Adam Gopnik And The Bourgeois Guillotine

Adam Gopnik And The Bourgeois Guillotine

by Maria Bustillos and David Roth

David Roth: Let’s talk about how Adam Gopnik feels about French food.

Maria Bustillos: OMG HE REALLY LIKES IT.

DR: Which is perhaps the least surprising thing one could learn about Adam Gopnik. I guess if it were somehow to be revealed that he is blown away — to the point where he thinks you might also find it fascinating — by some things his kids said at the Museum of Natural History, that might be less surprising. But I’m kind of with him on this one, to a great extent. Who doesn’t like food?

MB: Well, you! That is to say, I have noticed that awful food, at least, exerts a terrible fascination over you. You get like a deer in the headlights and immediately set about making it worse and worse, until we arrive at Tex Wasabi Kickin’ Dippin-aise.

DR: That is kind of true. But like 80% of that is because I’m a child and as such am amused by gross things. But the thing that makes me mad about Garbage Food is that it’s everything all the time. Want bacon? Have some fucking bacon!

MB: Oh, I intend to. I had some just today in my Cobb Salad and it was so spectacular. It’s the best part of Cobb Salad.

DR: That is absolutely true! And I think it’s wise to eat it if you like delicious things. Enjoying tasty food isn’t decadent or unethical in some essential way. It’s only that way if you’re decadent or unethical in terms of shoving it into your maw.

MB: I was a vegetarian for some years when I was a kid, but conflicted about it. Because I came to realize that if someone were to lock me up without food and then offer me a hamburger it would, at that time, take maybe two or three days of inner wrangling, and then I would be scarfing that thing down. And by that time it would be in terrible condition probably, that hamburger.

DR: With today’s hamburger technology, you’d probably be fine. They’re like 70 percent space-age polymers and epoxies. The main difference between a Whopper Jr. and a fireproof blanket is the shape.

MB: It is still a ground-up beast, though, largely. Our bodies are weirdly made in such a manner that eating other once-living things will keep them going. Why?

DR: Ask the universe? Same reason we’re born in sin?

MB: I have been asking the universe for ages with no results whatsoever. So anyways, about these fancy foods. The thing that made me want to talk about this was how very angry people were getting at Gopnik and those sophisticos who were profiled in T, like on Twitter. Just livid, they were. The words “bourgeois privilege” were bandied about.

DR: Which is hilarious, because 1) you are reading an article in T The Unbearable NYT Luxury Supplement, and thus any nausea or sudden urge to guillotine a bunch of people is all your fault and 2) cf. point one. I know that finding things unbearable is basically the Internet’s business, and those people with their heavily curated cocktail selection and luxury pork were indeed kind of unbearable to me, but you have to know what you’re getting into.

MB: Okay, PLEASE, now, you have to explain this to me, what is unbearable… is it the double-barrelled name? The hair gel? They seemed like perfectly nice, pleasant kids to me, having their wee dinner party.

DR: It’s the luxury prose. So much food writing, as DFW pointed out and as has remained entirely exactly the same since he did, is basically fashion-mag stuff, with foie gras where the cashmere used to be. T The Unbearable NYT Luxury Supplement just took it to the next level of giddy soul-barfery. That’s what T The Unbearable NYT Luxury Supplement does. The people are probably fine or fine-ish.

Someone comes over and takes a photograph of your sink, talks about your mason jars, you know, it is impossible; no one’s dignity could survive that kind of advertising-speak.

MB: That’s what I thought, it’s like so what, the man likes whiskey. Or whisky, whichever it is. But yes, the writing, it’s definitely a little bit crazy. Artificial, I mean. Someone comes over and takes a photograph of your sink, talks about your mason jars, you know, it is impossible; no one’s dignity could survive that kind of advertising-speak.

DR: Or advertorial-speak, or now-school Bret Easton Ellis-speak — name brands wherever possible, and every rivulet of opulence scrutinized and leered over until it’s about to burst into flames.

MB: Here these kids, and also Adam Gopnik, are trying to have a lovely time. On the whole, that seems harmless to me. But the luxury angle really drives certain people wild.

MB: And I’m thinking okay, how exactly are we supposed to do this? Isn’t it all posing, to some extent? I love the relatively raunchy dining habits of e.g. Anthony Bourdain, but carting him all over the globe to film him sampling whatever innards, you know, he is not exactly the common man. But he’s not going to get yelled at.

DR: That’s where the luxury prose is probably unfair to the people. Who may or may not be unbearable, I don’t know, but who are honestly probably just going to get fresh food for a dinner party, which is something everyone who has dinner parties does. When I was reading the T The Unbearable Luxury Supplement piece, I found myself trying to edit out all the extraneous luxuro-detail. We read that the lady rides her vintage Schwinn (with wicker basket) to the farmer’s market.

DR: Which, my natural instinct is: fuck your vintage wicker, there’s a riot going on, or some other armchair-radical whatever. But the relevant point is: “lady goes to market,” which is fine! The problem is tarting it up with brands and cutesy-poop curlicues. All of which seems almost designed to be mocked, but which certainly is designed to turn everyone in the piece into a model for some lifestyle brand or other.

MB: I’m not even sure why we’re supposed to like it, really. But T The Times Unbearable Luxury Supplement is like a passel of Craigslist ads compared with How To Spend It, the Financial Times one.

DR: Oh boy. Can’t talk about that. I tried to read it once and got really mad. On the subway. Did I sputter? Maria, I might maybe have sputtered a bit.

MB: The ads are all, like, some huge watch the size of Jupiter dangling over this futuro-goofball polo field atop a skyscraper. It warrants more guffawing than sputtering, I would say. Though I get it, I do.

DR: #DubaiBoners

MB: Point taken, also, about the basket, though I see girls riding around on those bikes all the time, and I think they are cute. They’re like they’re having their own movie montage with the flowers in the basket.

DR: Hey, if girls want to be cute, I’m all for it. To me, the idea of smart people getting seriously exercised about, like, Zooey Deschanel is to me far more decadent and ridiculous than beefing with some yuppies for preferring artisanal pork or whatever.

DR: “Let us have a conversation about how Zooey D. did with the national anthem at the World Series. Did you barf-cry? Did you ejaculate? LET’S FIGURE THIS OUT.”

MB: It’s true, I went and watched it expecting this excruciating event and exploding Katy Perry boobs or something and it was just this kid blah-ly singing?

DR: That’s her, all right. The thing with food that invites this sort of over-response, I think, is that 1) it comes from living things (even not-that-guilty meat-eaters like me know this) and 2) that it’s so loaded.

MB: WHAT do you mean loaded. This is exactly what I want to know.

DR: Like Adam Gopnik bandying about burgundies with a man in a tux at La Grenouille while humans are sleeping on grates is kind of objectively nauseating. And I suspect Adam Gopnik would agree with that. (It’s also not as bad, to my sensibilities, as some hedge-fund beastmaster ruining everyone’s night at Peter Luger.)

MB: Yes and no. If you’re going to be nauseated by that, you’re going to have to be nauseated by the bowl of granola that you have and a starving baby doesn’t.

DR: Right. Well, it’s a complicated life, this first-world life. And once you get into the bourgeois-response hall of mirrors, it’s really tough to say or do much of anything. I’ll say this much for Gopnik, whose writing I generally hate: I do not think there is any pretense there. He is excited to eat a fancy souffle in a fancy French restaurant. Full fucking stop. He likes French food and French things. He’s not doing it so you think he’s worldly. Of course, that is also the thing that makes his stuff so terrible for me.

MB: TOTALLY agree about Gopnik’s authenticity. He is completely guileless, it seems like. Sometimes I like his writing, I have sympathy with him because he is smart and means well. But anyway: you don’t have to travel too far to see that just a regular middle-class life, including granola and a clean place to sleep, is insanely rich, right? I don’t even know what “pretension” means or where the line should or even could be drawn. Though I was shocked to the core when they went and poured sabayon into his Grand Marnier souffle. Over the top, literally and figuratively.

DR: Pretension for him would be if he pretended to give a shit about the world. All those plump aphoristic asides and bons mots and whatnot, the fucking Talk of the Town pieces in which his kids quip about dinosaurs — those are very deeply felt and fully inhabited dorky-dad things.

A world without fancy restaurants isn’t a world I would like very much, even if I can’t afford to take my wife there.

MB: I remember someone writing a profile of Gopnik like at The New Yorker itself, I think it was, calling him “adorable.” Maybe that is a little tricky, for a grownup. It’s one way of coping with existential terror, maybe, is to take refuge in the adorable, in safe, silly things, and creature comforts.

DR: I don’t like his writing, but I can see the adorableness. If he were my dad — and he is kind of almost my dad — I’d love him. The only thing I dislike about his writing, or only things are 1) lack of focus and 2) that it’s eating up pages that anyone else in The New Yorker could be on.

DR: (Incidentally, Gopnik is responsible for the WORST food metaphor of all-time: he compared the smell of NYC immediately after September 11 to smoked mozzarella, which is both incorrect and wrong.)

MB: GAH, that is terrible!! Well, if it were up to me, Remnick and Hertzberg and Anthony Lane would write the whole thing every week.

DR: We are doing a really good job of savaging bourgeois distance, you and I, with our urgent and informed New Yorker beefs. Savaging or embodying, one of those.

MB: Savaging, embodying, it’s true, I find the whole business confusing, totally impossible to figure out. We are so bourgeois I guess, so how can we ever get away from being what we are? How do you get far enough away to judge it all properly… and that’s why all the fury is so perplexing, too; it always comes from the fellow-privileged. So, here is the other side of the luxury argument. I really love a fancy restaurant, now and then. Love the vocabulary of old-fashioned things, love knowing a lot of old things, that is to say, I deliberately try to go in certain Gopnik-like directions myself. Is there even a way to enjoy a little bit of luxury responsibly? These are beautiful things that are like winning the war against entropy. Just for a second.

DR: And I think there is really something, in a weird way, to Gopnik’s sentimental attachment to fancy old-timey French restaurants. I was taken to some of those as a kid by my parents, and I remember the dazzlement fondly. Even if the food was not for my 11-year-old self. A world without fancy restaurants isn’t a world I would like very much, even if I can’t afford to take my wife there.

MB: Yes!! I think it would have been way less unnerving if they hadn’t mentioned his Savile Row suit, maybe.

DR: Right. But of course he has that. He’s rich! Not his fault, necessarily.

MB: It’s like, he writes for The New Yorker, he speaks beautiful French, he loves the history of French menus. Is this cause for howls of à bas les aristos!!!?

DR: Nah, that’s just him being a doofy swell. The ridiculous unself-conscious rich will always be with us, and I feel like more power to him as long as he doesn’t spend his money trying to privatize Social Security or institute a flat tax. The thing with food, though, and with French food in particular, is that it’s such an old-style signifier of indolent wealth. All that butter, all those sad foie gras geese.

MB: Kind of wallowing in the decadence of it is a thing people scold. All that cream and red wine. (guiltily: Yum!)

DR: Right, yum. But the other side of French food is that the greater part of it is peasant food, right? Like, no one eats snails because they are SO DECADENT. Snails are sort of objectively gnarly snot-wads, and I can only assume they wound up on plates because they move so freaking slowly. (I am sort of talking out of my ass here, but I do know that snails are not very fast)

MB: Provencal cooking kind of came in after the war, I think? Elizabeth David helped popularize it most. But before that, French restaurants imitated court food, Parisian food. Escoffier and Carême and all those guys invented that super-fancy, fussy cooking, the cream sauces and the puff pastry and Lobster Thermidor. These immense, formal 18th- and 19th-century meals were the model for a long time.

MB: I’ve got some beautiful illustrated books of classic French cooking, full of wonderful photos of things I wouldn’t even dare to try, these crazy aspic-decorated truffled chickens, a five-foot croquembouche, hallucinations in spun sugar. I love looking at that stuff.

DR: Me too. There’s something kind of charmingly out of touch about all that old-style rich-person food. If you read it with a different intonation, “Let them eat cake” kind of applies here.

MB: By the way, I also love the idea of your being 11 and going to these places.

DR: My parents couldn’t afford the really high-end ones, but it was important to them. Food is really important to them. Butter is really important.

MB: I just wanted to dress up and hang around in there, when I was a kid. It was a big deal to my parents, too, to have those special-occasion kinds of evenings.

DR: My dad was 34 and my mom 32 when I was born, or thereabouts. They had this whole life before, which involved a decent amount of going to France and eating. So they have all these stories of getting food poisoning in Marseilles or staying someplace kooky in Brittany or my dad eating choucroute and farting a lot.

MB: Ha. That makes for a good marriage I bet, to have plenty of before-the-kids time. Well, my parents were from Latin America (Cuba and Venezuela, respectively) and they loved traveling and good restaurants, and going out dancing; they were spectacular dancers. The cocktail era.

DR: Mine couldn’t party that well. But where some parents have stories about seeing bands or whatever, my parents’ are all about eating at Taillevent or such in Paris. That was their decadence, before I came along and things got real neurotic-like.

MB: I am DYING to go there, I am sorry!!

DR: I’ve been! Which is very lucky of me. And you know what? Adam Gopnik is a goofball and a sentimentalist and whatever else — but it was fucking great. Just about the best meal I’ve ever had, and not at all un-fun for all the formalities.

MB: a;ldfjksldfj!!! If you have been to Taillevent you are totally not allowed to complain about Adam Gopnik EVER.

DR: I know, I know.

MB: Foodwise, I mean. But I am glad you went!!

DR: I don’t know if I even need to mention this, given that I write jokes about Papa John for a living, but I didn’t pick up that check. It was their 30th anniversary gift to themselves, and my sister and me. It was crazy. There were Juan Gris and Joan Miró paintings hanging all over the dining room and the food was ridiculous and everyone was very formal but also really gracious and clearly proud of how great the food was. We were all very butter-drunk walking back to the hotel. I should just fucking guillotine myself.

MB: No, it is awesome and I totally demand that you guys take me there, also.

DR: Oh, we can expense account that shit. Choire and Alex would be delighted to pick that up for us, I’m sure.

MB: Oh! Oh, boy. I won’t say no, should that fine day ever come. They’re so kind and lovely at Taillevent, everyone says.

DR: I got a roast chicken with my father and it was — at the risk of being A Gopnik — kind of a big deal for us.

MB: Roast chicken is my favorite dinner in the world!! I order it all over. I also make a pretty good one. Yes! I buy the fancy super-chicken at the farmers’ market, and just try to give me grief. No bicycle, no basket!

DR: Artisan wicker. You are an artisan wicker motherfucker, my friend.

MB: Worse! I drive over there in my beloved old Jaguar.

DR: It is very hard to talk about this subject without coming out sounding like a total turd, though; rich-person calories and poor-person calories have totally different semiotic weight in re: their relative irresponsibilities. They’re coming from the opposite ends of the universe, but if there’s anything that unites me shaking my head at Gopnik and also shaking my head at, like, Taco Bell’s XXL Cheesy Aneurysm Gordita Crunchwich, it’s the unexamined excess, not the excess itself. The T The Unbearable NYT Luxury Supplement shows us people who think too much about food and drink and everything — or it makes them look like that — but at least they’re kind of thinking about it. But you’re way more likely not to do something gross or sad if you think about the food, right?

MB: I don’t know, David. Maybe we can think about these things too much, as well as too little? But I can’t help but believe we should think about everything, if we can. I’d like to know how to behave sensibly and ethically, about food and everything else.

DR: And if you’re cool with going for it, go for it, but think about it. That’s the great lesson of “Consider The Lobster,” and everything else. It is not that simple.

MB: slow clap

DR: /Explosion Sound

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

David Roth co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. And he tweets!