October 28, 2011 8:42 pm

‘The sea trout sashimi has been draped!’

Over lunch at Jean Georges in New York, the British historian and the American critic discuss the pleasures of the table

The Table Comes First, a collection of writings about food by the American author and cultural critic Adam Gopnik, has just been published. Earlier in October he met Simon Schama at the New York restaurant Jean Georges.

1. FRANCE

Simon Schama: Your writing is dominated very powerfully by France. Is this particularly because you’re from Canada?

Adam Gopnik: Well, I grew up in Montreal and there I had a period of being colonised by French cuisine. There was one great guy at Chez Bardet,which was a place my parents took me on my birthday when I was a kid but that was not at all the native cuisine of Quebec, which is nothing like French cooking. It’s truly a sort of northern peasant cuisine.

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SS: More like Breton?

AG: Yes, exactly. Shepherd’s pie and that sort of simple thing. But, yes, I grew up with French around me all the time, so in that sense it was second nature.

SS: Did you cook as I did? You know, as a student?

AG: Cook to impress girls?

SS: Yes, absolutely, I mean, shockingly. When I realised, to my astonishment, that I was very impractical – I wouldn’t know what a carburettor was if it fell on me; lousy at sport – I got more interested in cooking for girls.

AG: I cooked excessively when I was a kid and it was an unusual skill when I was growing up but it took me a while to learn that, if the girl is paying any attention to you at all, then she’s as impressed as she’s ever going to be, and there is nothing more you can do after that to impress her.

SS: In the 1950s my parents would take us out and it would be to high-end places like the Savoy Grill where we’d have Dover sole, lots of silver tureens. It was essentially high French cooking.

But a decade later, in the 1960s, we’re talking about 1965 really, there was a sense of there being – thanks to Elizabeth David, and also thanks to Robert Carrier, who had a restaurant in Islington and whose laminated cookery cards I religiously collected – another kind of French food altogether: provincial, native, much more forgiving and generous.

So when you say [in The Table Comes First] about it being later when British cooking improved, in the 1970s, you’re mostly right but in London and out in the countryside there was a lot of good cooking even in the late 1960s.

AG: My memory is I had two siblings in Oxford in the 1970s and I would often see them and didn’t enjoy the food there; whereas now, when you go to Oxford, it’s hard not to eat well. In fact, and it’s a painful truth for a Francophile like myself, on the whole you can eat better in London now than you can in Paris.

SS Yes, that’s true. I do go to Paris but not a lot. [Anselm] Kiefer has this little Italian place he goes to. It’s sweet but basically what they do is cover everything with white truffles and it’s just absolutely an avalanche of them.

AG: Who can complain, and yet?

SS: Exactly, you can’t just say anything else.

AG: One of the strange things I recognise about the decline of French food is that the civilisation of the table in France is to my mind incomparable, and one of the things I love about it is the French habit, which is so unfamiliar to Americans particularly, of shaping a restaurant around yourself – in other words, to find a place to go that is yours, and then the restaurant grows around you rather than you being a supplicant to the restaurant. The first thing that any American who comes to Paris says to you is, “Where shall we go, what’s fashionable?” No French friend I have would ever speak that language. They might sidle from one place to another …

SS: They’d go to Chez Georges ...

AG: They’d go to their place, wherever it might be. They usually have two places – they have a fancy place and a canteen, and they go to those two places. And the beauty of it is that there’s this wonderful warmth – but the terrible part of it is [the food] is always the same.

But, as I say, I still would rather eat in Paris than eat anywhere because you feel the beautiful force of a wonderful modern adventure in a restaurant and the culture of cooking. You can still feel it. It’s not that it’s an ancient rural continuity you’re in touch with, but it’s the beginnings of urbanity.

And I still feel, if I’m having a brasserie meal at the Balzar or having a great meal at Le Grand Véfour, I feel not that I’m stepping back but that I’m sort of stepping in to what modernity was meant to be and then took another turn.

2. MENUS, FASTING

Adam Gopnik (left) and Simon Schama at Jean Georges in New York

AG: Let’s choose what we’re going to have. I could do the salmon but it’s a bit boring, isn’t it?

SS: No, not at all. Salmon swims through the pages of your book really.

AG: Yes it does, I’m a Canadian boy.

SS: So, salmon and broccoli purée. I don’t get the broccoli at all. It’s the only thing I have in common with George Bush. I can’t bear it in any form. I’ve tried to stir-fry the s**t out of it, done everything I can but ...

AG: My mother, bless her, hates broccoli but one way to do broccoli that I thought I could get my mum to eat is to do it as a purée, lots of crème fraîche and sea salt.

SS: Oh yes, well, I’ll try it.Verbs [on the menu] are sometimes [off-putting]: I have a rule, which is never order anything that has more than one verb in it. Do we want our water chestnuts shaved? I don’t know. And draped? The sea trout sashimi is actually draped!

AG: You see, this has become the new manner of every classy menu, that is not descriptive but – what’s the word? You know – comma-bound, like a Hebrew text, so you’re not putting it into verbs.

SS: Yes ... I want to have the celeriac Meyer lemon tea but do I really know what it’s going to be?

AG: Is it Meyer lemon tea, that is to say a tea made from Meyer lemon? Is it Meyer tea? Or is it a tea-based flavour ornamented with Meyer lemon? Because I love tea flavours added to rice.

SS: Right, exactly. That’s why I thought I’d have it but, I mean, you can’t make tea out of Meyer lemon. I mean, what are you supposed to do, stand around for months while the zest dries? And then, let’s see ... this is my pre-fast meal [ahead of Yom Kippur] ... beef would really stand me in good stead ...

AG: I would go for that, with the fasting ahead of you.

SS: It’s easy, except you can’t drink water for 24 hours. And, actually, at the end of it, you feel so undeservedly smug. I always break my fast on a glass of milk, an apple and a slice of any kind of soft white bread, challah if possible, with no butter, nothing on it. All one’s tongue receptors are just sitting up and begging for gratification, and you’ll never taste an apple as good as that one. There is a kind of four o’clock trough. Partly it’s bad because if you’re still at synagogue, you’re listening to the Book of Jonah while you’re at the low point in the welter of food deprivation. You feel something has eaten you ... OK, I am going to go for the beef.

AG: It’s funny; on my way here I was thinking about your fast, and about how much you’re doing that as a symbol sums up what I was trying to say [in the book] about the role of food in our lives. You don’t literally believe, I think, that God is taking out his book and writing the names of those who are going to live or die in the coming year.

SS: No. That would be horrible predestination.

AG: Right. But you do think, I would imagine, that attaching yourself to that kind of ritual is an incredibly powerful, necessary thing as a symbolic act. It connects you to the continuities of our common past?

SS: Yes.

AG: And then [there is] also the suggestion that, in this world of secular choices in which I live a largely secularised life, by seizing on this symbolic ritual of food, I sharpen, narrow and define who I am ...

SS: I suppose that’s right. It is quite an eternal theme: there is this line at the opening of Kol Nidrei [the evening service that opens Yom Kippur], which is all about summoning all Israel to stand before you, and I do think about that as this huge indefinite roll call of the living and the dead and my parents. It’s just actually stepping outside the routine ...

AG: What I mean is that it seems to me that we’re often given the false choice between what food choices we should make – we’re told that a diet has to be rational and justifiable. It’s got to save the planet. And it seems to me that most of the choices we make about food are at some level symbolic. They’re not going to save the planet or our lives. And that was the point I was trying to make in the chapter about localism: that it may well be that all those carbon miles are not saved. That the planet would be better off if we all ate lamb from New Zealand. But we would not be better off if we didn’t have the experience of going to the farmer’s market and talking to the guy.

3. THE CULT OF ORIGINS

Adam Gopnik (left) and Simon Schama at Jean Georges in New York

SS: Not long ago there was a very strange restaurant in London called Konstam [closed in 2010], of a sort it’s impossible to imagine in New York. Almost everything it served came from within or near greater London, beyond which it would not serve or cook anything at all. It was preposterous, really.

AG: My favourite instance of that, and I’ve eaten his food but never been to the restaurant, is Noma in Copenhagen. [Chef René Redzepi] did a lunch in New York, so I got to taste the cooking. It was a totally ersatz environment, and, if you think it’s difficult to source just around London, imagine sourcing just around Copenhagen in February. And the question then becomes, “What in February. And the question then becomes, “What does that all mean?” Because we tell ourselves that we’re making a commitment to the planet, to sustainability but there are, as you know, very potent arguments to suggest that that’s an illusion at best, or an exaggeration at best.

SS: That you’re robbing farmers in Kenya of the possibility of selling haricots verts.

AG: Yes, exactly. And Adam Smith solved this problem several centuries ago about specialisation and comparative advantage. But the part that’s frustrating for me about this question is the misunderstanding: people tend to think that either you’re saying, “Oh, I believe that there’s one way to eat and there’s a system of importance that we need to demand where the beef came from, because it may have come from a dog”; and then there’s the alternative, that it’s all fashion. It’s all just absurdity and manners, and we and our obsessions about asking where the beef came from is just as ridiculous as our great-grandfathers at Delmonico’s who wanted to eat strawberries in December. And the point I wanted to make is that’s not a real choice. That’s not how human life is organised. The most important things we do are symbolic gestures. That’s what gives meaning to the race.

SS: Well, you make one caveat which is that there are taste issues. Is asparagus, eaten one week late, say mid-June, rather than late-May – and grown just within London’s perimeter – is it actually going to be that much better than getting it from, I don’t know, California? Actually, it probably is – there’s nothing worse than long-distance Californian asparagus!

AG: But every cohort in every faith from Judaism to localism demands extremely minute and, in some way, arbitrary rules, which just show that it is a faith. To show that what you’re doing is subscribing to a set of beliefs.

SS: And they are arbitrary? There are things to do with memory that I am obsessed with, and it’s entirely to do with the emblematic: strawberries and asparagus, for instance, because I remember the intensity of strawberries in a very, very narrow band of time – June, July, Wimbledon on TV, things like that.

AG: The point about the emblematic is the emblematic is essential. For me one of the great intellectual revelations from you [in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution] was when you started talking about all of the emblematic aspects of the French revolution, dress, hairstyles, ways of speaking, and all those things, and the point was that they weren’t secondary effects. They were essential to what the revolution was about. It was through the manipulation of that surface that the revolution for good and ill had its life.

Similarly, the trivial question, “What are we going to have for dinner tonight?”, which may simply be part of the comedy of manners of over-privileged people, is quite profound in the sense of the way it indicates what we believe and how we choose to behave within our lives.

I do this terrible thing. I end up at the supermarket, and I’m facing the farmed salmon, and the bagged greens, and I say to myself, “Is my faith” – I’m like a Jewish kid, looking at a hot dog in Philip Roth – “Is my faith, my secular faith, deep enough to lead me three blocks away on this weary night so I can get the wild salmon?!

4. THE TABLE COMES FIRST

'The Table Comes First' by Adam Gopnik

AG: One of the ironies of the food revolution in America is that it’s powered out of all that kind of old-fashioned, puritanical, moralistic energy that makes America America. It’s not sybaritic and luxurious as the similar movements have been in England. It’s very much about improving your life. It’s in the best sense puritanical in its impulses; I mean puritanical in its pleasure, believing that life should be a series of missions, and improvements.

SS: The emblem of that in terms of language, and something that has always bothered me, is waiters who come over to you and say, “Are you still working on that?”

AG: Yes.

SS: And I also really want to correct parents who tell children who clean their plate, “Good job.” They’re four! They don’t have a job. It’s much too soon. I want to say, “No, I’m not working on this, I’m f***ing eating it!” It’s just so bizarre.

AG: It’s bizarre but reflective: it’s an Americanism you would never find anywhere else in the world. I can’t imagine a French waiter saying that. Although a French waiter will say, “Monsieur, is it satisfying?” Which is a polite way of saying, “Is it not satisfying? Is there something wrong?”

SS: Yes. My favourite joke; you must have heard it. And this is so short it’s barely a joke at all. The waiter comes to two old Jewish ladies who have been eating in the same place for years and he comes over and says, “Is anything all right?”

AG: [Laughs] Yes.

SS: So let’s talk about [the food writer] MFK Fisher – you feel as strongly as I do about her, don’t you?

AG: Yes, absolutely.

SS: Fisher is a great writer. And she keeps on being rediscovered but never properly rediscovered, and the writing, the quality is just astounding.

AG: It’s extraordinary. I think the single best thing ever said about writing about food is “When I write about food, I write about hunger.” There’s something deeply melancholy about it.

It’s like a story I tell about AJ Liebling, who was my beau ideal, everything a food writer can be. I said to Phil Hamburger [a former New Yorker writer], “Oh my God, I just love reading his food stuff so much.” And he said, with a wince, “I can never read Joe’s stuff on food because I’ve watched him eat himself to death.” And that was the other side of the experience, which – in the alchemy of writing, becomes jovial and joy-giving on the page – but was reflections from his overeating himself to death.

And I gather with Fisher, too, that she was a deeply, deeply melancholy woman, who found release in food. It’s the same as we can all read Larkin because we find release in his melancholy, but he had to live with the melancholy every minute of his life. We can find joy in her ability to treat food elegiacally but she had to live with the elegiacal mood all the time.

But I love her work ... love the way it exposes something that’s part of this experience, right. It’s the illusion of continuity, which is essentially a truth of commodification, right? We’re sitting here, in a false warmth, [having] purchased time, space and food. And that’s how we spend our lives in restaurants. And we delude ourselves that the warmth of the greeting as we come in reflects our irresistible nature.

SS: Yes, well, that’s why I could stand it if all the restaurants in the world closed down but I could not stand it if I were paralysed, somehow disabled from cooking. I mean, if that were the ridiculous choice ...

AG: No, no. One nice thing is that, over the years of marriage, you unconsciously tailor your cooking to your spouse. So, though my children give me a polite approval, my wife loves what I cook.

SS: Yes, that’s probably true.

AG: It’s not that you’ve set out to please but you learn, and it’s like you know that, in the next 30 years, we’ll have that as a common thing.

‘The Table Comes First’ (Quercus) by Adam Gopnik, £18.99

Simon Schama is a contributing editor to the FT and writes about food for GQ magazine

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