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New Yorkers love to talk about the past. They pine for the days when the rent was cheaper, mom and pop businesses dotted city blocks, art was accessible, and the bohemian vision of an artist’s life was easily actualizable.
Unfortunately, this is not the New York City I know, or have ever known. We more recent transplants can only access this past through stories—movies, tall tales, grainy images; testimonials to the potential of the city we now call home. Adam Gopnik’s new book, At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York, provides one such account.
In his newest memoir, New Yorker writer and novelist Adam Gopnik tells of his early years in Manhattan. His story is both resonant and intensely personal; shoebox apartments, quasi-official odd jobs, quests for like-minded communities. He lends to these experiences a distinct voice, situated snugly in the downtown art world of the early '80s. His is a love story to a city, to a scene, and to a partner—At the Strangers’ Gate follows Gopnik’s relationship with his then soon-to-be wife as they traverse districts and decades in the city they come to love.
And because Gopnik is an avid home cook, restaurant patron, and food writer, we talked to him about what it was like to eat out in New York back then, learning to love and cook and flambé in inappropriately small spaces.
Valerio Farris: At the Strangers’ Gate feels like an ode to a New York City past but also like a eulogy. How thick do you think your rose-colored glasses were in the process of writing?
Adam Gopnik: I do think it's true that the '80s were a remarkable time. They were a time when so much of what has happened to New York City since—what has happened to America since—became imprinted or visible to the world. And certainly it was a also a time when a lot of things were enchanting and wonderful. Like the existence of SoHo as a village of art, for instance.
So yes, you’re right I have an ideal of that period, but I think with good reason, because as I say in the book, we’re now in a position where, for the first time in its history, there’s no avant garde village in Manhattan. It passed from the West Village to East Village to SoHo to Tribeca and beyond but it no longer exists. Manhattan has become a largely homogenous monoculture kind of island and that’s a huge loss to me. In that sense it’s elegized.
VF: I found myself so entranced by the way you not only described restaurants of the past, but also of the moment. While we’re on the topic of change, what has been your thought process watching the way dining culture has changed in the city?
AG: Well, I had a great affection first as an observer then only later as an actual diner at restaurants like Chanterelle or Savoy, which were sort of little dream treasure chests of the couples who ran them. That was very much a pattern of that time, a restaurant was less of an entrepreneurial occasion and more a testament of art. They were sort of the last diffusion of French culinary culture because though Chanterelle, Savoy and places like it were not officially French—they were officially American—the underlying grammar of what they did was still French, and it was French in the theory of a sit down dinner. You know, you went to dinner at Chanterelle and you stayed for two and a half or three hours with a glass of champagne and a bottle of wine and all of those customs of restaurant dining. Not only was it the last diffusion of French influence, it was the last moment of high french dining. All of those “Las” and “Les” were still there and when New York Magazine would list the best restaurants of New York, they were invariably Le Carousel, Le Cote Basque and all of those places which have, without exception, vanished now from the scene. So that's one thing I think that has changed enormously.
VF: You also place so much importance on eating in the home, specifically the way that relationships, whether they be marital or nonmarital, experience discord centered around food. How did you get to the conclusion that something so elemental as eating or cooking could be so impactful?
AG: I think probably the single truest thing I've ever said is that the difference between a bad marriage and a good marriage is that in a bad marriage you have different quarrels every day and in a good marriage you have the same quarrels every day and it’s usually about food. Of course, I write in the book about how my wife Martha and I have had the same quarrel about how to cook meat pretty much since the day we moved in together back in 1980. Still, today, when I’m grilling, my heart beats hard because I worry that I undercooked her tuna.
VF: You use a lot of nice turns of phrase when discussing the way we relate to food, specifically how our preferences and tastes have less to do with the way we actually eat and more to do with the way we want to eat.
AG: One of the things that’s always true, and I wrote about it in The Table Comes First, is that mouth tastes inevitably become moral tastes. We’re animals that need to make meaning. We can’t help ourselves.
In my family, the mouth taste of rare, of a little bit of blood, was instantly associated with steak tartare and France and Paris and never again eating your mother’s or grandmother’s pot roast or meatloaf. But for Martha’s family, the savor of well done was about being free-from-the-farm city dwellers removed from the too-natural world. And so our two very different mouth tastes reflect the moral experiences of our families.
Another thing that occurs to me is that a big transformation between the '80s and today—when we think about food culture—is the rise of the artisanal. We came of age when artisanal ice creams first appeared. Then of course American cheeses and American beers, all those things were coming together. I have an elaborate theory that there's always a funny balance between the artisanal and the artistic. That in moments when the art we most admire becomes anti-artisanal—like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, artists who could barely draw—we tend to have an upswing in the artisanal base, our comforts. When our art is no longer artisanal, our comforts become highly crafted.
VF: I love the scenes of you cooking in that small apartment. In many ways that kitchen was your outlet, your studio, your laboratory. What advice do you have for other home cooks?
AG: When you have a tiny, unventilated space, don't try to flambé a veal chop. It’s a very bad idea to flambé anything. Try to keep the smoke to a minimum. I still manage to set off fire alarms with tons of black smoke billowing upstairs, and we get indignant calls from the neighbors and all that. Honestly, there’s a case to be made for braising as the New York style.
I think the nice thing about cooking as a couple is that you begin to shape your cooking to your partner’s palate. After 37 years of marriage, I know now that Martha basically likes my cooking more than she likes any other cooking, not because I’m a better cook but because I cook the things that she likes. Occasionally we’ll go to a restaurant where the cook has similar predilections and she gets a smile on her face, but it's like coming home in that way.
VF: You settle on this concept of the medium—medium rare, medium well done. It’s kind of beautiful this idea of both conceding and holding your ground. How important do you think it is to take on this medium-ness in relationships, in eating, in cooking?
AG: Medium-well, medium-rare, I believe medium-ness is important in relationships, eating, cooking, lovemaking, marriage, and politics. I’m a true unreformed liberal in that way. I think that the key to a happy social life, the key to a happy married life is to have people saying 'medium' out of the side of their mouths.