We sapiens are the only animals that look each other in the eye while eating without getting violent. At least most of the time. The other beasts fight over their food; we talk over ours, and share. We have ancient rules of the table, early glimpses of civilization, covenants that have softened into traditions reflecting the basic humanity we find in eating, its rituals, and its memories. If there is a leitmotif that follows the sinuosities of Adam Gopnik’s “The Table Comes First” — his investigation into the pleasures of the table, peeling back its veneer to examine the mechanisms that make it tick — it is “the simple path between eating well and feeling happy,” whether the table is at Noma or the humble home of a friend.
Gopnik writes with an easy cultural fluency; his sentences are roomy and comfortable, but agile. He alternates between chapters with definite shape and momentum, with specific centers of gravity, and chapters that chew on ideas, a ruminant grazing in a field of culinary philosophy. The birth of what we would identify as a restaurant, in Paris in the mid-18th century, falls into the first group. It is a terrific story, told here with grace and insight, that buries the old tale of chefs being shown the château door during the French Revolution and, so, opening their own. The restaurant rose earlier, when Paris was awash in a cult of health and simplicity, when the Palais Royal assumed the mantle of the modern street store, and when notions of caste were already in disarray, long before the revolution. A public place, welcoming as home — women, too, anyone with a sou — but capable of “a primal magic, a mood of mischief, stolen pleasures, a retreat from the world, a boat on the ocean.”