The Table Comes First

I’ve just ordered my copy of Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First, and from the sounds of this Kirk Leech review, I’ve got something to look forward to, namely, an eloquent swipe at the moral vanity of those middle class organo-loco-ecofoodie types who have taken all the joy out of food:


Eating is one of life’s most enjoyable sensations. It’s fun and life-enhancing. Yet today, the pleasure of eating is increasingly weighed down with anxiety. Eating, once a relatively uncomplicated activity for many of us, has become laden with ethical and moral meaning and which has been tasked with grandiose political purpose.

Last year, a group of the world’s top chefs – including René Redzepi of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, Ferran Adrià of Spain’s recently-closed El Bulli and Michel Bras, of his eponymous restaurant in Aubrac, France – came up with a plan to save the planet through changing the way they cook, and the way we eat. Their Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow spelled out duties towards nature, society, ethics and development: ‘We all have a responsibility to know and protect nature… we dream of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her contribution to a just and sustainable society… through our cooking, our ethics and our aesthetics, we can contribute to the culture and identity of a people, a region, a country… we practise a profession that has the power to affect the socio-economic development of others.’

Ethical consumption is an act of acute narcissism. It’s all about casting a positive light on one’s self. As Jay Rayner, food critic for the Guardian, discovered when he visited a farmers’ market in London: ‘Wandering from the artisan breadmaker to the cheese guy to the bloke who only sells beef from wild cattle that are slaughtered lovingly… feels like a sacrament, a physical expression of an ideology. It’s like Hare Krishna’s donning the saffron robes – an outward expression of a belief.’

By viewing the acquisition and consumption of food as an ethical and moral act, we diminish the fundamental pleasure that eating food provides us. By attaching social worth and political meaning to what we eat, and hoping that consumption can make the world a better place, we will not only fail to improve the world, but in the process lose the essential fact that eating should be about enjoyment.


What he said. What’s more, there’s a creepy totalitarian impulse at work here. It’s the same totalising impulse which was first articulated in the Sixties with the phrase, “the personal is political” and which thus means that everything is everyone else’s business. And it makes everything a political choice: this is my big problem with the ‘slow food’ movement and associated Alice Waters/Jamie Oliver type ventures is that it suddenly puts what you eat in a moral-political frame. To the left, what you have for lunch (fast food or organic?), how you raise your kids (smacker?), how you get to work (private auto or public transport?), how you negotiate your personal and sexual relationships, what hobbies you pursue, what jokes you tell, where you buy your furniture, etc etc etc, becomes a dreary exercise in correctness. Life’s too short.

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