Adam Gopnik has bad news for multi-taskers.
“You cannot cook and think at the same time,” the New Yorker contributor said during a book talk at the Brattle Theatre on Thursday. “Cooking always takes the place of thought.” According to Gopnik, cooking has become Western society’s involuntary form of Zen meditation, and the process of cooking food has become just as socially important as the rituals that take place at the dinner table.
In his new book, “The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food,” Gopnik conducts a search for culinary meaning that begins in 19th-century France and makes its way to the modern American dinner table. During his talk, he explained how the structure of his book reflects that of a contemporary meal: the introductory material is his appetizer; his in-depth explorations of taste and the symbolism of food are his main course; his final anecdotes and conclusion are the dessert.
Gopnik, reading passages from “The Table Comes First,” also discussed how food writing has evolved. Explaining, he noted three different ways food appears in writing. The first, more antiquated form, uses food as punctuation in a narrative, nothing more than evidence that characters are indeed human and require nutrition. Eventually, authors began to use food to betray information about the characters eating the meal. More recently, writers have indulged in lavish descriptions of artfully prepared meals, engineered for aesthetic enjoyment. The growing popularity of the third tactic, Gopnik argued, is a result of society’s heightened fixation on food, or, as he calls it, “gastronomia.”
“Food is an increasingly obsessive subject with all of us,” he said. It is also a loaded topic, for it tells us not only about the personal tastes of the cook and diner, but about their ethics. “Every mouth taste inevitably becomes a moral taste. We have to ethicize. All of our food becomes a lesson, a parable,” Gopnik said.
Many of these reflections appear in Gopnik’s imaginary correspondence with Elizabeth Pennell, a 19th-century art and food critic for the “Pall Mall Gazette.” Gopnik read one such letter about his attempts to recreate famous literary meals, including the eponymous dish in Günter Grass’s “The Flounder.” As he continued to translate fictional dishes into tangible meals for his family, he realized that recipes, read and prepared differently by different people, are comparable to poetry and are capable of becoming characters themselves.
Gopnik also took questions from the audience, discussing emerging gastronomic methods, the appearance of the “food scene” in 19th century Paris, and the abbreviation ‘LOL.’ Having lived in Paris for five years, Gopnik remains attached to France and its cuisine, though he believes that American culinary culture is better suited to adaptation and evolution.
His quips about topics from FOX News to pet care and child-raising did not go unappreciated by the audience. “He was funny. Funnier than the majority of writers for The New Yorker,” audience member Katherine A. Brown joked. Brown agreed with many of Gopnik’s arguments about the differences between American and European food culture. “That’s what he touched on a lot: that food is the culture [in Europe], but with our fast-paced society, it’s not like that,” Brown said. “We sit in restaurants, we get things done, and we leave. We don’t enjoy the food that we’re eating.”
Gopnik’s talk may have changed this, at least for the members of the audience. According to him, food and eating practices can reveal insights about our changing society. And more importantly, they tell us about ourselves.