Even as he’s written about family life in Paris for The New Yorker, the decline and fall of psychotherapy or, for this year’s Massey Lectures, the origins of the modern idea of winter, Adam Gopnik, the American-born, Montreal-raised essayist and pop intellectual historian, has always kept his foodie flag conspicuously aloft.
One of the most memorable chapters in Paris to the Moon, his bestselling essay collection, explored how tradition hobbled French bistro food; another recent essay in The New Yorker chronicled the rise of the pastry chef.
His latest book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, is his first that deals solely with what we eat. Mr. Gopnik examines how Western comestibles, cooking and even cookbook culture evolved from their spiritual origins in pre-Revolutionary France – a time and place where the word “restaurant” signified clear meat broth, and not somewhere you would go to eat – to today’s celebrity cookbooks and molecular gastronomic cuisine.
Naturally, it’s also jammed with the sort of not-at-all provocative cultural observations that have made Mr. Gopnik a household name: that Marie Antoinette was an early Slow Foodist, for instance, and that while Hitler was a picky vegetarian, Winston Churchill was an omnivore boozehound. The Globe spoke with him on the phone from New York.
You’ll no doubt cause some consternation among both the Slow Food movement and the molecular gastronomic camps: You’ve written that both spring from the same place. How is that?
What they have in common is that the most valuable and valued ingredient in contemporary cooking is time. Protein was the most valued ingredient 250 years ago: It was the rarest thing. Now the rarest thing we have is time: time to cook and time to eat. Both the slow food school and Ferran Adrià’s school and everything that they do, demand time to prepare and time to eat, and in that way I think they’re deeply aligned.
It was fascinating to read about the peasant-style farm that Marie Antoinette built, where you write that “a circle of the rich could restore their inner balance by milking cows and growing carrots.” Does anything ever change?
No. Think of Michelle Obama’s organic garden, or many things like it. I think that we’re always drawn – particularly sophisticated people – are always drawn to the idea of simplicity.
And is this merely a fascination of the idle rich or is there value in it?
This is the hardest thing to articulate. In a way there’s a false choice that we’ve established between tastes that are authentic, natural and original, and tastes that are artificial, decadent and invented. All tastes have the quality of being in some way artificial and invented. The secret of life is to have enough detachment from your tastes and your values to see that they are a little bit absurd.
You suggest that men who cook are in some ways undermining their wives – that making a sauce is the easiest chore you can do at home. Is it really that simple?
Cooking is the easiest thing to do in the house. But what women are still expected to do, what my wife is still expected to do, is to remember when every sock in the house is about to get a hole in it, or when the kids are due for a dentist’s appointment or a play date – that whole recipe for family life, women still feel obliged to do it more than men. And so men do get a certain kind of cheap credit for being a family man just by cooking. Cooking is the showy side of domesticity.
The restaurant cooking of 15 or 20 years ago seems so simple compared to today. In your book we meet a Spanish chef who makes a dessert that comes with a soundtrack and an edible soccer ball that actually flies into the air and lands in an edible net. Has food finally jumped the shark?
That’s one of the questions I asked myself after coming home from Spain: These guys are amazing, but what does it have to do with my table? I will never cook that way. There’s a recipe in the cookbook from Noma restaurant [in Copenhagen]where you have to brine bird tongues for 24 hours, and then you have to bone the tongues. The idea that I’m going to spend my time brining and boning bird tongues is sort of absurd. I think it’s really a mistake to call them artists, not because what they do isn’t wonderful. But they’re magicians, they’re great performers, and we go to visit them in the way we go to see a great trapeze artist, we’re just in awe of their level of skill.
Throughout the book, you come back a few times to this memory of your mother’s Grand Marnier soufflé. She’s given you her recipe, but you can’t ever get the egg whites right. Is cooking perfectible?
I don’t think cooking is ever perfectible, and I think that’s part of the pleasure of it. I don’t know about you, but I have never set out to make a meal, and said at the end of the night, ‘Boy, that was everything I wanted it to be!’ There’s always something a little wrong, and usually the more ambitious your menu is, the wronger it goes. But then we start over the next day. Cooking is one of those things where you very rarely meet dropouts. People who get the bug for cooking very rarely treat it the way we do a gym membership, for instance, where you go for four years and then you stop. It’s never perfectible, and it’s always frustrating, at least for us amateur cooks who never do it quite right. But we always go on.
This interview has been condensed and edited.