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Music – “A Little Taste of This, A Little Taste of That” from Bon Appétit! Musical Food Fun by Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer. Released: 2003.
So sayeth Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in “The Physiology of Taste”, or, “Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy”, which he wrote in 1825, and which was translated from the French by M.F.K. Fisher in 1949. I was fortunate enough to locate a copy of a 1994 edition, in very good condition.
Brillat-Savarin is probably best known for his axiom “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”. He was born in 1755 and passed away in 1826, shortly after writing “The Physiology of Taste”. Brillat-Savarin was not a cook or a writer, by trade, but a provincial lawyer, who frequented Paris. He apparently turned to writing for respite from his life as a lawyer and spent 30 years gathering material on a diversity of topics related to food.
His book is divided into “Meditations”, which includes a detailed analysis of the senses, taste, gastronomy, appetite, foods in general, thirst, digestion and also explores the relationship between eating, rest, dreams, sleep and much more. It is a very thoughtful analysis of the relationship between people and the food they eat. Many of his “meditations” are enlightening:
“Whosoever pronounces the word truffle gives voice to one which awakens erotic and gastronomical dreams equally in the sex that wears skirts and the one that sprouts a beard”
Brillat-Savarin says that “…thinness is a horrible calamity for women: beauty to them is more than life itself, and it consists above all of the roundness of their forms and the graceful curvings of their outlines”. No pressure here for you Twiggy look-alikes out there…just eat more! And, thus, in his meditation about “A Fattening Diet”, he says that every thin woman wants to grow plump. He points out that “…it is in order to pay final homage to the all-powerful sex that we are going to try here to tell how to replace with living flesh those pads of silk or cotton which are displayed so profusely in novelty shops…” So, ladies, forget about buying shoulder pads and butt enhancers from late night infomercials. Just eat more!
In his meditation on “Thinness”, he exclaims that “…for women who are born thin and whose digestion is good, we cannot see why they should be any more difficult to fatten than young hens; and if it takes a little more time than with poultry, it is because human female stomachs are comparatively smaller…” Apparently, “It is not a great disadvantage to men to be lean; they are no less vigourous for it, and are much more active”. Oh, to be a man in the age of Brillat-Savarin and not have to be fattened up like a chicken!
Brillat-Savarin talks about The Philosophical History of Cooking, and points out that “Cooking is also of all the arts the one which has done most to advance our civilization” and he notes that there are two forms of cooking: the first is the preparation of food, and the second, “restorative cooking”, also referred to as “pharmacy”. This is an interesting use of the word “pharmacy”, and not the usual connotation we usually think of. Pharmacy equals drugs, not food, right? However, it is an apt description for healing by the use of restorative foods.
His meditation “Varieties No. 10, Some Restorative Remedies”, offers several restoratives. One (meant for men of robust temperament) includes a knuckle of veal, onions, watercress, water, three old pigeons and twenty-five fresh crayfish. Another features carrots, onions, parsley, sugar candy, powdered amber, toasted bread crusts and water. While boiling this mixture, the sufferer must go out and kill, pluck and clean an old rooster, pounding the flesh and bones in a mortar. Then, two pounds of beef to be added, salt and pepper and the restorative mixture is to be heated thoroughly. (If an old rooster cannot be found, four old partridges will do in a pinch and a morsel of mutton may be substituted if beef is unavailable)
Throughout “The Physiology of Taste”, Brillat-Savarin waxes eloquently about specific foods such as truffles, asparagus, turkey, sugar, coffee, pheasant, turbot and eel and many more. His meditation on “Gourmands” analyzes gourmands by profession (The Bankers, The Doctors, The Writers, The Devout) He says that Bankers are the real heroes of gourmandism, but that Doctors have gourmandism “thrust upon them”. Writers are very close to Doctors in the gastronomical empire and that many of the Devout are among the faithful followers of gourmandism.He talks about Restaurateurs, the Treatment of Obesity, the Theory of Frying and that of Fasting.
Brillat-Savarin concludes that some people are “predestined to gourmandism” and even describes their physical characteristics: of medium height, round or square faces, bright eyes, small foreheads, short noses, full lips and rounded chins. This to me, is reminiscent of the early (and erroneous) studies linking certain physical characteristics with mental abilities.
“The Physiology of Taste” is a fascinating book and Brillat-Savarin spent a good deal of his life studying people and food, which is reflected in his book. Some of his recommendations and conclusions we take with a grain of salt today, and some seem outright ridiculous (every thin woman wants to grow plump), however, his writing reflects the time in which he lived and as such, sheds glimpses on the culture of food, the history of eating and trends in food and what the ideals were at the time. There is much to be learned from Brillat-Savarin and “The Physiology of Taste” is worth a read.