Knopf, $25.95, 303 pages
Restaurants as we know them, complete with menus, waiters, and tables dedicated to a single party, are new on the scene; historically speaking. In The Table Comes First, Gopnik shares his admiration for the evolution and proliferation in Paris that followed their late eighteenth century origins. He rhapsodizes about food and France, still his magical duo, and writes fulsomely about his interest in cookbooks, a favored bedside reading.
Gopnik always has surprises with his enthusiasms: here, a muse, the British Elizabeth Pennell who was an early foodie. Her 1896 cookbook became the seminal transformation from instructional manual to a literary art form, in part because her robust appetite, accompanied by liquor, was an unladylike first. He emails her in each chapter in an amiable, albeit one-sided correspondence.
The pages travel far, meeting chefs and restaurateurs with trendy and traditional ideas, discussing the pros and cons of a healthy diet with ‘green’ ingredients and satisfying the soul as well as stomach. Despite claims that this is not a scholarly book, it comes pretty close and an index would have saved underlining or searching over and again for the tastiest morsels.