In Adam Gopnik’s new book, The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, Gopnik has an interesting and thoughtful (though at times over-written for my “taste”) discussion of taste. Obviously, taste is more than just what we experience in our mouths, it’s also what is considered good, what is “tasteful,” what’s the best, what’s the most popular or current or noteworthy.
Of the numerous people who sent us recommendations for sights and restaurants in Paris, two suggested Chez Dumonet for dinner. So I made a reservation and we went on Wednesday night. When I called the restaurant last week, from the U.S, and asked for an 8:00 p.m. reservation, I was told, “Non, 7:30.” I suspected we were being told to come when the tourists are seated, and I was right. We arrived to an empty restaurant and were seated in the front room. Soon other English-speaking customers arrived, all seated in the front room with us.
The food was very, very good, but not any better than the very, very good food we had at an unknown and empty restaurant on Monday night, which we found by asking someone leaving his shop for a good place to eat and try wine. At Ma Salle de Manger the sommelier/waiter gave us numerous wines to try, talked with us about the food choices, and even drew us pictures of what he meant by the “eyes” of the grape vines.
At Chez Dumonet the sommelier was a happy and helpful man, but the waiter was gruff and clearly not interested in how we experienced the service. We left with bellies full of fine food and light-hearted from all the wine, but immediately began talking about the impermanence and trickiness of taste. With food, like with poetry or fashion or art, what is considered the current, or even next, best thing changes, often quite rapidly. With food it’s especially hard to pin down exactly what is good, because once the meal is done, there is no object left to judge, only the memory of your mouth and your other sensory experiences of the meal.
“There were three restaurants there,” David said as we started walking back to the apartment. “The front was for tourists drawn by the name they’ve established. The next room was for French diners, then the inner room was for those closest to the chef.” That led to a long discussion about taste, how a restaurant or poet or fashion designer or artist gets a “name” and then can get caught only working to serve that name, rather than working to keep truly creating. The discussion took the entire 3 km walk back to the apartment. As we walked we passed storefront after storefront, filled with high fashion, and knock offs of high fashion.
Paris is the perfect city to ponder the delights and mysteries of taste. We spent yesterday at the Musee D’Orsy (more on that in a later post), where what was considered great art changed over the course of French artists introducing bold new ways of painting, art for which there was no “taste” when first shown, but which permanently changed the whole landscape of what happens with paint on canvas. Today we’re walking up to Montmartre, a part of Paris that has always challenged the city’s concept of what is fashionable and acceptable and correct. I’ll let you know how it tastes.