French Lessons

Adam Gopnik tucks into the Gallic roots of modern cooking and food-centric culture

November 15, 2011

In “The Table Comes First,” Adam Gopnik serves up plenty of culinary history and his own reflections on dining trends.

The predecessor of the modern restaurant was … a “health food” in 18th-century France? Oui, oui. Originally the name of a bouillion served at Paris’ public houses, “restaurant” soon became a descriptor for the places where it was served. The rest, mes amis, is history.

That trivia is an amuse-bouche compared to the banquet of information about cooking history in Adam Gopnik’s “The Table Comes First” ($26, Knopf). Gopnik, a Francophile, shared more morsels — and musings — with Express.

How do American and French perspectives on food and dining differ?
The French are not puritanical about their pleasures. They see eating as a fundamental human activity. Americans tend to be very anxious — about getting the right table in a good restaurant or whether they’re eating the right way.

As the world becomes globalized, is French food at risk of getting lost or changed beyond recognition?
I think that’s always a possibility. Did you know that UNESCO [in 2010] made French gastronomy a cultural treasure? I think that’s kind of funny, but it’s also appropriate. Two hundred years ago, the hardest thing to find was protein. Now, the hardest thing for many of us to find is time. French cooking depends on having a great deal of time.

Why are our food choices so divisive lately, and is that new?
Until very recently, people everywhere lived in fear of famine. In the same way you can’t appreciate winter until after you have central heating, you can only begin to obsess about food once you aren’t living in terror of famine. In that sense, it’s a new thing. But in America much more recently, I don’t think anyone could have ever predicted that you’d have food on television, being competitively cooked by chefs.

What’s the appeal of TV chefs?
It’s the same reason that people like to watch “Dancing With the Stars,” or I like to watch it, anyway. We live in a society in which crafts are at a minimum. So when we see somebody who’s mastered the art of making, we’re very impressed, we’re very pleased.

What’s Thanksgiving like at your house?
We love Thanksgiving. Love, love, love it. My wife’s one of those people who doesn’t just accept turkey but absolutely loves it. I get a nice heritage bird, I brine it, and then I usually make one gravy for adults with some Madeira in it and one gravy for the kids without.

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Fri., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)
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Katherine Boyle · November 15, 2011