Questions of Food

I’ve noticed that as I get older, my definition of what constitutes a great time has changed. When I scan my adult life for truly happy moments, many of them are in foreign countries or at great concerts, but even more take place around a table. The turkey dinner my best friend and I cooked for a group of dear friends for Easter. Holding court at the ‘kids’ table’ at family weddings, catching up with my now-adult cousins. Not so much the big nights out, but brunch with friends the morning after, having a laugh about the previous night. A failed attempt at fondue in my very first apartment, and many other nights involving too much wine and too much cheese.

It seems I’m not alone. Adam Gopnik begins his recent book, The Table Comes First, with a letter written by Jacques Decour, a German professor in France, in 1942. Imprisoned by the Nazis, Decour writes a letter to his parents in anticipation of his impending death:

All these last days I have thought a lot about the good meals that we should have together when I was free…During these two months of solitude without even anything to read I have run over in my mind all my travels, all my experiences, all the meals I have eaten. I had an excellent meal with Sylvain on the 17th. I have often thought of it with pleasure, as well as of the New Year’s supper with Pierre and Renee. Questions of food, you see, have taken on a great importance.

“Questions of food seem to have taken on a great importance for us now, too,” Adam Gopnik writes; it is these questions that The Table Comes First addresses.

Our questions, though—“should we eat locally? Stop eating meat altogether, and if so, should we do it out of humanity or for our health?”—are different from Decour’s, and, Gopnik suggests, often rather small in comparison to his.

Decour’s questions of food are less about food, really, than they are about eating—a fundamentally human ritual enjoyed with loved ones, and one that “forms the core of our memories.”

This is part of our modern obsession with gastronomy, Gopnik writes: “Having made food a more fashionable object, we have ended up making eating a smaller subject.”

Gopnik recalls the British chef Fergus Henderson’s exasperation at how a young couple could begin their lives together by purchasing a sofa or a television rather than a table. “Don’t they know the table comes first?”

Expanding on this idea, Gopnik writes: 

The table comes first, before the meal and even before the kitchen where it’s made. It precedes everything in remaining the one plausible hearth of family life…The table also comes first in the sense that its drama—the people who gather at it, the conversation that flows across it, and the pain and romance that happen around it—is more essential to our real lives, and also to the real life of food in the world, than any number of arguments about where the zucchini came from, and how far it had to travel before it got there.

In subsequent essays, Gopnik does consider these other food questions—those related to the locavore movement and vegetarianism, for example—but only as part of an exploration of the meaning of food and eating in its social, cultural, and historical context.

In one essay, Gopnik debunks the myth that the restaurant was invented following the French Revolution due to an abundance of out-of-work chefs whose aristocratic employers had been beheaded. The restaurant was invented in France, and around that time, but it evolved out of the table d’hote, which was a “big public table where you took what was being served…As you ate, you were expected to talk and joke and kid around with the other people at the table, including the host.”

It all starts with, and comes back to, the table.

If you’re interested in these and other questions of food and its meaning in our lives, I recommend that you check out Gopnik’s book.

What are your favourite memories around tables and food? We would love to hear from you.