On Monday evening, Adam Gopnik, author and contributor for The New Yorker since 1986, gave a talk titled “How Did Food Happen in France?”
Gopnik used content from his new book, The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, to address the question of the origins of the gastronomic “scene” in France.
Gopnik began by clarifying a few questions: Why, when people think about good food, has France traditionally come to mind? How did the food “scene” – a word Gopnik described as the culture surrounding food including restaurants, food writing and food competition – develop in France? Why is it that the French have the first gastronomic field?
Gopnik argued that the rise of France’s food scene did not happen by chance. Instead, he credited its development to the invention of the restaurant. “[The idea of the restaurant] seems so transparent,” he said. “It’s a little bit like sex in bed – who had to sit down and think of that?”
He then went on to describe the restaurant as a semi-public space where, despite being in the same room, each party sits at a separate table and each individual makes a choice of what to eat.
Gopnik elaborated that the restaurant began before the French Revolution, not after, as many people thought.
The restaurant was first born in the Palais-Royal, an area in Paris coined as a “lewd hanger” by French novelist and playwright Honoré Balzac, as an encouragement for entrepreneurship and the marketplace. The restaurants in France also first featured very exotic food. Gopnik explained that cooks were not just making the food they had always made in Paris, but instead were cooking a “mixed-up fusion” from different areas of France like Provence and the South West.
Gopnik also cited the restaurant as a place of flirtation. With its foundation in good food, the restaurant was considered a “healthy” place, and thus “a place where both sexes can go and flirt under innocent circumstances.”
Under these pretenses the restaurant became just as much of a place to have social interactions as it was a place to eat food. He also went on to describe a significant legislative act that passed in France and heavily influenced the restaurant socio-cultural scene: namely, the law that allowed spirits to be sold in cafés.
“The French meal is structured around alcohol and caffeine,” Gopnik said. “It’s a trip. Kind of like an Apocalypse Now. That’s the kind of mind-altering, drug-induced pattern to the meal.”
Gopnik explained that alcohol makes the first part of the meal a personal experience among the people within the same party, while caffeine makes the end of the meal an energetic rejuvenation. These two substances helped to structure the French meal both in the past and now.
Gopnik explained that an additional cause for the establishment of the complicated food scene in France was the end of famine. With famine no longer a prevalent fear in most of the 18th and 19th centuries, people were able to enjoy and appreciate their food beyond a mere means of survival, even to the extent of beginning to write about it.
“The pleasures of the table,” Gopnik said, were also no longer a “Catholic trap” associated with over-indulgence and gluttony but instead a source of genuine pleasure.
In Gopnik’s opinion, culinary writers’ effect on the general food scene in France was very significant. Specifically, he referenced two important food writers, Brillat-Savarin, who published The Physiology of Taste in 1825, and Grimod de la Reyneire, who had very different views on the importance of food in France.
Brillat-Savarin was the author who coined the phrase, “We are what we eat.” His view stemmed primarily from the idea of “soft power.” Soft power, as Gopnik explained, is the power of culture as opposed to the power of military force. “Soft power can alter people’s lives,” Gopnik said. Brillat-Savarin focused on how high-quality food “takes a need and turns it into a desire.” It connects the high life to the everyday.
Grimod held quite a different view. According to Gopnik, Grimod saw the love and appreciation of food as an expression of French nationalism. “What we have is a high table. We have it because it exudes from the soil of France,” Gopnik said.
In comparing these two authors, Gopnik narrowed the argument to what exactly advanced the gastronomic field. Writers battling over which restaurant was better not only encouraged competition between chefs to produce better food but also encouraged patrons to frequent the restaurants in order to judge the better chef for themselves.
The restaurant has no “classical model,” Gopnik said, so it was completely open to the changes and adjustments that would come with time.