The Table Comes First - Adam Gopnik

Movement may be our main focus but nutrition is very much the other side of the health coin. If you’re not thinking about your diet, about the nature of the food going into your system every day, you’re missing a trick. It’s as simple as that. Rapid gains in wellbeing and weight loss require a concerted effort on both sides.

Adam Gopnik has been writing for the New Yorker magazine since 1986 and it shows. His is a literary, at times floral style with a dry wit and more than an occasional flourish. The result is a meandering series of chapters with a loose theme but it's worth sticking with it, for within the 200-odd pages of this book lie many a culinary insight from a sharp mind highly attuned to food culture both past and present.

Modern life is regulated by two drugs, morning to night - caffeine speeds us up, alcohol slows us down. In the American diner the two shaping drugs are caffeine and sugar - a cup of joe and a piece of pie.

A Francophile through and through, Gopnik delves deep into the origins of modern food culture in 18th century France and examines how the country's cuisine became (and largely remains to this day) a common language amongst European and North American cooks over the course of the 100 years that followed.

On changing tastes and preferences he throws the cat well and truly amongst the pigeons;

We know that a century ago the taste for the non-seasonal and exotic defined a sophisticated eater: the man who could get strawberries in December and poulet de Bresse on Madison Avenue was the man with taste. Now the same enlightened eater is defined by his rejection of the remote and out-of-season.

Gopnik has been around long enough to know that history has in all likelihood not stopped with us and that such tastes will continue evolving over time. As a sharp-witted New Yorker he’s not afraid of calling things out either,

Our peasant ancestors who lived locally and ate seasonally were hungry all the time. There is, in the localist, seasonalist, organicist literature a disturbing whiff of anti-cosmopolitanism, of the old reactionary agrarian dream of giving up urban mongrelization for pure peasant life.

On sugar, Gopnik again brings a historical perspective on the current sugar epidemic, noting that it was the growth of sugar plantations in the West Indies and the colonial trade routes that turned sugar from a spice to a table commonplace.

From a primal perspective, he acknowledges that sweetness is a sign of ripeness and of something being safe to eat, yet this ingrained instinct has been thrown into confusion by the availability of abundant sugar sources in today’s world.

In short, there is plenty here to challenge and stimulate die-hard primal lifestyle fans as well as those with a more general interest in gastronomy. Recommended reading. 

DietMatt Morley