Adam Gopnik: 'The Table Comes First'

What goes on the dining table has never mattered as much to our lives as what goes on around it, says Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Guest host John Donvan talks with Gopnik about his new book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food.

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JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Some of the things we use meals for: to celebrate; to commemorate, to reinvigorate a fading romance, or to start one off, or to close deals, or to open our hearts as we open the wine for which the meal may only be the excuse.

Oh, and we use meals to eat, which as a species we cannot afford not to do if we want to survive. So many meals, so much meaning, especially when you hear the meaningful food vamping of Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for the New Yorker who in a new book goes in search of how our relationship with food and cooking has not only defined us but has changed over the centuries and changed us over the centuries and what it tells us about who we are and how we live.

We would like you to be part of this conversation. Tell us about a meal you will never forget because of what it did to you or for you or about you because of the trip to the grocery store or the way it was prepared or what happened at the dinner table or afterwards.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later on in the program, we will continue our annual Thanksgiving Day tradition, and we'll remember the family, friends and neighbors who are not able to join you at the dinner table this year. You can send in your emails now to tell us about that – again, talk@npr.org.

But first, Adam Gopnik joins us from studios at BBC Western House in London. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new book is "The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food." Happy Thanksgiving to you, Adam Gopnik.

ADAM GOPNIK: Happy Thanksgiving, John.

DONVAN: And I like the fact that the word France is in the title because so much of this book is about France and its origins as the place where we, as you say, began to think about food the way we do think about food. And you begin with this fascinating back story of the restaurant, which was not always what it is today and was not always at all.

But the interesting thing starts with the origin of the word restaurant. Tell me about that.

GOPNIK: Well, Rebecca Spang(ph), a wonderful young scholar, made it clear about a decade ago that a restaurant was a thing you drank before it was a place you went, that it referred to a restorative, a kind of health-giving bullion, which was seen as a kind of alternative to the sloppy and ill-prepared food that you could get at a kind of tavern, a (unintelligible).

And so people, men and women, that's a crucial point, John, would go to this new institution, the restaurant, for their health. And as we all know, there's nothing that's such a wonderful cover for sex as health. That's why they call them health clubs. We all can go in, in the semi-dressed state, and nobody can question our virtue.

DONVAN: As we work up a sweat.

GOPNIK: Exactly, as we work up a sweat and display our muscles or rears, we're only doing it for the good of our health. Something similar happened with the early restaurant. It became a place where men and women could meet in a completely supposedly salubrious atmosphere and could be together.

And all of the things that we think of as being essential to the restaurant experience as we know it now - men and women sharing tables, using it as a place of courtship, the menu, the closed kitchen, the kitchen you can't see, the waiter in semi-formal or formal clothes that comes and demands your order, the choice of foods, all of those things were very new in France around 1780, 1790, right around the time of the French Revolution.

And it's really weird if you think about it because obviously exchanging food for money is one of the most fundamental things that people could do, and to find out that the way we mostly do it in the restaurant is a specific invention with a date on it is a little like finding out that, I don't know, having sex in beds was invented in Berlin in 1836, and then word got around...

DONVAN: Which it probably was not...

GOPNIK: I suspect it was not, though presumably it was invented somewhere.

DONVAN: So - and the word restaurant, you're saying, actually comes from the name of a particular dish, a restorative dish.

GOPNIK: That's right, a kind of bullion. That's giving full credit to Rebecca Spang for that discovery. And it meant that for the first time you had a kind of institution where it was neither truly popular, in the sense that in earlier kinds of taverns and (unintelligible) everybody shared a common table, and everybody shared a common meal. For the first time you were making choices, and you were making them with a certain kind of privacy.

But at the same time, it was a public institution. It was a place that anybody could go into if you had enough money in your pocket to buy. And so by being that kind of funny private-public institution, which is so much a signature of modern times, like the health club again.

So many of the places where we pass our time and make our lives in modernity are private-public places. And as a consequence, they give our lives a particular shape. They mean that we invest ourselves very strongly in places that are really essentially profit-seeking places, but at the same time we find meaning and solace in them. And the restaurant was one of the first of those kinds of institutions we've had.

DONVAN: And you've alluded to the issue of sex, but I want to put sex in a different context. The female sex could not - a woman could not, for example, drop by a tavern without becoming a wench, but she could go to a restaurant, this new institution of the restaurant, in a respectable way?

GOPNIK: I think probably beneath a wench. What's beneath a wench? A winch or something, yes. I think - that's exactly right, yeah, and that was a respectable place for women to go.

DONVAN: You kill off, or you marshal the academic work to kill off a great story about how the restaurant was born in France, that it was an outcome of the beheading of an awful lot of nobles who were employing chefs. Great story, not true?

GOPNIK: Apparently not, no. That was a favorite, you know, bit of kind of folk etymology, that once all the aristocrats lost their heads, then rather by necessary logic, the chefs lost mouths to feed. It tends to happen when you cut off heads. And the chefs, the aristocratic chefs, had no place to go except to open their own restaurants.

That's a nice story; it doesn't seem to be true. The restaurant was already thriving before the reign of terror started. And in truth, the reign of terror in the French Revolution as it developed acted as a kind of break on the development of the restaurant, which is a very democratic institution.

Robespierre, you know, the head, the leader of the terror, said champagne is the poison of the people. He was an extremely abstemious and puritanical kind of guy, not a food lover at all.

DONVAN: Well, we've - Adam, we've asked our listeners to share with us stories of meals that made a difference to them. And I'd like to have them tell the stories and then have you - you're not only a writer about food, you're a reader of food and its meaning. So maybe...

GOPNIK: Can I tell you a story, John, about a meal that just - I will never forget?

DONVAN: Yeah.

GOPNIK: We're here in London for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a very big deal in our family. We normally celebrate it in New York, and we have all kinds of rituals and traditions. And we came over to London to celebrate Thanksgiving with some very dear friends, and then something terribly, terribly sad happened, and they had to cancel Thanksgiving. They had a loss in their family, and it just wasn't the right time to do it.

So we found ourselves at loose ends tonight, just a couple of hours ago, and I thought: What am I going to do? I can't do a turkey. So I went foraging on Tottenham Court Road in London, and I got organic eggs and some back bacon and some bread, and I made a kind of a coffee shop breakfast for the whole family, just a few minutes ago, and, you know, potatoes O'Brien, straw-fried potatoes. And that was our Thanksgiving dinner this year, was a New York breakfast.

And I think we all enjoyed it. We had a little red wine with it too.

DONVAN: Well, what it is, it's going to be the Thanksgiving dinner you'll never forget.

GOPNIK: That's - it'll be - we'll always refer to this meal as the London Thanksgiving. Who wants London Thanksgiving? Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: Let's go to Kelly(ph) in Denver. Kelly, welcome to the program. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

KELLY: Hello, I would like to share the story of my mom's meatloaf. I was a - my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I never appreciated her cooking until I went away to college, and my first time home from school, she asked me what she could make me for dinner, and I said her meatloaf.

And it has since become the sign in our family that we're having a reunion. And now we're scattered all across the country, but whenever we can get back together to have a meal, we have her meatloaf, which is just - it would be my last meal. It's just, it's so delicious, and it's just such a sign of our - the strength of our family.

And we grew up in the Southwest, in Phoenix, and so she puts hot chilis in it, and it's just so, so good.

DONVAN: Adam, go ahead.

GOPNIK: I was just about - no, I was just about to ask: Does she have a special ingredient? Because my experience of meatloaf, which isn't limitless, there's always one ingredient that somebody puts in it that separates their meatloaves from everybody else's, anise or something like that, something you wouldn't expect. Hot pepper is a wonderful one, cumin, something that sets your meatloaf apart. And that's a wonderful story.

DONVAN: Kelly, is it so much that it tastes so good, or is it so much that it's your mom's, and you've known it all your life?

KELLY: You know, it's both because I've tried to cook it myself. I have her recipe. I've tried to make it probably 100 times, and it's never as good as when she makes it. And, you know, honestly, in our family it's even better the next day cold. We eat meatloaf sandwiches, and they're fantastic. So it's definitely not fancy French food, but it is something that I will always cherish.

DONVAN: Kelly, thanks very much. Thanks for joining the program.

GOPNIK: You know, John, what Kelly just said, there is such a basic principle about taste. It's one of the themes of this book, "The Table Comes First," and that is that taste is a frame of mind. Taste is the totality of our experience. We can't ask Kelly: Is it the meatloaf itself, or is it your mother, or is it the table that you share it at?

Anybody who's a pro cook will tell you taste begins at the door of the restaurant. Anybody who's a home cook will tell you taste is the table. Taste is the totality of what we experience. And any scientist who looks at the conundrum of taste will tell you that it all is shaped by frame and context, by expectations.

DONVAN: You know, you've talked about how wine very much is subject to that and then if you switch the bottle - the labels on a bottle of wine, even the best wine connoisseurs would be fooled or have been fooled, actually.

GOPNIK: They have been fooled. They have different responses. You know, it's sort of spooky, actually. They don't just say, oh, this takes like Chateau de Montagne rather than Chateau Letour. If you do an MRI, they're seen actually to be experiencing different things in their brains. They have a different pattern.

So it's not that they're lying to you or faking it in any sense. They're having a different experience. Everything we experience in life has that kind of quality, doesn't it? It always takes place in a context, in a frame. You tell somebody this poem is by Shakespeare, they read it with one set of expectations. You tell them it's by Brakespeare, and they read it with another set.

We can't escape that - the context in which we perceive the world, nor should we try to. So Kelly's is a nice example. You can't separate Kelly's mom from Kelly's mom's meatloaf, and that's exactly true about all the tastes we know.

DONVAN: What's also interesting is that you say whole societies used to eat things 150 years ago that would be considered absolutely disgusting now, so that it's not necessarily individual by individual that these choices are being made but that societies would - we don't eat, generally speaking, the deep inside parts of animals, but at one point - go ahead.

GOPNIK: At one point we were, and now increasingly people do. I have a profile in this book of a guy named Fergus Henderson here in London who believes in eating the whole beast - that is, that the only ethical kind of carnivorism we can have is if we're committed to eating the animal, including its tail, its hooves, its innards, its spleen, its lungs, its face, its nose, its ears and its tongue. Then we can justify eating animals.

We can't justify just eating the filet, as he calls it, with an English accent. So that's coming back into fashion.

DONVAN: When we come back from the break, I want to ask you for the names of a couple of dishes that were very, very hot 100 years ago that we wouldn't want to go near now. We're talking with Adam Gopnik. The book, again, is titled "The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food."

GOPNIK: Tell us about a meal that you will never forget, and tell us why. The number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. I'm John Donvan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. Our guest is Adam Gopnik. We're talking about the meaning of food and asking you to share stories of meals that you will never forget and why. And Adam, who writes and thinks and cooks a great deal of food and about food - and you are, in fact, you're the cook in the family, are you not, Adam?

GOPNIK: I am the cook in the family. You know, that's one of those things that men do, and it's sort of the most ostentatious of all the domestic chores you can do. So you say, oh, I'm the cook. And people say, oh - to your wife - oh, that must be so nice for you. And she develops a kind of crooked, one-sided smile: Oh, yes. It's so good - knowing that it leaves out all the domestic chores you don't do that she does.

So I think that the - kind of the cult of the cooking husband probably has its dubious, or anyway, ambiguous side. But yes, I am the daily cook in our home.

DONVAN: So is there anything, Adam, that people were eating in fancy restaurants 100 years ago that we would just find horrible now?

GOPNIK: I don't even think we have to go back 100 years, John. I think you just go back about, you know, 50 years, when it was still the standard to have everything wrapped in puff pastry and served with a cream sauce.

I tell the story in the book about how two of the great gourmands of England in the 1960s, Kenneth Tynan and Bernard Levin, loved to report on the tours they would make of all those great three-star temples in France. And they would report, uncomplaining, about how ill they felt at the end of every meal. And they were basically boasting about feeling that ill because of the amount of butter and cream and puff pastry that they were digesting.

But that was the appropriate price of the meal for them. Some dishes have fallen out simply because they're so tricky to make. I talk in the book about struggling to make pommes souffle, which is one of the great delicacies of the end of the 19th century, still can find it occasionally in a restaurant.

It involves twice-frying potatoes, very thinly slices potatoes. You fry them once to get them brown, and then you fry them again in a hotter oil. And if you do it right, they puff up beautifully, like little balloons, and you serve them with steak or anything, and they're the most elegant form that potatoes ever take. But I struggle...

DONVAN: But impossible to make, right. Yeah.

GOPNIK: For me, and I am hardly, you know, Alain Ducasse. But very hard to make, and I think too hard for most restaurant kitchens to make these days. And that's why...

DONVAN: But you said you found one by accident once about 30 years ago...

GOPNIK: Yes, in a Second Avenue - you know, one of those places in New York City on Second Avenue, where they do, you know, $5.99 filet mignon - or they did in those days - and a lobster. And I ordered some fried potatoes with it, and damned if there wasn't one perfect pommes souffle.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOPNIK: It must have fallen back into the oil by accident, and if it had been biological, it would have been the beginning of a whole new line of fried potatoes that would have gone on beyond.

DONVAN: But it didn't know it wasn't supposed to exist.

GOPNIK: It had no consciousness, unfortunately.

DONVAN: Let's bring Sara in from Norman, Oklahoma. Sara, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

SARA: Hello.

DONVAN: Hi.

GOPNIK: I am calling to tell you about stone soup that I ate yesterday with the children at the preschool where I work. They have been hearing the folk tale of stone soup every day, and they all brought their own vegetable to school. And they all cut it up, and we cooked it together, and it was the most delicious soup I have ever tasted. It was full of love, as far as the...

That's wonderful. Does everybody know the fable of stone soup? I wonder, you know, the guy who says - the trickster who says I'll make you the best soup you ever had, and it's just made with one stone. And then he tastes it again - am I getting the story right - and says it'd be better just with a little bit of potato, a little bit of carrot, and he...

SARA: It would be better if I had a tomato. And so the villager brings a tomato. And another villager passes by and says: What is stone soup? And he says: Oh, it's pretty good, but it would be better if I had some leeks. And so the villager brings some leeks. And at the end of the story, all of the villagers have brought their food, and they all eat it together, and it's very beautiful.

GOPNIK: If you think about that story, too, you know, it has a nice secondary meaning, that the cook in that story is really - he's a con man, yes, but he's also a kind of maestro. He's conducting the orchestra of the villagers into making a soup all together.

SARA: Yes. And at the end he picks up his stone and he brushes it off, and he takes it with him to the next village, where he teaches them all to enjoy a meal together and to share...

GOPNIK: How to make soup with his magic stone. And in some decent sense, the stone is magic. That's the beauty of that story.

DONVAN: Thank you, Sara, very much for your call.

SARA: Thank you.

DONVAN: You know, Adam, you write enough about your love of things like hamburgers and pizza and spaghetti so that we know that you're not a food snob, thank goodness. But you certainly have - you have journeyed through the high-end temples of food around the world, and that brings me to a question about the culture that surrounds the higher-end food.

It kind of makes the rest of us feel bad about ourselves that there's this out-of-reach, expensive-end food that requires - that is so subtle, that it requires us to be a lot smarter than we are, or a lot more cultured and sophisticated than we are to enjoy it. And we don't want to feel bad about that. So what is at play there? Is there a deliberate snobbery that is inherent in - is it - or an emperor-has-no-clothes situation?

GOPNIK: Well, you know, I always compare it - I like fancy food when I can get it, but I don't get it very often, and I don't want it very often. That kind of experience for me is a once or twice-a-year thing. You know, I often compare, John, fancy food of that kind to going to grand opera: It may not be - there's an element of snobbery about it, and people who are opera connoisseurs - as we say in our family - can be somewhat snobbish people that, you know, this "Traviata" was better than that "Traviata," and all of that.

But there's an element of overcharge about it, right. And if you have ever gotten the taste for opera, you know that you can't dismiss that overcharge. It's so much. It's so much emotion, so much music, so much scenery. It's a great experience to have.

And I think a great fancy food, three-star restaurant - whether of the old-fashioned French kind or the new-fangled molecular Spanish kind - gives you something like that experience. You can't compare it with the food you and I make every night. We don't want to compare it with that.

You compare it to any other kind of experience where you pay a lot of money, and you give five hours of your life over, maybe just once a year. And you see that this thing that you deal with every day - just the way that we all sing, but only a tenor can sing like a tenor - that you can see that this thing that we deal with every day can be taken to unexpected dimensions of creativity and imagination.

And I think that fundamentally, that's not a snob thing. That's a democratic thing in the sense that it reminds you of the possibilities of your form. It reminds you of the possibilities of the thing you have every day.

You know, the great (unintelligible), a great philosopher of food, said once: The great thing about food is it takes animal necessities and turns them into humane desires. And at a fancy food place, that's happening at a very high and refined end, but it's happening.

DONVAN: But we - can we all feel welcome there?

GOPNIK: I think we can feel welcome if we have the cash in our pocket. When I have cash in my pocket, I feel welcome. When I don't have cash in my pocket, it's curious how the welcome is considerably less warm.

DONVAN: Chad from Palo Alto, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome.

CHAD: Hi.

DONVAN: Hi.

CHAD: So when I was about 12 years old, I traveled to Jordan. My family is Jordanian. And I'd gone usually every summer. So I was 12 years old, and it was for the Muslim holiday, and it's traditional to - before they eat dinner, to slaughter a lamb. And my dad, who I was traveling with, was the - he was given the honor of slaughtering the lamb.

And although I knew that this tradition existed and I'd eaten lamb previously, knowing that, you know, that was how it came about, I witnessed my dad slaughtering the lamb, and, you know, he was very comfortable doing it and all of the other, you know, men and women, everyone was very comfortable watching it, including my young cousins, you know, children. This was very normal for them.

But I saw that and just - I guess that just the reality of it, the brutality of it, I would say, just completely threw me off lamb. To this day, I don't eat lamb. I ate lamb before that. To this day, it always just brings that to mind, you know. And I should mention that sort of the traditional way that it's served, so once it's slaughtered and it's prepared, they have this big sterling silver dish tray that they set on the floor, and they put, you know, mountains of rice, vegetables, and they put the fresh meat on top of that. The way they did it is they put the lamb's skull on top of everything.

DONVAN: But let's let Adam respond a little bit to this scene.

GOPNIK: I have a big chapter about the ethics and the emotions - even more important than the ethics in some ways - of meat eating. I think that's a big moment in everybody's life, when they first experience, firsthand, what it is to slaughter an animal for food, because we grow up eating meat in this very disassociated way.

We buy it wrapped up in plastic in the supermarket, and we mostly forget where it comes from. We - at one point we - I decided that we would all eat just local produce, that is things grown and raised in the Five Boroughs of New York. And one of the things I had to arrange was to have a chicken whacked, to have a chicken killed.

And I wanted my kids to be part of it. It's a very tricky thing to do in New York. I felt like one of the Sopranos. Because I wanted them to have that experience. I wanted them to understand that's where your meat comes from. And I think it's a valuable one.

I - now, were you turned off all meat after that, or it's limited to lamb?

CHAD: Yeah, no it's - I mean, I'm sure if I saw a cow being slaughtered, I would probably, you know, not be eating beef. But yeah, because it was a lamb specifically, lamb is what, you know, I can't eat.

GOPNIK: Is what's verboten. You know, the question, John, of the ethics of animal eating is one of the most vexed and complicated, I think, in all of the eating arts, in all of the ways we think about eating. And the one thing I would say - the two things I would say is one is: It does seem to be an appetite, so kind of primal, that it's very difficult to rid ourselves of it. You know, I do a lot of cooking with our little dog in the kitchen. And when you see what happens to that little - cute, little Havenese when she smells bacon and it's like she becomes Keith Richards waiting for a fix. You know, she trembles from end to end.

You have some respect for the animal appetite in all of us for meat. At the same time, the cruelty that we see, especially, I mean, the way your lamb was killed, I'm sure, was infinitely kinder than what goes on in industrial slaughter houses for all the turkeys that we're going to be eating tonight around the world. It's a vexed question, and I try and walk around it as best I can to give a full, 360-degree view of it in the book. But I think it's important, even if you get turned off - and that's a very healthy response, as you did - that we let our kids know, we show our kids the connection between the death of an animal and the meat you eat.

DONVAN: Thank you very much for you call, Chad. We have an email from Matt, who is in San Francisco, turns the story you just told a little bit on its head. A few years ago, I couldn't be with my family over the holidays, so I sent my mom a present from the SPCA. It was a candleholder with dachshunds all around it. As a thank you, the SPCA included a beautiful case of white chocolate treats. My dad, who is the self-proclaimed connoisseur of everything, including chocolate, declared them to be delicious. He ate all but one of them. Then my mom looked at the back of the case. It was 25 percent crude protein, 33 percent crude fat, et cetera, because these were doggie treats.

Oh, no.

GOPNIK: They were not chocolates. If we can be fooled by dog food, then clearly, context is everything with food. He agrees with you completely, Adam.

Yes - no, that's a nice example, and it reads as pate, right, or a confection. I think that story has probably been told in many families over the years. Actually, you know, our oldest son, very virtuously, when we got a dog, said: I want to taste her food. I want to taste what it is she's eating, because I want to know what she's experiencing, which I thought was admirable. I didn't join him, but I thought it was a good thing to do.

DONVAN: You talk about dessert as a relatively new invention. Again, you would have thought that dessert was being eaten 3,000 years ago. But in its form as a third course following everything else, very, very sweet...

GOPNIK: Very, very late developing. Human beings, like all primates, have an enormous appetite for sweets - that just is built in to us - for sugar and honey and anything else we can get our hands on, ripe bananas, ripe fruit of all kinds. There are even some evolutionary theorists who think that's why we left the savannah. We were going in search of ice cream, you know. We wanted to find sweets. But dessert - cooking pastry cuisine as we know it is a very late developing thing, because it depends on having abundant sugar.

And until the end of the 17th century, sugar was never abundant. It was a relatively rare spice, more like saffron is today. And then, of course, with the development of the terrible sugar plantations, industrialized, slave-driven sugar plantations in the late 17th century, the price of sugar fell and has never really recovered. So for the first time, sugar, so to speak, got drained out of the body of the meal, where it had always been sprinkled in, so savory and sweet flavors were mixed. And you had - especially in France - a separate, concluding dessert cuisine with all of those things, souffles and puff pastry and pate feullette and all of those things, creme anglaise, all of those things that depend on sugar to kind of hold them together and to be the base. And all the sugar moved to the end of the meal, where we all wait desperately for it to happen.

DONVAN: We are talking Adam Gopnik about the meaning of food. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm John Donvan.

Adam, you have an interesting take on the recipe book. You more or less say nice historical artifacts, nice try, but it doesn't really, really tell you how to cook. What do you mean by that?

GOPNIK: Well, I love recipe books like anybody who cooks, and I collect them, and I read them in bed, and I'm as obsessed with them as any other home cook. But I think every home cook knows in their heart of hearts that what you get out of a recipe book is often very disappointing, that the space between the description of the thing and the thing actually achieved is typically human. Again, it's, you know, the huge space between the ache you feel inside and the object that you finally turn out. And I think a lot of it has to do with the reality that cooking is as much a knack and a performance as it is a set of rules that you follow.

You know, I was blessed with a mom who was a terrific cook. And her nerve ends are sort of inside my hands, so when something that she did, even if I haven't done it before, I sort of know the way your wrist has to turn when you beat egg whites. Same thing you see with sons and dads playing catch. You know, it's a highly - it's not something you can break down into its component parts. It's a thing you learn as a whole.

DONVAN: It's what YouTube is for, I think.

GOPNIK: Exactly. Guitar - have you ever gone looking how to play riffs on YouTube? It's, you know, you learn guitar riffs as a whole. And as a consequence, we sort of mislabel or we misidentify the experience, that we think that, oh, if only I can master these steps, I can make this dish. You know, you ask any pro cook, any great chef, real chef about recipes, and they always get this kind of bitter, half-smile and this mordant laugh because they know the recipe is the last thing that matters. They never share recipes. They never spread recipes.

Being a good cook for them is, once again, it's the totality of who you are. You can't reduce it to a recipe. It's everything you bring from your life to the kitchen, and we mislead ourselves a bit when we're reading those - especially those kinds of pornographic, pro cook cookbooks, you know, bombarded, thrush with steak in pancetta or whatever is. And we say, oh, I could do that. No, we can't. We're not intended to. That's not the way cooking goes on, nor should it, you know. That's the rule of life. In life, you always think that if I only master the rules, then I'll have mastered the object, and you always learn...

DONVAN: You have an...

GOPNIK: ..that there's disillusion between the two.

DONVAN: You have an aphoristic way of writing. Every few pages, you state a rule of one kind or another that's very pithy and on point. And on page 106, you say: It's not just that we are what we eat, but we eat what we are. And you have about 30 seconds to explain that.

GOPNIK: To explain that?

DONVAN: Yeah.

GOPNIK: I mean by that: It isn't the things we ingest that make us the people we are. It's the things we choose express the values that we have.

DONVAN: Adam Gopnik, I want to thank you very much. It's a pleasure. Your book is a fantastic read. It's called "The Table Comes First: Family, Friends, and the Meaning of Food." And you're also a staff writer for The New Yorker. And I want to thank all of our callers for telling the stories of the meals that made history in their lives. When we come back, a toast to absent friends, the son or daughter in Afghanistan, the aunt or uncle who is stuck at work today, the parents who just can't afford a plane ticket. Call us and tell us about who is not at your table this year. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. I'm John Donvan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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