Read The Physiology of Taste Online

Authors: Anthelme Jean Brillat-Savarin

The Physiology of Taste



More than Its Parts

The title is a mouthful –
The Physiology of Taste; or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy –
but each ponderously arcane word is calculatedly deliberate. The subtitle is almost as revealing
(A Theoretical, Historical, and Contemporary Work, Dedicated to the Gastronomes of Paris, by a Professor, a Member of Several Literary and Scholarly Societies)
, but, viewed by most as ironic and self-deprecating, was never used again. Usually the title was ignored, too. An 1859 edition was published as
A Handbook of Dining. By
1884, the handbook had been elevated to one of
. The grander 1889 edition was
Gastronomy as a Fine Art
. For nearly a century, versions appeared about every five years – some with modest spines, more pamphlet than book; some, translated with baffling abandon. The troublesome second clause,
Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy
, rarely survived, except as an implicit instruction that something else should be there in its place: as
Corpulency and Leanness
(1864), for instance, or
Science of Good Living
(1879). In Britain, you can still find the 1970 Penguin Classic,
The Philosopher in the Kitchen
. It doesn’t take a philosopher to know that the pages inside have been less protected than the cover, and we should be grateful that the book’s first publisher, Sautelet, in Paris, treated them with contemptible indifference. In 1825, the Professor submitted a manuscript for consideration, a labor of three decades, drawn from a “secret journal.” It was rejected. Undeterred, he paid for the printing, five hundred copies, asked that his name not be attached, and managed to survive publication by a mere two months, just long enough to see the success of his work. On 21 January 1826, tempting fate and the scorn of history, he attended the thirty-third anniversary of the execution of the Louis XVI, contracted pneumonia in the damp cathedral of Saint-Denis, and died two weeks later.

The book is – what? Does anyone know? Intermittently it is an autobiography, but told principally in dinner anecdotes (except one, which is about a breakfast, but so protracted that
it, too, becomes dinner). It is not a cookbook, although the next time you are bestowed with a turbot the size and awkwardness of a small bicycle you will know how to cook it (too big to fit in the oven, the sea creature is effectively steamed in the tub). The difficulty is compounded by the book’s opening, which invites us to think of it as something it never becomes. In the first two pages, we learn that a meal without cheese is as incomplete as a woman without an eye, a startling comparison to contemplate. We also learn that a dinner is never boring – at least for the first hour; that a new dish matters more to human happiness than the discovery of a star; that if, at the end of a meal, you are sated and slurring, you do not know how to eat and drink; and, most famously, that you are what you eat, a succinct expression of food and identity repeated so relentlessly that it is now a modern advertising banality. These “Aphorisms of the Professor” (“to serve as a preamble to his work and as a lasting foundation for the science of gastronomy”) represent a lifetime of one-liners, the stuff that, revised, scribbled into a notebook, rehearsed and repeated over a fortified beverage, kept the bachelor scholar from ever having to dine alone. But after the first couple of pages the aphorisms disappear. Instead, there is history. Should we trust it? The Professor is not an historian. Or is he? There is science, more science than history, actually a lot of science. Do we dismiss it because we know better? Do we? Who is this guy anyway?

Neither a chemist nor an historian. Not a professor either, it turns out. Having once been mistaken for one, he found he liked the sound of the title and perpetuated its use: a telling, if confusing, vanity. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was a lawyer and a magistrate. He wrote his culinary
while an appellate judge, often during the hours when he was behind the bench, presiding at court. (He was known to go everywhere with his manuscript, losing it once.) His father, born Marc Anthelme Brillat, had also been a lawyer, a court prosecutor; Savarin was an aunt’s name, incorporated via a hyphen into his own as a condition of her inheritance. We know little of the author’s childhood – no mention of a mother, no grandmother dishes – or where his interest in food came from. He was born, in 1755, in Belley, the provincial capital of Bugey, in the eastern
part of the country, on a Roman road between Lyon and Geneva, still known for its Alpine cheeses, then also famous for its wines (since decimated by the phylloxera blight). Brillat, as Honoré de Balzac correctly refers to him in the only profile written when people actually knew the man, had been a previously published author, but his writings are a motley list – an archeology of the mountains of his childhood, two papers on judicial theory, an essay on political economy and another on duelling (some pornographic stories remained unpublished) – and betray nothing of the long hours he was otherwise devoting to the contemplation of his dinner. He was a student of feminine beauty – his appreciation is evident throughout the
Physiology –
but never married.

On the good side of the Revolution, Brillat was elected to the Estates General in 1789 and continued to serve in the National Assembly in Versailles and Paris, where, to the enduring consternation of his posthumous fans, he argued against abolishing the death penalty and against admitting juries into the courts. In 1791 he returned to Belley, and a year later was elected mayor, but in 1793, finding himself on the wrong side of the Revolution and pre-empting a summons before its court, he fled via Alpine trails into Switzerland, later traveling through Germany to Holland whence he set sail for New York city in July 1794. Here he made a living as a French-language teacher and a member of a theater orchestra on John Street (the first violinist). He met Thomas Jefferson. He hunted wild turkeys. In 1796 he returned to France. Fortunately for him, his family had cunningly managed to hang on to much of his confiscated estate (though Brillat was never able to secure the return of one of his vineyards from the peasant to whom it had been sold). Briefly restored to his position on the bench, he lost it again following the republican coup of 18 Fructidor but rode out the storm, finding a job as a bureaucrat in the army. Within a year he had been appointed to the prestigious position of State Prosecutor at Versailles.

It was, famously, a time of political upheaval and reinvention. It was, perhaps less famously, a time of culinary upheaval and reinvention. Brillat’s life spans both. He was witness to what France no longer is and what it was about to
become – especially in the way it thought about food. In his life, its preparation passed from the private kitchen (where dining was an overhead expense incurred by the household or estate that could afford it) to the public (dining as a retail purchase). Antoine Beauvilliers, widely seen as the inventor of the restaurant, was born in 1754, the year before Brillat’s birth. In 1833, six years after Brillat’s death, Antonin Carême, the new globally famous chef, began publishing the five-volume
L’Art de la cuisine française
that articulated the modern national kitchen. In between these two figures – and the origins of the menu, the
plat du jour
, the caterer, the codifying of the
, the checkered table-cloth, the restaurant critic, the specialist purveyor, the diner, and the curious appropriation of oily black Russian fish eggs as an expensive French condiment – there was Brillat, tasting, making notes, reading, attending chemistry lectures, reflecting, trying to make sense of it all, connecting ideas that didn’t seem to have a connection, a library of meditations, fashioning a gastronomy, getting closer to an elusive understanding, an evanescent achievement that can be summed up in the two most important words of the title: “physiology” and “transcendental.”

“The Physiology of Taste” – the beauty is in its near-ugliness. “Physiology” was, and remains, a nonsense word, effective for its scientific associations and a vague but irresistible mental static engendered by its almost-inappropriateness. It is a metaphysical conceit. Physiology is the study of an organism’s moving parts. Can “taste” (goût) – and all the obvious senses concentrated into the word – be the subject of physiology? Well, yes; that is, maybe; in fact, no. It is the science of a non-science, an eternally appealing combination, with a venerable intellectual history: the philosophic consolations of the sixth century, the melancholic anatomies of the seventeenth, discourses of the heart, the botanies of desire. (Balzac, too, was infected, and published his own
Physiology of Marriage
in 1826, a year after Brillat’s book.) And yet there
, manifestly, a science at work in cooking – chemistry rather than physiology; botany, maybe; physics, occasionally; and a kitchen
a laboratory where elements are tested, combined, subjected to extreme temperatures, and studied.

“Maítre la Planche,” Brillat says, summoning his cook after he had prepared a pale flabby sole with no more color than a soiled undergarment, “This misfortune happened because you have neglected the theory of frying, whose importance you do not recognize. You are somewhat opinionated, and I have had a little trouble in making you understand that the phenomena which occur in your laboratory are nothing more than the execution of the eternal laws of nature, and that certain things which you do inattentively, and only because you have seen others do them, are nonetheless based on the highest and most abstruse scientific principles.” The meditation, for all its self-parody, gets to the the heart of how people think about food today: we cook imitating others, without pausing to see the principles of science at work (or, sometimes, not at work) in what we are doing. Hervé This cites the passage in his introduction to
Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor
. Harold McGee uses it on the opening page of his seminal
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
. No one had made such a statement before; no one has bettered it. In the actual science that informs Brillat’s book, there is, no surprise, much that he gets wrong. Does anyone use the term “osmazome,” for instance, or believe that it gives a broth its flavor (or a gravy or drippings from a roasting joint)? Even so, we know enough to recognize the elegance of Brillat’s effort, especially today, in our era of heightened gastronomical self-examination: after all, why do we make a broth in the way we do, slower than a simmer, a vaporous steam coming off the surface, never a boil, without the use of meat, but with a mysteriously pellucid meaty flavor? (In effect, Brillat asks the question; McGee answers it, more than a century and a half later.) Good science begins in doubt: it asks why. It proceeds as a scrutiny done in tranquillity. Brillat, with no modern training, understands how to be a scientist in the kitchen. He gets it.

He also gets how many other qualities – many, many other qualities – are at work as well. Could they possibly be “transcendental,” the second important term in his title? These qualities include history: Brillat’s account of sugar is so unusual because it is written from a vantage place we’ve long abandoned – of seeing it as a new ingredient that hasn’t persuasively
justified its place in the pantry. They include diet: was the Professor plagiarized by our modern low-carb practitioners? They include erotics (how many grapplings have been effected by an aromatic tuber found only by a trained pig?), the then new newness of new-world ingredients, the intimate company of the table, the anonymous company of the restaurant, the philosophies of excess (more than three hundred and eighty-four oysters
?), the philosophy of authenticity (a game bird eaten uncooked and whole, feathers, innards, beak intact): everything. Even rare personal revelations – the travails of Brillat’s exile, for instance – are told in the context of food: the meal that strangers share with him when he is hungry and destitute (in the mountains, at an inn, huddled around a fire, unable to determine if he is with friend or foe); the more formal dinner endured to secure a crossing into Switzerland (unable to determine if he is with friend or foe). Everywhere the same message: food is more than itself. It is not everything, but it is touched by almost everything: memory, weather, dirt, hunger, chemistry, the universe.

This transcendence, the idea and practice of it, infects M. F. K. Fisher’s translation just as Brillat’s title once entered Balzac’s brain: not the text of the translation, which, both unabridged and unadorned, rates among Fisher’s best writings; but the complex apparatus of footnotes surrounding it. What? Why? How now? These are rarely footnotes in the conventional sense of illuminating an obscurity. They are not disquisitions. They are like phone calls or postcards, dispatches to her subject, a bachelor with whom (a little embarrassingly) our translator has fallen in love. They are sometimes savvy, often baffling, occasionally irrelevant, always revealing, and inspired, clearly, by Brillat himself. (The effect allows you to read Brillat in four histories at once – his, Fisher’s pre-war France, her post-war America, and ours – and an effect that Brillat himself would certainly have endorsed.) They are not on the level of the writing they gloss; they are, instead, inspired by it, willy-nilly: symptoms of being its reader and of being suitably, transcendentally, transported. Brillat makes us feel smarter, Balzac observed. The bigger picture is in reach. Brillat (“Botany, zoology, chemistry, agriculture, anatomy, medicine,
hygiene, political economy – Brillat tastes of them all”) makes his readers think they are learned. But, Balzac also suggests, not without a certain reservation: a hesitation.

Balzac found the hesitation in the author’s anonymity: such musings, he believes Brillat must have thought, are not quite sufficiently dignified and would be inappropriate coming from a judge. Roland Barthes, in his introduction to a 1970 French edition, had an apposite observation – that Brillat seems always to be at a remove from his material: the tongue-in-cheek “Professor,” the irony, the self-parody of pomp. He doesn’t want us to take him too seriously. But I wonder: is it possible that Brillat’s thesis aspires to a more complex condition than either Balzac or Barthes quite appreciates? I sometimes think of this condition as the charisma of food, its capacity to be everything. It is identity, and culture, and history. It is science, and nature, and botany. It is the earth. It is our family, our philosophy, our past. It is the most important matter in our lives. It is more than its ingredients. It is transcendent. Brillat understood this. But it is also just dinner. It means nothing. And Brillat understood that, too. It is serious, and not.

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