Around the Table

November 3, 2011   •   By Thane Tierney

The dinner table is the center for the teaching and practicing not just of table
manners but of conversation, consideration, tolerance, family feeling, and just about
all the other accomplishments of polite society except the minuet.
— Miss Manners (Judith Martin)

PART I: We'll Always Have Paris… and Philly
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 happen in France, but the scent of béchamel and Gauloises always lingers at the margins. Every serious cook — and every serious food writer — experiences his or her French fling just as every serious musician, to quote John Mayer, “passes through Hendrix International Airport eventually.”

Of course every dog has its day. As the Michelin Guide’s stars gave way to Gault Millau’s toques, many chefs and critics wondered if French food had lost its je ne sais quoi, if its increasing insularity had doomed it to irrelevance. Gopnik doesn’t seem to think it has quite come to that, but he and a number of his interviewees detect a troubling Gallic stasis when comparing French food to the contemporary cuisines of former outposts such as Catalonia and Italy. “Think food” is what he calls the Parmesan ice cream of El Bulli or Jordi Roca’s essential oil extractions; while they may be just a passing fancy, molecular experimentation reveals a vibrant culture pushing against all sorts of boundaries, even if most of those boundaries are French in origin.

Nestled amongst the philosophy and history is some impressively practical advice for the home chef, including Gopnik’s own cooking rules, succinct enough to copy here:
The four essential savory secrets: anchovies, bacon, cinnamon, saffron. (Add a can of tomatoes, a humble chunk of protein, a neutral starch, and there isn’t much else you need.)

The five humble helpers: frozen peas, canned beans, Karo syrup, packaged gelatin, powdered cornstarch.

The three miraculous drugs: sugar, caffeine, and spirits.

The three basic principles. First, the rule of triple action: take something to eat, do something to it, do something else to it, but for God’s sake don’t do something else after that, or if you do, it had better be really worth doing. Then, the rule of four and three: almost everything (salmon, chicken breasts, fish steaks, beef steaks, mushrooms, grilled bread) tastes best if it is sautéed for four hot minutes on one side and then three slightly cooler on the other. Third, the truth of oven extremes: there is no golden mean behind the oven door: let your oven be very hot or rather cool, but never in between.

After nearly 300 hundred pages of contrasts — slow food vs. fast, vegetable vs. meat, Brillat-Savarin vs. Grimod, savory vs. sweet — Gopnik reveals his Unified Field Theory:
And finally, the truth of taste: taste is a fiction, shaped by a time. But the fiction is not the barrier to the feeling. It’s what gives the feeling force. We make up our tastes as we make up our pesto, and it is the making-it-up that matters.

It’s an attitude that works equally well for the latter-day gourmand as for that 10-year-old gazing up at Simple Simon and the Pieman, locked in green and orange neon, ever shining over the HoJo’s of our long-ago youth.

PART II: Martha Stewart, You Ain't
Face it: You don’t have the time, you don’t have the staff, you don’t have the skills, and you don’t have the bucks to compete with Martha Stewart; odds are, you never will. Whole groups of nascent yuppie foodies suffered from an inferiority complex during La Stewart’s reign of the eighties and nineties, living in secret terror that their arriviste guests were grading them against the impossibly organized diva of the dining room. Meanwhile, a new generation of less fussy hostesses-in-training honed their craft, and in the words of Martha Herself, “That’s a goodthing.” One of the most approachable among them is Cooking Channel host (of French Food At Home) Laura Calder, whose latest book, Dinner Chez Moi: The Fine Art of Feeding Friends, is the perfect antidote to Stewartian stuffiness. Calder, who spent several years in France studying food, isn’t without her quirks; she loathes the word “foodie,” won’t barbecue anything anywhere ever, and finds the ritual of clinking glasses “chaotic.” That said, she exemplifies the good-natured disposition of her native Atlantic Canada throughout.

While Gopnik mostly philosophizes with an occasional nod to a recipe, Calder showcases the recipe-as-biography; not only does she devise entire menus, but explains the personal history behind each one. You might not ever care to make an oatcake, but it’s virtually impossible not to finish reading a recipe that begins with, “My love of oatcakes goes back to a very long walk (seven hours, to be precise) I once took with a friend over the roadless hills of rural Swaziland.”

One of Calder’s recurring themes, also echoed by Gopnik, is that what you put around the table is perhaps more important than what you put on it. When you progress past a six-top, beyond the point where everybody participates in the same conversation, some level of care should be taken to pair guests as you might match wine with food: split up couples, seat Libertarians next to Progressives, put the opera aficionado cheek-by-jowl with the Lady Gaga fan. This is an opportunity to unleash your inner fourth-grader, setting flint and stone in close proximity to see what sparks emerge, knowing that your guests’ civility (or your sprinkler system) should keep any fires from raging out of check. Calder also relays a story about how she and her onetime roommate Camille kept a dinner-party book that included a good guest list, a bad guest list, and a blacklist. (Hint: To stay off the latter, don’t arrive with a bottle of plonk or forget to turn off your cell phone during the meal.)

Our hostess is no slouch in the what-to-put-on-the-table department, either. Her Potato and Fava Bean Tumble couldn’t be easier to prepare, and it brings the earthy goodness of the summer garden right onto the plate; her Prunes and Figs in Armagnac Syrup positively redeems the humble shriveled plum.

While Calder breaks the fourth wall of party planning early in the book by declaring that “cooking for people is hard work, time consuming, and it costs money, sometimes rather a lot,” her breezy charm and delectable recipes are so seductive you’ll find it impossible to leave them on the page.

PART III: Self-Reliance
Speaking of things left on pages, Oscar-winning animator Chuck Jones used to tell a story about how an art school professor informed his class that the students each needed to execute — or exorcise — 100,000 bad drawings before they even dared hope to create anything of value. At the time the pronouncement was made, Jones had surpassed that figure by a factor of two, so rather than being dispirited, he was energized. Long before the 10,000-hour rule was a gleam in Malcolm Gladwell’s eye, cooks knew that the best way to get to Maison Troisgros was to practice. After all, if 20 (or 100) inescapable dinner disasters dangle like the Sword of Damocles over your cooking career, it’s a plus to have the majority of them behind you by the time you turn 30.

In the Small Kitchen: 100 Recipes from Our Year of Cooking in the Real World, self-designated “quarter-life” bloggers Cara Eisenpress and Phoebe Lapine document the year between the time their Manchurian Cauliflower recipe became a party favorite and the fateful night they abandoned the vegetable mid-batch. Like Calder and Gopnik, these twentysomething New Yorkers gravitated to the kitchen early in life but haven’t yet graduated to the Le Creuset-appointed opulence that marks the onset of bon vivant-hood.

While the cookbook reveals a great deal about the authors’ lives adjacent to the kitchen, it excels at the nuts and bolts of stocking the pantry, the refrigerator, and the necessarily limited shelf space that a studio apartment in Brooklyn affords.
Equilibrium is the most important term for approaching your kitchen. Assess how much attention, skill, or money you’re willing to invest in one dish, and then rely on simplicity to fill in the rest of the meal. When we go to potlucks, we weigh novelty against portability and shelf life. When we cook for a friend’s birthday party, we obsess over the deliciousness of a dish but still factor in the number of guests, apartment layout, and host’s preferences. When we cook for just ourselves, we mix inexpensive staples and fresh, healthy produce from the organic bin or the farmer’s market. When time runs low, we open a can of beans. When money runs low, we buy 33-cents-per-pound dried beans and cook them from scratch. When all seems lost, we hope friends will arrive with many bottles of wine.

Like certain poets who find the structure (and stricture) of the villanelle invigorating rather than intimidating, Eisenpress and Lapine embrace their modest circumstances, using a little culinary judo here and there to transform humble ingredients into elegant dishes. The most exotic element in their Barbecue Lentils is Balsamic vinegar, and yet the dish is so good it caused my lovely bride to utter a sentence hitherto unvoiced in half-a-century of dining: “Can I have a second helping of the lentils?” And while their Corn and Barley Salad with Lemon-Chive Vinaigrette recipe claims to yield four to six servings, barely one made it to the refrigerator after dinner in our two-person household.

In the Small Kitchen doesn’t purport to be — or aspire to be — this generation’s Joy of Cooking, but if I were making my first foray into the world of cuisine, this is the one book I’d want to have because it imparts more than enough joy, and cooking, to fill any rookie cook’s menu.

PART IV: The Jerry Springer Moment:
What Have We Learned Here Today?
Years ago, when I was completing a round-the-world voyage on Semester at Sea, one of my shipmates observed that, of the hundreds of pictures I’d taken, the snapshots that would hold the most meaning would be the ones with people in them. The rest were just postcards. So it is with our meals; the ones we remember most fondly aren’t generally the grandest examples of haute cuisine served in exotic locales. They’re the tiny triumphs (and minor disasters) we’ve shared with people whose lives intertwined with ours, if only for an evening; the gracious hosts and hostesses who poured themselves onto the plate and into the glass. Gopnik, Calder, Eisenpress, and Lapine understand this most essential fact of eating, and I’d like to say to them, if they’re listening: You’re welcome at our table any night of the week.