A lecturer so studiously sophisticated that he prefaces a quote from Voltaire by rhetorically asking his audience "do you know it?" seems an unlikely candidate to engage in a bit of culinary chauvinism. But Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker writer who's now traveling in support of his book The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, last week wooed a crowd at Town Hall by pronouncing Pacific Northwest food "better than any other food in the country."
"The reason for that is wine," Gopnik said. "For me, the cooking of this region is buoyed up by wine. I'd rather be drinking Northwest wine than just about anything but Burgundy."
A proud Francophile, Gopnik delves into the Parisian origin of restaurants; Rousseau's treatises on taste; the philosophical tensions between Brillat-Savarin and Grimrod De La Reyniere (do you know him?) and the emergence of French pastry in a book that also touches on the ethics of eating meat and includes a recipe for rice pudding. "It's a study really in how we pass from mouth taste to moral taste," Gopnik said. At Town Hall, he effortlessly rifled through French history to find an explanation for the success of Seattle's food scene.
According to Gopnik, among the many important things that happened in France in 1789, the National Assembly banned laws making it illegal to sell coffee and spirits in the same establishment. While the revolutionaries intended only to loosen the stranglehold that elite guilds then had on French society, they succeeded in forging a template for restaurants, where meals are structured around alcohol and caffeine.
"A restaurant meal, in 1789 as now, is really a short sonata in head fuels," Gopnik writes. "Without the drinks, we could hardly find our hungers. Wine 'depresses' and narrows the buzzing room until we feel happily alone...After the meal, coffee reawakens us to the world."
Food functions as the "tropical bridge" between the two poles, both of which stand especially tall in the Pacific Northwest.
"To be in a city with alcohol and caffeine, you can't miss," Gopnik said.