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Table Comes First' traces food culture's origins

“The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food” (Alfred A Knopf), by Adam Gopnik: One needn’t venture very far into Adam Gopnik’s new book, “The Table Comes First,” before beginning to wonder whether with all the recent books, TV shows and movies devoted to food and eating there remains anything more to be said on the subject.

With foodie culture encompassing everything from locavores, who eat only locally grown foods, and the slow food movement to Ferran Adria’s “techno-emotional” cooking and molecular gastronomy, it seems there was never a time when society has been more obsessed by food.

Gopnik, however, points out that it only seems that way. Man’s obsession with food is as old as civilization itself, or as he succinctly puts it: “An animal that eats and thinks must think big about what it is eating not to be taken for an animal.”

So Gopnik’s book finds its niche as a sort of intellectual history of eating, beginning at the table with its rituals and tracing them all the way back to Paris of the 1750s where the restaurant was born and where he explains, “the idea of eclectic eating in big cities began.”

“The Table Comes First” lays the theory on pretty thick, with Gopnik citing everyone from the pioneering gastronomic writers Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and Alexandre Grimod de La Reyniere to American economists Gary Becker and Thorstein Veblen throwing in choice snippets from Scottish philosopher David Hume and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards among others along the way.

Then just as readers may fear they are in over their heads, Gopnik leavens the proceedings with personal anecdotes and a few recipes of his own.

Throughout the book, Gopnik also carries on an imaginary correspondence with Elizabeth Pennell (1862-1952), a Philadelphia writer, food critic and cookbook collector whose views on food at the beginning of the last century seem especially prescient today.

The book serves as an exhaustive overview of the current state of foodie culture in America and its historical antecedents but eventually peters out into a kind of hodgepodge cobbled together from articles Gopnik has written about chefs and food over the years for The New Yorker.

Near the end of the book, we find Gopnik in Spain eating a comically complicated dessert, one which tries to emulate the emotions of a soccer goal, complete with the smell of grass and a contraption that flips over like a spring sending a white-chocolate soccer ball into the air, high above a white candy netting.

It’s a fitting ending for a book that crams in lots of delicious morsels but is perhaps too rich. Suffering from too many themes, it ends up resembling an extravagant smorgasbord.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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