Asking an essayist to write a book is a bit like asking a miniaturist to paint the Sistine Chapel: It can be done, but it's rarely done well. Virginia Woolf, easily the best essayist in the English language, pulled it off, but Hugh Trevor-Roper, no slouch himself, always seemed to freeze whenever it came to writing whole books. And who now remembers William Hazlitt's biography of Napoleon? Or Sydney Smith's sermons?
Adam Gopnik, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has made a career out of writing essays. He is best known for an anthology he published more than a decade ago (Paris to the Moon), and if the subject – Paris and the French – was inherently frivolous, he was still operating within the rules laid down by Woolf ("The essay can be short or long, serious or trifling, about God and Spinoza, or about turtles and Cheapside").
Gopnik has lately become rather more ambitious, and in The Table Comes First he has set his sights on the urbanite's equivalents of God and Spinoza: food and the increasingly precious theorizing that surrounds it.
The food he writes about is for the most part French, and the table he has in mind is of the metaphorical variety, "the one plausible hearth of family life, the raft to ride down the river of our existence even in the hardest times." The table, very simply, is the nexus of civilized sociability: Forget this and eating becomes an animal act; take it to heart and eating becomes an intelligent one.
Gopnik's book, by extension, is not for those who eat alone or who grew up eating TV dinners or who ate those dinners over episodes of Can't Cook, Won't Cook.
Francophiles, bons vivants, people who can afford to stock their kitchens with Le Creuset cookware – these have always been Gopnik's natural audience. And they come to his table because they like the same things he does, and because he is so good at what the anthropologists call participant observation: immersing himself in a culture without losing the outsider's perspective.
These gifts are very much on display in The Table Comes First. And for the most part, most notably in the very fine essays about the locavore and Le Fooding movements, Gopnik achieves the deeper patina he is so clearly striving for.
"We live in a tapas civilization," he laments, and for all of the alternatives out there – the slow food movement, the locavore movement, the foams and other bizarre concoctions of Catalan chef Ferran Adrià – they can no more take us back to happier days than be the way forward.
But this is also a tapas book, part essays and part bits and pieces that do not readily lend themselves to developing a larger narrative about French food and whether it has, as so many are saying, lost its mojo.
Essays, of course, are what people expect from a Gopnik book. And they are also what we expect of the whole genre of food writing: Their brevity, after all, is perfectly scaled to the always fleeting pleasures of the table. M.F.K. Fisher and A.J. Liebling, to give the most obvious examples, both did their best food writing in the essay form.
And so if The Table Comes First leaves the reader feeling just a little bit hungry, it is not the essays that are to blame: It is the entremets Gopnik insists on serving with them.
There are eight of these, each in the form of an e-mail to the long-dead Elizabeth Pennell. Pennell's status changes over the course of this one-sided correspondence. At first, she is a kindred spirit, a literary foodie from a past age; then, when Gopnik wishes to drive home the point that "good food writing has always bent right," it is revealed that Pennell was in fact a terrible anti-Semite.
Gopnik is clearly pushing the boundaries here. The rules that apply, or rather the non-rules, are those of the modern memoir, and how you feel about the results will depend very much on whether you are a fan of the genre.
For me, the more exciting development is where Gopnik is going with his more formal essays. There is a new depth in these, insights that go beyond the merely interesting or amusing, a maturity that wasn't quite there before. Turtles and Cheapside have the charms of youth, but God and Spinoza are what writers turn to when they really start to hit their stride.
Jessica Warner teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto's School for Continuing Studies.