out of myself. As a graduate student, you build up a habit of contentious writing. You begin paragraphs with words like “but,” and you sum up the conventional wisdom and then argue with it. You do things that are good for academic writing, but terribly alienating to any actual amateur reader. So I’ve been beating the graduate student out of myself for the last 30 years.
Let’s talk about the food book since they’ll be able to buy it at your book fair event. When did that idea come about? You had been publishing some essays about food culture in the New Yorker — so did those arise as part of the book research, or did the book idea arise from them?
Food was one of the subjects I’ve always been passionate about. I’m a greedy, greedy guy and I love to eat. I always liked food writing as a genre, by people like Calvin Trillin, who I dedicated the book to, or A.J. Liebling. So I’ve been publishing stuff about food in the magazine for 20-something years, and I always thought it might make a nice collection some day.
Then I stumbled on the letter by Jacques Decour that begins the book — the letter from the resister who’s about to be executed, and was just writing to his parents about meals. I was so struck by that letter, and by the way it ends, where questions of food take on such great importance. So I said, “This is the epigraph, this is the beginning of a book about food.” Once I had that, I just sort of saw more clearly, thematically, what the book would be about as a book rather than just a collection of essays.
There’s been a critical mass of food culture books over the past five years, not just about the food itself but analyzing why and how Americans eat. Why do you think that is? Americans eat poorly, but we’ve been eating poorly for a while.
I think it’s a few things. Food has become an instant form of symbolic communication for a lot of Americans now, in the way that popular music was when I was a kid. You declare your allegiances instantly by what you eat — the places you go to eat, and the food you serve. When you go into somebody’s house and they serve you a locally grown, organic carrot, you know instantly so much else about them. So we’re fascinated by the way we turn ourselves and our sensibilities into symbols.
Another reason is that it’s affordable luxury. Even if you don’t have very much money, you could still go to Whole Foods. For my generation and yours, who can’t afford our grandparents’ real estate, at least we can get some organic eggplant.
Finally, I think it’s genuinely, positively, and beautifully because there’s been a turn towards pleasure in American life. I said I’m always trying to beat the graduate student out of myself, but Americans are always trying to beat the puritans out of themselves.
What did you feel was missing from the recent food literature that you really wanted to explore more in depth?
Two things, I think. There seemed to be too much food in food writing, even in the works of people I admire. There was too narrow and over-excitable an emphasis on yak testicle ragout, or running around the globe to find the perfect spring roll in Hanoi. That’s all exciting, but what draws us to food as thinkers and writers is the way food points out and connects us all. That’s almost more interesting than what actually goes on the table. So too much food writing was narrowly parochial, foodie to foodie.
The other thing was, a lot of it seemed to be intellectually slack, empty. It raised questions about taste and health and the planet, and the ethics of eating in ways that, to be blunt, were philosophically unsophisticated. I got frustrated with that, with people saying, “Here’s the right way to eat,” when you should know if you’ve done any historical reading, it’s that the “right” way to eat changes all the time.
You also had people singing the praises of the local food revolution in too naive a way, so I wrote a whole chapter about that which I hope is funny, but also makes a serious point. What are the real advantages for the planet and ourselves of eating locally?
How did all of that influence how you decided to organize and structure the book?
Well first, every chapter is a question: “Meat or vegetables?” “Where does taste come from?” I wanted to take each of these things that seems transparent or easy, and say, “Let’s walk right around this with an eye to the past or future. What’s really going on? What’s at stake when we argue about, say, ethical meat-eating?” So every chapter is an interrogation.
The other thing is while I didn’t want it to be about food in that narrow sense, I didn’t want it not to be about food, and dissolve into a series of abstract, historical questions. We love food because we love lamb, or butter, or cinnamon, or anchovies, or eggs. So I wanted all those things to be in the book. So when I stumbled on that work by Elizabeth Pennell, the 19th century food writer, I finally saw a way I could insert recipes into the book without pretending to be a pro cook, which I obviously am not.
What drew you back to looking at French culture again as part of this book?
I felt that inevitably, anyone who’s writing about food in the western world is going to end up writing about France. It’s where fancy food happened first and happens most. So in a practical sense, I’ve written about food in France, but I’ve never written about the restaurant and the recipe, and Le Fooding and all those things.
Also, inevitably, I’m a Francophile. When I think about food, I think about France. I’m deeply ambivalent about French food culture, though. I love the continuity of French food, that you can go to Paris and eat in the same places as well, now, as you did 35 years ago. But at the same time, I recognize there’s a stasis in that, with a cultural freeze that can be very disturbing to French people. So I wanted to write about that again.
Many Americans have a notion of French food culture that is probably overly romanticized at times. What do you think is the biggest misconception Americans have about it as it stands now, in 2012?
I think Americans think that French people all eat in this expanse of four hours for dinner, “Tell me all about the divine little wine you brought, Pierre,” kind of thing. They really don’t. Though gastronomic culture in France is also widespread in a way that’s almost universal, it can also be more particular. Of my closest five friends in France, three of them care much less about food than the equivalent American friends. They certainly don’t have that American compulsion about, “Where’s new to eat?”
I never hear that when I go back to Paris, even among my friends who love food. They think it’s almost gauche to talk about what the new place is. Instead, they mold the places to fit themselves, instead of expecting you should be molded to the new place.
I think it’s this sort of American thing to be excitable about restaurants. Restaurants and food are part of the background of life in France. It’s like people who grow up along the Mississippi don’t jump up and down when they look at the river. People in Miami aren’t terribly excited by the ocean or by old people. So similarly in France, food is such an uncontroversially accepted part of life, it’s almost considered naive to get excited about. It’s like the guy who sees the ocean and races down in his swim trunks at 9 a.m. You would describe him as naive, right? Not as a connoisseur of oceans. Cute, but a little embarrassing.
What do you think has been the most positive change in American food culture?
I don’t think it’s any question that it’s been the kind of counter-revolution to the great industrial revolution in food production. Of course, the beginning of that revolution was a terrific thing — more people were getting food in abundance than ever before. But I think the counter-revolution now is great. You can go into any supermarket in a city in America and find organic greens or free-range chicken.
Have you ever seen that wonderful sketch in Portlandia where the couple won’t finish dinner because they don’t feel they know enough about the chicken? The extent they go to in that sketch is absurd, but I think on the whole, it’s a wonderful thing.
Now that you’ve written this book, what’s your current obsession you might want to explore in book-length form?
I’m still writing about food for the magazine. I’m actually working on a piece about books on food culture. But I don’t think I’ll do another book about food. I’ve never done two books about the same subject, and that may be why my publishers despair of me. Writers write out of obsessions, so once you’ve sort of talked it out in book form, it’s like blowing up a balloon. It’s kind of done and out of your body in a way.
Right now, I’m sort of wrapped up in the nature of accomplishment — learning to draw, learning to drive, which I never did before. Also, a dog got forced on my family by my daughter. So I’ve been thinking about the nature of mastery, and also the nature of human attachment. I think my next collection will probably begin with those pieces.
As a staff writer for the New Yorker, when do you decide you’re going to start a new piece? Are there any kinds of requirements for how often you’re expected to produce stuff?
They’re very polite to me, but I think they expect about a long piece a month. I don’t do it so consciously, but it sort of works out to 10 to 12 long pieces a year. I have a wonderful editor, Henry Finder, and we sort of talk about things. Sometimes I write a piece with the topic passing before my eyes currently, like the long piece I did about Mormonism this summer. I wouldn’t have thought to write about that if Mitt Romney wasn’t in the public eye and Mormonism was a big topic.
Other times, there are pieces, like one I’m doing right now on a brilliant Princeton professor who’s working on a way to produce three-dimensional music, that I do just because they’re my obsessions. Sometimes I’ll just be pacing in Henry’s office talking about something and he’ll say, “You know, that sounds like a piece.” Another time, he calls me and says, “Would you be interested in writing about Mormons, or geographic history,” or some other subject.
What do you have coming out next that readers might look for in the magazine?
I don’t have anything right now, because I’ve been an insanely delinquent writer and traveling so much. But I have to finish this piece. If all goes well, I’ll have this piece about the psychology of music. It’s really about how our brains take sounds and turn it into music, and then turn music into meaning.