TORONTO — Acclaimed New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik toured Canada recently to deliver Massey Lectures on his chosen theme, winter, and he returned this week to talk about another subject close to his heart — food.
Winter: Five Windows on the Season was written simultaneously with The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, and Gopnik allows that related engagements have kept him on the go for several weeks now.
In addition to keeping their author busy — if this is Monday, it must be Toronto — the books are “linked or allied,” he said in an interview at his publisher’s office.
“They’re both very much about — how can I put this? — the elaboration of meaning in places where you wouldn’t expect a lot of meaning to arise: In what previously had been seen as a bleak and forbidding season, winter, and what previously before modern times had often been seen as a human necessity rather than a human desire, as a need rather than as a desire.”
In modern times, people stand at the window and watch snowstorms, he said, and they sit at the table with their families. If they’re lucky, there is an abundance of food and they have to decide what to do with it.
Gopnik, 55, is an American who spent many of his formative years in Montreal, and his parents and wife, son and daughter have Canadian citizenship. His scientist mother has been a huge influence in his appreciation of food.
“It’s not so much the recipes that she taught me, the ’do this, do that,’ it’s that your nerve endings become attuned to the nerve endings of your mentor. I’m never scared by a recipe. I can sort of visualize my mother beating egg whites or making a creme anglaise or something like that.”
In the book, he declares that he loves to eat — simple food, fancy food, eating out, eating at home.
Now that the weather has turned colder, Gopnik surmised that people across North America are spending more time in their kitchens and dining rooms.
In fact, he said the kitchen is the place where people do a lot of their serious eating and talking, whipping up scrambled eggs at 11:30 at night or having their “Dad, I’m gay,” conversations.
The Table Comes First is coloured by Gopnik’s years living in Paris, a period that led to publication of his earlier book Paris to the Moon.
The book is a mix of history — including descriptions of the first restaurants — anthropology and philosophy, but he didn’t want it to become too abstract “because part of the pleasure of food is the particulars of food.”
“We don’t love food. We love roast chicken and rice pudding and broccoli puree, if you like broccoli puree. And I was struggling with how to solve that because I can’t really write recipes. I’m not a pro cook,” Gopnik said.
In his research, he came across food writer Elizabeth Pennell, who died in 1936.
“She had a way of writing recipes, these little narratives, these little story-telling segments, and I thought, ’Oh, that I can do, I can tell stories about cooking even if I can’t write: 4 potatoes, 3 ounces of butter.’
In imaginary emails to Pennell that punctuate the book, he strikes an informal tone, describing his own culinary adventures and comparing the food culture of today to a century ago.
The title of the book, The Table Comes First, was inspired by a conversation with British chef Fergus Henderson, who said he couldn’t understand how a young couple could begin life by buying a sofa or a television.
In Gopnik’s case, he and his wife Martha started out with a little travertine coffee table in their tiny New York City apartment, and later they were able to enlarge it with a wooden overlay built by his mother.
“And then finally, before we moved to Paris, we got this beautiful sort of contemporary but sort of pseudo-Shakerish table that has extension boards on it so it can be really long,” he said.
“That’s the table we eat at now, and it’s also the table I do my work at and I write at. I like big long tables.”
And it can seat 14 people, he added with satisfaction.