The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food

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Never before have we cared so much about food. It preoccupies our popular culture, our fantasies, and even our moralizing—“You still eat meat?”  With our top chefs as deities and finest restaurants as places of pilgrimage, we have made food the stuff of secular seeking and transcendence, finding heaven in a mouthful.  But have we come any closer to discovering the true meaning of food in our lives?
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The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food

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Overview

Never before have we cared so much about food. It preoccupies our popular culture, our fantasies, and even our moralizing—“You still eat meat?”  With our top chefs as deities and finest restaurants as places of pilgrimage, we have made food the stuff of secular seeking and transcendence, finding heaven in a mouthful.  But have we come any closer to discovering the true meaning of food in our lives?
            With inimitable charm and learning, Adam Gopnik takes us on a beguiling journey in search of that meaning as he charts America’s recent and rapid evolution from commendably aware eaters to manic compulsive gastronomes.  It is a journey that begins in 18th century France—the birthplace of our modern tastes (and, by no coincidence, of the restaurant)—and carries us to the kitchens of the White House,  the molecular Meccas of Barcelona, and beyond.  To understand why so many of us apparently live to eat, Gopnik delves into the most burning questions of our time, including: Should a New Yorker bother to find chicken killed in the Bronx?  Is a great vintage really any better than a good bottle of wine? And: Why does dessert matter so much?
            Throughout, he reminds us of a time-honored truth often lost amid our newfound gastronomic pieties and certitudes: what goes on the table has never mattered as much to our lives as what goes on around the table—the scene of families, friends, lovers coming together, or breaking apart; conversation across the simplest or grandest board. This, ultimately, is who we are.
            Following in the footsteps of Brillat-Savarin, Adam Gopnik gently satirizes the entire human comedy of the comestible as he surveys the wide world of taste that we have lately made our home. The Table Comes First  is the delightful beginning of a new conversation about the way we eat now.

Winner of the 2012 IACP Award in the Literary Food Writing Category

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
By turns ponderous and amiable, recherché and playful, Gopnik’s (The Steps Across the Water) look at the changing rituals of eating and cookery is thorough and rarely dull. Drawing heavily from his stints living in France, and having become the professed “cooking husband” in his family, Gopnik has grown intensely interested in “questions of food” and how the way we eat reflects the changing state of our civilization. He explores the rise of restaurants in Paris before the Revolution as rest stops offering restorative bouillon and places where women could even appear alone. Along with the growth of restaurants in the Palais Royal emerged food writers like Brillat-Savarin (Physiology of Taste), and cookbook manuals such as Gopnik’s favorite, the recondite Diary of a Greedy Woman by the late–19th-century English writer Elizabeth Pennell—all the while sharing his own cooking “secrets.” Distinctions between “mouth taste” and “moral taste” have grown increasingly urgent, since the slow food movement embraces localism, sustainability, and “peasant food,” and Gopnik sermonizes rather tautologically on how fashions can change when people change their values. He takes up the debate between meat eating versus vegetarianism, concocts a meal in New York City using only local products (even a Bronx-bred chicken), faces down the wine connoisseurs, and visits plenty of chefs on both sides of the Atlantic for ideal dishes. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
 
“Adam Gopnik brilliantly weaves together the history, philosophy, and culture of food with his deep passion for cooking and the shared pleasures of the table. Anyone who roasts a chicken at home or eats chocolate mousse in a restaurant will be forever changed by this book. I loved it!”
—Ina Garten
 
“I need to read anything that Adam Gopnik writes, and this book on food, eating and—it follows—life is a particular feast. His acuity, grace, sensitive intelligence (in short, his brilliance) are, as ever, dazzlingly displayed and yet with the lightest of touches.”
—Nigella Lawson
 
“Gopnik would surely be the world’s greatest dinner guest; he can make any subject fascinating, and always backs up his curiosity with unhurried research and an acute eye for the telling detail. As the number of TV cooking shows piles up faster than the empty Pop-Tart wrappers in my kitchen, it’s time to ask: Why is the world so fixated on food? Gopnik explores the origins of restaurants, recipes and other grub-centered rituals.”
—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune
 
“The perfect book for any intellectual foodie, a delicious book packed with so much to sink your teeth into”
—Padma Lakshmi, author, actress, model and host of the Emmy-winning Top Chef

“Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First: France, Family, and the Meaning of Food indulges gourmands everywhere . . . In Gopnik’s distinctive style, it is encyclopedic yet personal and funny, and it drives at deeper truths . . . His story is more ambitious than a history of restaurants—it’s about how we taste, dream, and argue about food. He explores the extremes of strict localism (exhibit A: Brooklyn tilapia). He gets into the heads of apparent adversaries—the meatless crowd and the whole-beast fiends, the Slow Food and molecular movements, the New and Old World wine advocates—and gives each its place in the grand foodie pantheon . . . Gopnik’s take on what makes eating glorious is at once sweeping and intimate.”
—Tracy McNicoll, Newsweek 

 
“Adam Gopnik’s writing about food is highly intellectual and profoundly witty, while also being warm and personal and rooted in common sense. He thinks hard about the routines of the table, and makes you think too.”
—John Lanchester, author, The Debt to Pleasure
 
And praise from the UK:
 
“As a dauntless Francophile, a doting father, and a dedicated foodie, Gopnik joins a distinguished corps of essayists who have dedicated themselves to the important subject of gastronomy . . . He possesses the happy knack of combining intellectual curiosity with a quotidian interest in humanity and writes with intelligence, wit, and grace about culinary quiddities and contradictions. From the first restaurants to appear in 18th-century France to fast-food joints, Gopnik unfurls his napkin and tucks in.”
—Iain Finlayson, The Times (London)
 
“Adam Gopnik is an admirably versatile writer . . . The writing is light and bright throughout, the learning deep but informal.”
—Ed Cumming, The Daily Telegraph
 
 ”The Table Comes First is a pleasantly odd, heterogeneous book that never allows itself to be confined by the boundaries of its gastronomical theme. It presents a lavish buffet of history, autobiography, reportage and philosophy, among various other forms . . . One of the main pleasures of The Table Comes First is the way in which Gopnik continually manages to write about food while also gesturing towards larger themes and concerns: family, economics, philosophy, literature, ideas of justice and what it might mean to live a good life . . . Wonderfully eloquent and insightful . . .”
—Mark O’Connell, Sunday Business Post (Ireland)
 
 ”A compelling read about how cooking practices change with every generation, The Table Comes First should be on the shelves of all food enthusiasts. Gopnik explores culinary history, from 19th-century Parisian fine dining to our modern concern with sustainable food.”
Stella magazine
 
“He has a voice that is by turns conversational and dandyish, fancy about everyday pleasures (sport, food) and defiantly unawed about those subjects that are supposed to matter more (art, philosophy) . . . These are personal essays in the fullest sense of the word, sieving the big subjects of the book’s subtitle—family, France, food—through one man’s well-furnished mind.”
—Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian
 
“Adam Gopnik is the nearest thing there is—in the English-speaking world, at any rate—to a philosopher of food . . . [T]hese essays blend enormous erudition with great elegance of expression, and pack intellectual firepower too . . . Gopnik wants us to take food seriously, to believe that the table comes first. At the same time, he wants us to remember that food matters only in so far as we connect it with the broader project of living well, of staying at home with ‘our pleasures as much as our principles’ . . . These essays are a reminder that gastronomy, in order to be profound, must also know its place.”
—William Skidelsky, New Statesman 
 

Library Journal
As a writer for The New Yorker for 25 years, Gopnik has been commenting on popular and eccentric American fads and sociocultural issues such as the NFL play-offs, the Internet, and our fascination with food and food preparation. Here, he satirizes the pleasures of the dining table—the routines of being beckoned by the family recipe or the restaurant menu, selecting what dishes to eat, socializing with fellow diners, and, finally, leaving with memories of the gathering. Within this framework, Gopnik comments on how we think about our daily practices of cooking and eating as an expression of the way we live and our changing values. He banters extensively on our obsessive interest in food, specifically in preserving traditional and regional cuisine, including the growth of local foodstuffs, and in applying technology to food preparation and presentation (e.g., molecular gastronomy). VERDICT Despite Gopnik's allusive, witty prose, his supercilious and moralistic discussion will leave readers with a bad taste in the mouth. Down-to-earth foodies might prefer Jason Epstein's Eating. [Eight-city tour.]—Jerry P. Miller, Cambridge, MA
Kirkus Reviews

A philosophical look at French food and how it has affected our eating habits and our lives.

New Yorker writer Gopnik's latest book (Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, 2009, etc.) is not for the fast-food junkie in search of a quick fix; the essays are delicious in small bites though slightly overwhelming in large quantities. Throughout, the author displays a masterful grasp of French cuisine and history. Starting with the origins of the restaurant in France as a byproduct of the French Revolution and meals served in inns as another form of seduction in the quest for sex, Gopnik moves on to reflect on the recipe, the meaning of taste and the ongoing argument for and against eating meat. Whether he is discussing haute cuisine, nouvelle cuisine or the newest techno-emotional cuisine, the author ponders the real meaning of food, beyond the need to satisfy a hunger—is it to provide comfort, is it a symbol of love or something more sacred? Local foods, French wines and a discussion of peasant foods versus traditional French cooking all blend together into a rich feast of sensory details. These essays will leave no doubt in readers' minds that Gopnik is a true food aficionado with a desire to share his musings. To lighten the heaviness of his chapters, the author intersperses delightful, almost comic letters written to Elizabeth Pennell, a food critic and writer in the 19th century. Here he adopts a more informal tone and provides insights into his family life and the recipes he prepares for his children.

Rich in context and philosophical thoughts, Gopnik's book will satiate the most ardent of food-history buffs.

The Barnes & Noble Review

We sapiens are the only animals that look each other in the eye while eating without getting violent. At least most of the time. The other beasts fight over their food; we talk over ours, and share. We have ancient rules of the table, early glimpses of civilization, covenants that have softened into traditions reflecting the basic humanity we find in eating, its rituals, and its memories. If there is a leitmotif that follows the sinuosities of Adam Gopnik's The Table Comes First — his investigation into the pleasures of the table, peeling back its veneer to examine the mechanisms that make it tick — it is "the simple path between eating well and feeling happy," whether the table is at Noma or the humble home of a friend.

Gopnik writes with an easy cultural fluency; his sentences are roomy and comfortable, but agile. He alternates between chapters with definite shape and momentum, with specific centers of gravity, and chapters that chew on ideas, a ruminant grazing in a field of culinary philosophy.

The birth of what we would identify as a restaurant, in Paris in the mid-eighteenth century, falls into the first group. It is a terrific story, told here with grace and insight, that buries the old tale of chefs being shown the château door during the French Revolution and, so, opening their own. The restaurant rose earlier, when Paris was awash in a cult of health and simplicity, when the Palais Royal assumed the mantle of the modern street store, and when notions of caste were already in disarray, long before the revolution. A public place, welcoming as home — women, too, anyone with a sou — but capable of "a primal magic, a mood of mischief, stolen pleasures, a retreat from the world, a boat on the ocean."

Equally important for Gopnik is the start of the food scene in Paris, coaxed into being by practitioners, eaters, and that newfangled creature, the food writer: "Words make worlds; authors make meals. (So sayeth the writers, anyway.)? [A] mass of critics, diners, chefs, and above all writers who were talking and writing about food in new ways." Now Gopnik has an opportunity to delve into the worlds of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's "warm ironic smile," Alexander Grimod de La Reynière's "brilliant epigrammatic grimace," and Elizabeth Pennell, "the first to see the cookbook as a literary form." This last was a radical sensualist, "a woman with an appetite on her and a hunger in her," and Gopnik's imaginary confidante, to whom he spills his head and heart about food (she, sad to say, though dead for many years, breaks that heart).

Gopnik moves on, making hay with food like a harvester mowing this way and that, with smart, argumentative chapters on meat eating; the puritanical anti-cosmopolitanism of locavorist ideology, but also the gratification of eating foods grown (almost) only in New York City, featuring a farm in Brooklyn composted with elephant manure from the Bronx Zoo (yes, it imparts a certain something); a Robert Parker takedown: "Our experiences of everything are too mediated — by context and intentions and likeness — to be summed up in a number"; and countless noodling digressions, including the sloppy elegance that links rice pudding to Keith Richards's guitar tuning.

The philosophical chapters are fruitful, but it can be wearying picking the fruit, and sometimes it is difficult to know exactly what you have in your hand. Take the chapter on taste, which considers the taste in your mouth, how it feels when you eat, and moral taste, "the place of the food we eat within an epoch's style or our own self-image," the depth of commitment we bring to these tastes, and how they sway and evolve. "The smell in our nose changes the taste in our mouth, and the length of the line outside the restaurant changes our view of the taste of the food we're waiting for." It is a canny enquiry, the philosophy, psychology, and physiology as intricate as an Irish knot. Yet Gopnik can also take flights that lose you. "The submission to sequence is the source of the sublime." "Taste begins at the door, and ends in our dreams." Somewhere the butter's burning.

Big deal. These are small potatoes that pale before his grandest point: that eating, that the table, is for slowing down life to promote good cheer. To eat well is to feel happy. It is easy to imagine Gopnik in the kitchen, aproned and focused, putting together something for his family. He dishes it out with a look of expectation, then obvious delight as they tuck in. Beaming, he joins them.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307593450
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/25/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Adam Gopnik
Author of the beloved bestseller Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. He is a three-time winner of the National Magazine Award for Essays and for Reviews and Criticism and of the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. He lives in New York City with his wife and their two children.
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Read an Excerpt

A Small Starter: Questions of Food

We have happy days, remember good dinners.
—CHARLES DARWIN

We eat to live? Yes, surely. But why then did the immortal gods also come to the table, and twice a day?
—LÉON ABRIC

IN THE early morning— six- forty, precisely— of May 24, 1942, a young professor of German, a resistant who had taken the underground name of Jacques Decour (his real name was Daniel Decourdemanche) and who taught before the war at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, wrote a letter to his parents:

You know that for the past two months I have been expecting what is to happen to me this morning; so I have had the time to prepare myself for it; but since I have no religion, I have not given myself up to any meditation on death. Here are a few requests. I was able to send a word to the woman I love. If you see her— soon I hope— give her your affection. This is my dearest wish. I also wish that you could keep an eye on her parents who need help badly. Give them the things that are in my apartment and which belong to their daughter: The volume of the pleiade, the fables de la fontaine, tristan, les quatre saisons, two water colors,
the menu of the inn les 4 paves du roy.

All these last days I have thought a lot about the good meals that we should have together when I was free. You will eat them without me, all the family together— but not sadly, please! I don’t want your thoughts to dwell on the good times that we might have had but on those that we really have shared. During these two months of solitude without even anything to read I have run over in my mind all my travels, all my experiences, all the meals that I have eaten. I even composed the outline of the novel. I had an excellent meal with Sylvain on the 17th. I have often thought of it with pleasure, as well as of the New Year’s supper with
Pierre and Renée. Questions of food, you see, have taken on a great importance.

Three hours later, what was going to happen to Decour happened to him. He was shot by the Nazis in the courtyard of the prison. Yet there he was, in the last hours of his life, thinking about sending a menu from a little inn near Versailles to his girlfriend’s parents. (They must have eaten there, once.) His last thoughts turned to his best- loved meals. Of course, he’s nobly trying to ease the horror for his parents, but he’s also trying to find something to hang on to. Questions of food, you see, have taken on a great importance.

Questions of food seem to have taken on a great importance for us now, too. An obsessive interest in food is not a rich man’s indulgence, confined to catering schools and the marginal world of recipe books. Questions of food have become the proper preoccupation of whole classes and cable networks. More people talk about food now— why they eat what they eat and what you ought to eat, too— than have ever done before. Our food has become our medicine, our source of macho adventure, and sometimes, it almost seems, our messianic material. Good food, or watching it get made, anyway, has become, in the age of Rachael Ray and Food Network, a popular sport, and even the many who still prefer fast food to fancy or fresh get to prefer it loudly.

But if our own obsession (and the obesity it fathers) keeps increasing, its spirit seems at odds with that of Jacques Decour’s last thoughts. Not just the gravity, but the pathos of the feeling he evokes, and its humanity, seem very far from the questions we ask about food. We do feel a kinship to him beyond our pity at his end and our wonder at his courage. A kinship because his sense of food—of the rituals of the table, the memories of eating, even as the noise of our cross-talk and cable clatter increases— still shares in our own sense of what makes us human and what forms the core of our memories. For us, as for Jacques Decour, what makes a day into a happy day is often the presence of a good dinner. Though we don’t always acknowledge it enough, we still live the truth Darwin saw: food is the sensual pleasure that passes most readily into a social value.

Yet our questions of food are very different from Decour’s. We tend to argue about matters of taste, about the health of the planet, about the rights and wrongs of vegetarianism— all questions, finally, about what to eat. And we ask these questions expecting material answers: the right way to cook or eat. Decour’s questions are posed in a different key, one we can only call humanist: a view that life is a whole— that we can live fully, and that we ought to, with our pleasures as much as with our principles. He is talking about what goes on around the table as much as what’s on it. We can’t help feeling amazed at the sense of his letter but also a kind of unease, even a certain guilt, in his presence. Our questions of food, even the most high- minded, seem so small compared with his.

Why do we care so much about our food? There’s a sociological explanation (it’s a signal of status), a psychological explanation
(it takes the place of sex), and a puritanical explanation (it’s the simplest sign of virtue). But all these, while worth pursuing, seem to be at one side of Decour’s questions. Thinking about questions of food an hour before his execution, Decour wasn’t thinking virtuous thoughts about his health, or even the planet’s health. Thinking about meals he was thinking about something else, about that inn near Versailles, about Sylvain and Pierre and Renée and about the parents who had raised and were now to lose him. Food represented for him the continuity of living, and what gave form to life.

Having made food a more fashionable object, we have ended by making eating a smaller subject. When “gastronomy” was on the margins of attention it seemed big because it was an unexpected way to get at everything— the nature of hunger; the meaning of appetite; the patterns and traces of desire; tradition, in the way that recipes are passed mother to son; and history, in the way that spices mix and, in mixing, mix peoples. You could envision through the modest lens of pleasure, as through a keyhole, a whole world; and the compression and odd shape of the keyhole made the picture more dramatic. Now the door is wide open, but somehow we see less, or notice less, anyway. Betrayed by its enlargement, food becomes less intimate the more intensely it is made to matter.

I love to eat. I love to eat simple food and I love to eat fancy food. I love to eat out and I love to eat at home. I love the Grand Véfour in Paris, where the banquettes are made of velvet and the food is filled with truffl es, and I love the coffee shop down the street, where the eggs all come with greasy potatoes. I’ve loved to eat since I was little, when my mother, a terrifi c cook, would make all the dishes, large and small, near and far. I learned early on the simple path between eating well and feeling happy. And, as all eaters do, I also early on learned the short, sudden path between desire and disappointment: my fi rst strong taste memory is of taking a deep bitter swig of vanilla extract in a dark closet into which I had sneaked the bottle, sure that something that smelled that good had to taste good, too. (It doesn’t.) If all my pleasures are gathered around the table, all my disillusions taste bitter, like that vanilla.

Getting older, with children of my own, I was trained enough to cook for them— my wife’s feminist mother had purposefully neglected her daughter’s kitchen tuition. And, over the years, I wrote a lot about cooking and eating, as a writer is bound to dwell on the things he loves. But though I had written happily about what food tasted like and what it looked like and also about the odd personalities of the people who made the best food, I was left, decades on, wondering: what did it really mean? Why did we care? What was, so to speak, the subject of food? The attempts to make food “art” I found embarrassing, and the attempts to make it adventure I found absurd. I recognized sexual politics in that effort, the result of traditionally women’s work now being done by men, including me. Men being men, they had to assert themselves by trying not to seem too obviously feminine, pretending that cooking was really just as macho as NASCAR, and so producing the taste for rattlesnake testicle ragout. And with the coming of Mr. Perfect, something more insidious happened: the sheer brunt and dailiness of women’s real lives— the everyday dance women still must do for family life to go on—was subtly undermined by the cooking husband, or host. (Putting on an apron and making a sauce is the easiest of household chores, and a neat way to escape doing the others.)

In place of Decour’s Big Questions, we had many small ones. Should we eat locally? Stop eating meat altogether, and if so, should we do it out of humanity or for our health? All questions worth answering—and yet, weren’t they still to one side of what we really felt when we came home to share dinner and felt happy when we did? Certainly within the new rites there were intimations of a new order, and of a new table, of a larger meaning to our questions of food. I could see, for instance, that in the past twenty-five years, two big things had happened in the world of fancy food. One was the growth of the pure- food movement, best captured in the name “slow food,” and which encompasses localism, seasonal cooking, farmers’ markets, organic produce—a whole host of interlocked activities and styles that spoke to the old, the past, the lost, the sustainable, the recoverable, heritage breeds, and forgotten peasant wisdoms. The other was the growth of “techno-emotional” cooking, as its founder, or anyway its first pope, Ferran Adrià, likes to call it, more often referred to as “molecular gastronomy.” Adrià and his apostles use gels and foams and aerations and freeze-dried powders, outré rearrangements and deconstructed plates: the gleeful appliqué of new technology to cooking. This doubleness suggested a kind of ongoing confrontation between two forces in life, the eternal-natural and the techno-inventive—a confrontation, so to speak, between Hestia, Queen of the Hearth and Home, and Willy Wonka, King of the magic mountain. (Hestia had nymphs and rustics on her side; Willy, an army of Oompa- Loompas.)

I wanted to imagine an apocalyptic final battle for the fate of food. But actually, though often opposed to each other in principle, the people who supported one didn’t fight much with the people who practiced the other. What were they really after? What was really going on with these questions? What did it all mean? We shouldn’t intellectualize food, because that makes it too remote from our sensory pleasures; but we ought to talk as intelligently as we can about it, because otherwise it makes our sensory pleasures too remote from our minds. The knowledge that our senses are part of our intelligence is what makes us human. We alone know our fun. The sweetness in our morning coffee is at once a feeling, an idea, and a memory. Eating is an intelligent act, or it’s merely an animal one. And what makes it intelligent is the company of other mouths and minds. All animals eat. An animal that eats and thinks must think big about what it is eating not to be taken for an animal.

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Table of Contents

A Small Starter: Questions of Food 3

Part I Coming to the Table 11

1 Who Made the Restaurant? 13

2 What's the Recipe? 58

3 E-mail to Elizabeth Pennell: Anchovies, Bacon, Lamb 81

Part II Choosing at the Table 91

4 How Does Taste Happen? 93

5 E-Mail to Elizabeth Pennell: Lamb, Saffron, Cinnamon 123

6 Meat or Vegetables? 132

7 E-Mail to Elizabeth Pennell: Chicken, Pudding, Dogs 155

8 Near or Far? 167

9 E-Mail to Elizabeth Pennell: Salt, Pork, Mustard 185

Part III Talking at the Table 189

10 In Vino Veritas? 191

11 E-Mail to Elizabeth Pennell: Potatoes, Steak, Air 207

12 What Do We Write About When We Write About Food? 213

13 What Do We Imagine When We Imagine Food? 222

14 E-Mail to Elizabeth Pennell: Rice, Milk, Sugar 234

Part IV Leaving the Table 241

15 Paris at Last 243

16 E-Mail to Elizabeth Pennell: Salmon, Broccoli, Repentance 267

17 Endings 214

18 Last E-Mailto Elizabeth Pennell 301

Reading on the Way Home 313

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