Williams International

Adam Gopnik Discusses the Origins of French Cuisine

On Monday, March 5th, Adam Gopnik, columnist for The New Yorker and author ofthe New York Times bestseller Paris to the Moon, came to Williams to discuss his most recent book, The Table Comes First: France, Family, and the Meaning of Food.

Although born in Philadelphia, Gopnik grew up in Montreal and attended McGill University for his undergraduate degree. He began his career at The New Yorker in 1986 as an art critic, and the magazine sent him to Paris in 1995 to write its “Paris Journal” column; his book Paris to the Moon consists of the essays that he wrote during the five years he lived there with his wife and kids. Since then, Gopnik has continued to write for The New Yorker while writing several nonfiction books, children’s literature, and an article on American culture for The Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Gopnik began his talk by discussing why Paris is so intimately associated with haute cuisine and food in general. Most important, he said, was the French invention of the restaurant. In the years just before the French Revolution in 1789, a French cook invented a restorative drink called a “restaurant.” The places where these were served were, as Gopnik said, the 18th-century French version of health clubs because they allowed both sexes to interact in an atmosphere that was supposedly focused on health, while actually allowing significant amounts of flirtation to occur; this posed a contrast to the café, which was all-male. The name of “restaurant” was then transferred from the drink to the institution where the drink was served, and “food took on a whole new meaning relating to social engagement and activism,” Gopnik said.

Another important event in the history of French cuisine was the transformation of the café, also during the French Revolution. One of the earliest mandates of the new French National Assembly allowed alcohol and coffee to be served in the same place. Even today, in modern French cuisine, as well as in the cuisines of Italy and other European countries, a meal is structured around wine and coffee, with wine usually before and during the meal and coffee at the end.

Gopnik's most recent book, "The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food," published by Knopf, came out in October.

In addition, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, gastronomic journalism began to appear and grow in France. Writers such as Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, famous for claiming, “We are what we eat!” and for his 1825 The Physiology of Taste helped to increase the competitive pressures on French restaurants with its restaurant listings and three-star rating system, which we continue to use today. Brillat-Savarin also identified the importance of cultural power, or “soft power,” rather than military power in changing people’s world views, noting how the British and German soldiers occupying France after the Napoleonic wars absorbed French culture through its food despite that they were in a militarily dominant position.

Gopnik’s talk ended with questions from the audience about everything from Julia Child to the Slow Food movement to the affects of iPhones on today’s restaurant atmosphere.

To read more about Gopnik, visit his page on The New Yorker website at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/bios/adam_gopnik/search?contributorName=adam%20gopnik.