LITTLE DID I KNOW that Adam Gopnik and I might have crossed paths at the Howard Johnson’s, long since torn down, on the corner of Haverford Road and City Line Avenue in Philadelphia. It was the summer of 1966, when we were both celebrating our 10th birthdays, not more than a few miles from one another: he downtown on Locust Street, me in Bala-Cynwyd just outside the city proper. As with many kids of that era, a birthday trip to even such a modest restaurant as Howard Johnson’s evoked a sense of wonder and delight. “The burger I had that evening,” says Gopnik, “had that delectable aroma, now vanished from the world, of the griddles of my childhood, something buttery and of the soda fountain. The possibility of choice, the splendor of existence, was all present.”
In The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, Gopnik springs from his 10th birthday meal into a meaty disquisition on restaurant history, which leads him into a philosophical realm. Organized in a series of questions — such as “Who Made the Restaurant?”, “How Does Taste Happen?”, and “In Vino Veritas?” — each of the book’s chapters comprises an extended meditation on what all this food stuff means, whether at a hired table or at home; historically, intellectually, emotionally, politically, socially.
As befits someone who has spent the last quarter-century in service to The New Yorker, Gopnik’s book is casually dotted with references to high culture and low, from an extended one-way postmortem correspondence with art and food critic Elizabeth Pennell to the observation that Keith Richards, in his autobiography, radiates more passion for his shepherd’s pie recipe than his songwriting recipe. It’s implicit that the reader should come to the book equally acquainted with Chesterton and Titian as with Franny Glass, John Cage, and James Bond.
The Table Comes First is filled with compelling and strangely obscure food facts. Did you know that the word “restaurant,” which originally appeared circa 1750, described a kind of bouillon, and that the soup ultimately sacrificed its name to the place in which it was served? Or that the cookbook as we know it is a fairly modern invention, dating to the Civil War era? These unanticipated truffles hiding deep in the gratin dauphinois of his larger story remind us that food permeates every facet of our lives, yet most of us rarely notice it, let alone give it the consideration it deserves.
A great deal of that story takes place in France. And how could it not? Writing about food means writing about France. Either it’s something that’s happening in France now, or something that happened in France once, or a reaction to something that happened in France, or could never&nb...