Food: The Meta-layer

Past few months, everybody’s talking about the meta-layer. We don’t just watch TV. We add a meta-layer, tweeting about the Academy Awards, commenting on comments–ideas piled on ideas. We’re learning to comment on everything, with or without the requisite knowledge of the facts involved, rarely with the research needed to form a coherent opinion.

Not so with Mr. Gopnik, whose past stories about his young family’s life in Paris (Paris to the Moon) and their return to Manhattan (Through the Children’s Gate) are among my most-recommended books, and whose 2011 book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food has provided several months of nourishing food for thought, or thoughts about food, probably some of each.

Where did restaurants come from? Who came up with the idea of not just eating outside the home, but dining there? (Long answer, begins around the French revolution). Quite rightly, he compares the restaurant customer to an aristocrat, accustomed to being served (and served beautifully). Gopnik delights in grazing through the thoughts of Brillat-Savarin and Grimod–two early, influential writers about food and dining–but I like the bit that he found in Robert Frost best:

“Home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. A restaurant is a place where, when you go there, they not only have to take you in but act as though they were glad to see you. In cities of strangers, this pretense can be very dear.”

This is a book in which New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik thinks about food, and thinks about how others think, and have thought, about food. He goes deep, with some chapters so mired in philosophy or history that they eventually become indigestible. Fortunately, these are exceptions. And when the going becomes thick, he pauses for to write an email to Elizabeth Pennell, who wrote with intelligence and wisdom about food about a century ago; these chatty emails cover the true benefits of cinnamon, the best ways to cook lamb, the extraordinary use of hot air in the hard-to-find and hard-to-cook pommel soufflés, his dog Butterscotch’s love for steak, and other lighthearted stuff.

Adam Gopnik is a regular contributor to The New Yorker.

This is not a book to read over a single meal. It is, instead, book to be savored, bit by bit, over several months. There is simply too much information, too many glimpses and meta ideas, too much richness and provocation and serious research, to be enjoyed quickly. It is slow food for the brain–imagine that, in an era of emails and tweets–much of it about topics I’ve never really thought much about.

For example, Gopnik compares “cook it at home” recipe books that restaurants sell with the home game version of, say, Hollywood Squares. Certainly, there is a resemblance, but the resources and the spicing are entirely different, and so is the experience. He tells a long and funny/odd story about his search for a live chicken that can be purchased, cooked, and eaten within the bounds of New York City, and another about the cleverness of farming tilapia to feed large urban populations, then adds the zesty meta-layer, invoking Adam Smith and the total cost associated with what he believes to be a current fad for localism. And so:

“If Kenyan greens take less total energy than Plattsburgh tomatoes, then we should revel in them no matter how far they have to travel.”

And so it goes, through questions about whether we really can taste the differences between wines (or whether the situation and the artifice overpower the actual human capacity for taste), the imperfection of memory as it applies to the fancy French restaurants of 20th century Manhattan, why sugar was used mostly to flavor tea in England but became the impetus for the pasty industry in France, the various ethical arguments for and against the slaughter of animals for human consumption, and so much more.

As with his own food choices–today, spicy beans and rice, tomorrow, a complicated and challenging attempt at a classic French dish from a century ago–some sections are rich with friendly storytelling and some are thick with pretense, serious thinking, and historical reconsiderations. Unlike Twitter, you need not absorb every idea in an instant. There is time enough to consider the meta-layer, to appreciate the fine writing that has long been Gopnik’s strong suit, time enough to think about what Gopnik has said about what others have said and done, and perchance, to learn something about their ideas by reading Brillat-Savarin in the original (on my list, but not for this year).

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