Attitudes toward food can reflect both folly and necessity — in that regard, author Adam Gopnik really believes you can have your cake and eat it, too.
Gopnik has been a writer for The New Yorker since 1986, and is the author of several books, including his memoir of living in Paris, “Paris To The Moon,” his meditation on the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, “Angels and Apes,” and the juvenile fiction adventure “The King in the Window.” His upcoming book, “The Table Comes First,” is a collection of his food essays.
Gopnik will appear at The Place of Taste: An Exploration of Food, Culture and Community, a day-long symposium at Williams College.
His main concern for the talk is the idea that our relationship with food as a culture, with the understanding that culture changes through history: How can we embrace our culinary indulgences while also accepting that they may be — and most probably are — fleeting?
“What I’m going to try and look at is the enduring problem that we have faced at any time in life or history that we feel very passionately about and are convinced are right,” Gopnik said in an interview this week. “Right now, for instance, those of us who care about such things are convinced that sustainable farming and local eating and organic food are all right — the things we ought to be eating, the tastes we have. We turn our mouth tastes into moral tastes, but we also know that these tastes change all the time. If we have any historical awareness at all, we know that the best taste of 25 years ago always look weird and the best taste of 50 years ago always look indigestible.”
Gopnik’s concern is the reconciliation between the personal and the sweeping. He acknowledges we are creatures of time but doesn’t see why that should invalidate our personal experiences in that journey forward. He believes the choices we make are arbitrary and without any value when measured against the expanse of historical experience.
“It’s true that all tastes are framed by time, but it’s also the case that we can feel passionately — believe in those tastes without being merely the fools of time, without merely being the victims of our time,” Gopnik said. “We need to have enough detachment from our taste to be ironic about them while still getting enough emotional satisfaction from them to see their value, to see their purpose. “
Put simply, Gopnik’s view is that you should allow yourself to enjoy the moment you are in but not let go of your reasoning — something he finds true far beyond the realm of the culinary.
“Allow yourself to be bathed in your fashion without drowning in it,” he said. “You have to keep your head above water about the reality that what we think is — in any field, not just food — but in anything we do, the best taste of our moment will not be the best taste of our children’s moment. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be indifferent or cynical about it.”
Part of embracing that moment involves looking to the past and seeing how others’ moments were also embraced, even to the point of absurdity.
“If you look at the tastes of gourmets, people who prided themselves on loving food 50 years ago, they all believed in three-star French cooking, and they all got sick after they ate it,” Gopnik said. “You read Kenneth Tynan or Bernard Levin, and they all thought that the getting ill the next day was a sign of the quality of the food. Those are the kinds of perversities of pleasure that are built into anybody’s taste, and we have to search for our own perversities of pleasure.”
He points out that one of the perversities of pleasure embedded in our current view of food is that it is not always based on what tastes good, or what our palettes tell us we like, but on what our conscience tells us we should like. This is tied to the view of unchanging regularities in nature, of the idea that there is the natural and the unnatural, and the best way to eat is to go back to the former.
“We should eat locally because that’s the way our bodies and our civilization are meant to eat — there’s a real, true, nature taste that goes beneath all the changing fashions of food,” Gopnik said.
“This is a very old belief — the notion that there is this natural taste — which I trace to Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher of the 18th century. The idea that there’s this natural taste underneath the changing fashion is an old one, and one of the things that makes it so strange is when you think about what the natural is at any moment. Nothing changes so fast as the natural.”
According to Gopnik, even what we think of as natural may not be strictly natural — it may just go back so far in its present state that it seems natural through our experience. All of agriculture is the result of centuries of manipulation, the first, significant technology of man, and one that changed the landscape and the nature that inhabited it.
“In the broader sense, the natural diet of mankind is not food at all, because in the state of nature, famine is a common feature. You have no nature to escape into,” Gopnik said.
As a writer for The New Yorker, Gopnik’s career has been built on the delicate balance of observing the amusing absurdities of current societal trends and looking for the depth of their meaning as well as amusement of their follies.
“It’s very much like our feelings about childbirth, for instance,” he said. “We recognize that the way we have kids now — all the rituals and all the worrying and MRIs and Lamaze classes — are part of the comedy of manners of our time. We recognize that there’s something deeply universal about childbirth and also something comically contemporary about childbirth. Keeping those two things in balance and recognizing that both of those things can be true at once is the secret to understanding the event and its meaning.
“The same thing is true of eating, the same thing is true of reading, and the same thing is true of looking at pictures. The mistake we can make is thinking that because we believe in it, it must be true for all time. Or else believing that because it isn’t true for all time, it can’t have any truth at all.”
Gopnik has tackled numerous subjects in his career — art, philosophy, travel, psychology, child care, paleontology, football, the Bible, Winston Churchill and multiple strange slices of life in Paris and New York City. He says he sees the thread that winds through all of his work as “the rituals and rhetoric of bourgeois liberal civilization,” with an advocacy for ironic detachment toward the very things your society embraces.
“Our taste in food tracks and mirrors our changing taste in life,” he said. “That’s not cause for a kind of cynical mockery. It’s simply a fact about what it means to be people living in social groups. This will sound a little bit pretentious, but it’s always been a theme of the stuff I have written that you can always simultaneously see how enshrined any set of manners are in a particular place and a particular time, whether it’s New York City or Paris — and without thinking this makes them less valuable. You can put them in a frame and still recognize that frames are what show us what to look at in the picture.”
Gopnik likens the prospect of speaking about these ideas in any concise way to being overburdened by a sumptuous meal — something that recently happened to him and now stays with him whenever he stands in front of an audience rather than sits behind a keyboard.
“I had the chance to go to El Bulli, the famous restaurant outside Barcelona that’s closing. They give you 37 courses, and one of the things you realize is that no one could eat 37 courses,” he said. “After you’ve eaten seven courses, you forget about them, and then you eat the next seven courses and forget about those. By the end of 37 courses, you’ve had a great experience and have absolutely no memory of anything you’ve eaten. I fear that this lecture will be similar. You’ll get 37 ideas and absolutely no memory at the end of what I said, but I hope it will be tasty along the way.”
Gopnik realizes that even if the format of public speaking might not be the most effective way to pass along specific knowledge, it’s a terribly good way to communicate your enthusiasm for ideas. His thought is, if he can just get that across, then the real thinking will go on later — long after the audience has left sight of his podium. At that point, he hopes his central message is considered and possibly applied to the parts of his listeners’ lives that don’t involve the dinner table.
“The choice is never between rejection and embrace,” Gopnik said. “The secret of life is to recognize the absurdity of our own values while still getting enough emotional satisfaction from them to give them their proper due.”