Adam Gopnik’s new book is The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food.
From his Q & A with David Haglund at Slate:
Slate: Your background is in art history. In what ways is writing about food like writing about art? In what ways is it not like that at all?--Marshal Zeringue
Adam Gopnik: The job of trying to make first-hand sensual experience—this picture, that plate—into second-order sentences (“It looks like…” “It tasted nearly as if …”) is approximately always the same. You wrestle with association, metaphor, analogy, trying to get it right, and then usually discover that the barest hint sends the strongest message. (Look at Hemingway’s descriptions, or M.F.K. Fisher’s—almost never anything “sumptuous” or even particularly extended in either, but the experience registered in one or two small surprising adjectives. Whitney Balliett’s capture of Monk’s piano playing—”vinegary, dissonant, gothic”—is a favorite of mine.)
You also discover that assertion—what a cook says about a taste, for instance (“Birthday cake is the most denatured thing on earth,” another favorite of mine, from a young pastry chef)—is often oddly more effective, just as evocation, than detailed description.
But then all writing poses that same predicament: Whether Updike trying to pin down the pubic hair of a suburban housewife or the poor food writer trying to capture the quiddity of a plate of bouillon, there’s always a struggle, and then a space that can’t quite be spanned. Sentences are always like bridges between the first-order world and the second, and they always shake in the wind of reality, like the ones over Amazonian abysses in Indiana Jones movies. Of course, art historians usually evade the problem entirely by not really writing about the art, but rather about the social history that surrounds it—and too many gastronomic historians, I add grumpily, do the same, making food history into a series of tableaux of clichéd scenes (the housewife in the ‘50s, the French chef in the 1920s) that leave the actual experience outside. That’s why—eerily anticipating your next question!—I wanted to include emails that included real recipes. The greasy facts of lemon and chicken and anchovies and bacon are the basis on which even the airiest food writing rests.
Slate: The Table Comes First includes email messages you wrote to the American writer and cookbook collector Elizabeth Robins Pennell—never expecting a reply, as Ms. Pennell died in 1936. What prompted the epistolary format? And why email, instead of old-fashioned letters?
Gopnik: When I discovered Pennell I thought that the key thing about her, easily missed, were not her...[read on]