*The Physiology of Taste
The Physiology of Taste
by Brillat-Savarin, 1825
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826) is known almost exclusively as the author of the witty and urbane Physiologie du goût (1825; The Physiology of Taste). He was a lawyer and judge by profession, and his previous work included an essay on political economy (Vues et projets d’economie politique [1802; Views and projects of political economy]), one on legal theory (Fragments d’une théorie judiciaire [1808; Fragments of a judicial theory]), and another on duelling (Essai historique et critique sur le duel [1819; Historical and critical essay on the duel]). While intelligent and erudite, these writings enjoyed little contemporary success, and are virtually forgotten today.
For the last quarter of his life, however, he had worked in near total secrecy on another project. In late 1825, a few months before his death, Brillat-Savarin published his magnum opus—anonymously, at his own expense, and to the great surprise of even his closest friends. Entitled Physiologie du goût; ou, Méditation de gastronomie transcendante (The Physiology of Taste; or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy), it soon became immensely popular; numerous editions have followed, in many languages. Brillat-Savarin’s influence has likewise been enormous. For better or worse, his example has, in large measure, spawned the innumerable volumes of “food writing” which now crowd the shelves of bookstores.
As its full title suggests, Brillat-Savarin’s essay pretends to be both a scientific treatise (physiologie) and a philosophical rumination (méditation). With mock seriousness, the selfproclaimed “professor” tries his hand at codifying the new “science” of gastronomy, and in so doing touches upon an astounding variety of subjects related to food, its preparation, consumption, and, most of all, enjoyment. Indeed, little seems to escape Brillat-Savarin’s omnivorous pen: from the culinary eccentricities of ancient Rome, to the effects of different foods on dreams, to the best way to cook an unusually large turbot.
The Physiology opens with four introductory sections, including “Aphorisms of the Professor” and “The Author’s Preface.” The main body of the essay is made up of 30 “meditations” (e.g. “On Appetite”; “Theory of Frying”; “On Gourmandism”). These are followed, in turn, by a brief “Transition,” a substantial section of “Varieties” and, finally, a“Parting Salute to the Gastronomers of the Old and New Worlds.”
Brillat-Savarin’s opening aphorisms—billed as “a preamble to his work and…a lasting foundation for the science of gastronomy”—have indeed remained the best-known and most-quoted part of the Physiology. Twenty in all, they include such perennial favorites as “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” In the “Author’s Preface,” BrillatSavarin deals, most notably, with his style: while asking indulgence for his digressiveness and “garrulity,” he begs not to be considered a simple “compiler”; he also defends his frequent use of foreign words and neologisms.
Most of Brillat-Savarin’s 30 meditations are made up of several smaller sections (e.g. “Definition of Taste,” “Turkey Lovers,” “Inevitable Longevity of Gourmands”).
Typically, a meditation proceeds from ostensibly serious, scholarly-sounding developments on the history and theory of gastronomy (entitled “Origin…”
“Definition…” or “Analysis…”), to more lighthearted, digressive, and often
autobiographical musings (entitled “Anecdote,” “Reflection,” “Sketch,” or “Portrait”).
This tendency informs the entire Physiology as well, for even when Brillat-Savarin’s prose seems at its most serious, a wellspring of mirth lies just beneath the surface.
Finally, in the “Varieties,” Brillat-Savarin abandons any “scientific” pretense, unleashing a veritable flood of witty observations, amusing anecdotes, and other such hors d’oeuvre.
As he explains, these could not fit into his earlier, “theoretical” expositions, but are entertaining and worth writing nonetheless. No doubt the most emblematic of these wideranging and thoroughly heterogeneous “Varieties” is a brief section entitled, simply, “Miscellanea.”
In its digressiveness, its amiable verbosity, and its largely unsystematic encyclopedism, Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology belongs to a French tradition of the essay beginning with Montaigne. As a supposedly “scientific” and “philosophical” treatise, moreover, it parodies influential works by certain late 18th– and early 19th-century thinkers. These include, most notably, the Enlightenment sensationalist Étienne Bonnet de Condillac’s Traité des sensations (1754; Treatise on the Sensations), which owes a great deal to Locke, and the idéologue P.J.G.Cabanis’ Rapports du physique et du moral de l’homme (1802; On the Relationship Between the Physical and Moral Aspects of Man), which seeks to ground psychology in physiology.
Written at a time when cooking was becoming increasingly professionalized, and when the restaurant was becoming a major force in French culture, the Physiology also belongs to an emerging body of writing on culinary arts and gastronomy: from Karl Friedrich von Rumohr’s Geist der Kochkunst (1823; The Essence of Cookery) to Marie-Antonin Carême’s L’Art de la cuisine française au XIXe siècle (1828; The art of French cooking in the 19th century) to Alexandre Dumas’ Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine (1873; Dictionary of Cuisine), to name but a few. Yet the author to whom Brillat-Savarin is most often compared remains the nearly forgotten AlexandreBalthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reyniere, who wrote Le Manuel des amphitryons (1808; The almanac of Amphytryons) and L’Almanach des gourmands (1803; The almanac of gourmands), and edited a shortlived Journal des gourmands et des belles (Journal of gourmands and beauties) years before the Physiology of Taste was published. While commentators generally hail Grimod’s originality as the inventor of new forms (i.e. the gastronomic treatise, guide, and periodical), Brillat-Savarin is considered by far the superior stylist.
Indeed, from the 19th century to the present, Brillat-Savarin has often been celebrated for his style. Balzac (1835) attributes the Physiology’s rapid success to the “savor” (saveur) of its style; M.F.K.Fisher, in the introduction to her 1949 translation, admires the “simplicity” and “restrained discretion” of Brillat-Savarin’s “straightforward” yet gently “tongue in cheek” style; Roland Barthes (1975) characterizes the professor’s language as “gourmande”; and Jean-François Revel (1982) hails his discovery of an “amiable style.” Yet to see Brillat-Savarin solely as a stylist is to underestimate the philosophical depth of his work. Gastronomy, for Brillat-Savarin, is an eminently human pursuit: eating for pleasure, not just sustenance, is what separates us from the beasts. In the largest sense, then, The Physiology of Taste is an eloquent apology of epicureanism, a celebration of savoir-vivre—the art of living well. It is that most rare of books, for, as M.F.K.Fisher wrote in 1949, it succeeds in articulating “a well-balanced expression of one thinking man’s attitude toward life.”
Physiologie du goût; ou, Méditation de gastronomie transcendante, 1825; many subsequent editions, including those edited by Michel Guibert, 1975, and Jean-François Revel, 1982; translated under many titles, including The Handbook of Dining (1859), Gastronomy as a Fine Art (1877), A Handbook of Gastronomy (1884), and The Philosopher in the Kitchen (1970), but most often as The Physiology of Taste; or, Transcendental Gastronomy, translated by Fayette Robinson, 1854, and as The Physiology of Taste; or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, translated by M.F.K.Fisher, 1949
Balzac, Honoré de, “Brillat-Savarin (Extrait de la Biographie Universelle, tome 59),” in OEuvres complètes, vol. 23, Paris: Club de l’Honnête Homme, 1956 (original piece, 1835)
Barthes, Roland, “Lecture de Brillat-Savarin,” in Physiologie du goût by Brillat-Savarin, edited by Michel Guibert, Paris: Hermann, 1975
Boissel, Thierry, Brillat-Savarin, 1755–1826: Un chevalier candide, Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 1989
MacDonogh, Giles, Brillat-Savarin: The Judge and His Stomach, London: Murray, and Chicago: Dee, 1992
Revel, Jean-Franois, “Brillat-Savarin ou le style aimable,” introduction to Physiologie du goût by Brillat-Savarin, Paris: Flammarion, 1982
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