- - Friday, January 13, 2012

THE TABLE COMES FIRST: FAMILY, FRANCE, AND THE MEANING OF FOOD
By Adam Gopnik
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95 320 pages

The venerable New Yorker magazine is a bit like Gaulstown House, the ramshackle Irish country seat of George Rochfort, immortalized in verse by his friend, the poet Jonathan Swift:

It is just half a blessing, and just half a curse -

I wish then, dear George, it were better or worse.

At its worst, the New Yorker can be verbose, trendy-lefty and pretentious; at its best it tackles subjects with a graceful mixture of wit, erudition and insight. Since 1986, Adam Gopnik has been one of the magazine’s mainstay contributors as a Paris correspondent, art critic and scribbler of scores of fiction and nonfiction articles. His writing - sometimes in the same paragraph - exemplifies both the New Yorker’s virtues and its vices.

This is particularly true of his latest book, an overlong, overwritten Franco-centric ramble on the meaning of dining as both a culinary and a social phenomenon. There are many interesting bits and pieces - lucid, engaging reflections on everything from the ethics of eating meat to the all-but-vanished splendors of classic French cuisine. But, as someone once remarked of the massive memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon, the occasional oases are separated by vast stretches of desert.

Like Saint-Simon, Mr. Gopnik doesn’t know when to quit. Where most of us might define an enjoyable restaurant experience as a well-prepared, well-served meal in pleasant surroundings, lubricated by the right type and amount of alcohol and shared in good company, Mr. Gopnik just can’t leave it at that. “The restaurant,” he writes, “whether in its most abstract, ritzy form or at its most elemental, can always be diverted back toward a primal magic, a mood of mischief, stolen pleasures, a retreat from the world.”

Note that, amid all the blather about “primal magic” and “stolen pleasures,” the words “food” and “eat” do not appear once.

In fairness, Mr. Gopnik is a pretty dab hand when it comes to the actual preparation of food. Once he stops frothing at the mouth and starts cooking, he’s worth paying attention to. Lamb is his special passion and, while he would do well to drop his use of bacon as an alien flavoring agent and place a little more reliance on rosemary and garlic, his recipe for roast leg of lamb is lovingly - and deliciously - rendered. All too soon, however, he wanders out of the kitchen and back to the pulpit.

Some of his goofiest pages are spent toiling, not over a stove but a Ouija board: an imaginary series of “E-Mails to Elizabeth Pennell,” a long-dead Victorian food writer who was in many ways ahead of her time. While Pennell is occasionally quoted (and always worth quoting), she serves mainly as a captive audience - the dead can’t talk back - for the author’s own half-baked pontificating on food, history and politics. He is, for example, appalled by the fact that most of the great French culinary writers were staunch conservatives at the polling booth as well as at the dinner table.

Mr. Gopnik ends his book in Paris preparing a pretentiously simple meal of beans and rice, accompanied by a generous side of blarney: “The plate of rice and beans, the silliest thing I do, is also the most blessed, since it sums up in a single spicy point a whole story of our lives and the intersection of others. We can have our cake and eat it, too, if we are willing to see that the point of having cake is to eat it and accept that it will then be gone.”

At his best, Mr. Gopnik is a good cook and an intelligent writer. But he really should stop playing with his food.

• Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to three U.S. presidents. His reviews on gastronomy appear regularly in the Wall Street Journal.