Book Reviews

Biting through the Skin
by Nina Mukerjee Furstenau

Feeding Orchids to Slugs
by Ann Mah

Mastering the Art of French Eating
by Florencia Clifford

Ivan Ramen
by Ivan Ramen

Third Thursday Potluck Cookbook
by Nancy Vienneau

Mint Tea & Minarets
by Kitty Morse

Prospero’s Kitchen
by Diana Farr Louis and June Marino

Mushroom: A Global History
by Cynthia Bertelsen

One Straw Revolution
by Masanobu Fukuoka

Fried Walleye & Cherry Pie
by Peggy Wolff

Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War
by Annia Ciezadlo

unrest
by Chloe Yelena Miller

The Hungry Ear
by Kevin Young

Best Food Writing 2012
by Holly Hughes

Dinner: a Love Story
by Jenny Rosenstrach

My Kitchen Wars
by Betty Fussell

American Cookery
by Laura Kalpakian

Apron Anxiety
by Alyssa Shelasky

Cucina Povera
by Pamela Sheldon Johns

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen
by Laurie Colwin

The Social Life of Coffee
by Brian Cowan

The Raw and the Cooked
by Jim Harrison

Modernist Cuisine
by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet

Horsemen of the Esophagus
by Jason Fagone

Coffee Philosophy for Everyone
by Scott F. Parker and Michael W. Austin

Corked
by Kathryn Borel

Food Rules
by Michael Pollan

On Reading
by Rilke and Ruskin

America the Edible
by Adam Richman

Interview with the author of Party Girls,
Diane Goodman

Death Warmed Over
by Lisa Rogak

How to Cook a Crocodile
by Bonnie Lee Black

Great Food,
All Day Long

by Maya Angelou

Love Bites: Marital Skirmishes in the Kitchen
by Christopher Hirst

Best Food Writing 2011
edited by Holly Hughes

Balzac's Omelette
by Anka Muhlstein

The Little House Cookbook
by Barbara M. Walker

Muffins and Mayhem
by Suzanne Beecher

As Always, Julia:
The Letters of Julia Child and Avis De Voto

More...

Boozehound
by Jason Wilson

The Particular Sadness
of Lemon Cake

by Aimee Bender

The Bluberry Years
by Jim Minick

Livingston and the Tomato
by A. W. Livingston

Tomatoland
by Barry Estabrook

Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey
by Robert V. Camuto

Best Food Writing 2010 edited
by Holly Hughes

Curry
by Lizzie Collingham

Four Fish
by Paul Greenberg

The Physiology
of Taste

by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Far Flung
and Well Fed

by R. W. Apple, Jr.

The Food of a Younger Land
by Mark Kurlansky

The Dirty Life
by Kristin Kimball

Ratio
by Michael Ruhlman

Cooking with Italian Grandmothers
by Jessica Theroux

Blood, Bones & Butter
by Gabrielle Hamilton

Candyfreak
by Steve Almond

The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book
by Alice B. Toklas

Medium Raw
by Anthony Bourdain

Appetite City
by William Grimes

Twain's Feast
by Andrew Beahrs

97 Orchard
by Jane Ziegelman

Born Round
by Frank Bruni

Cakewalk
by Kate Moses

Full English by
Tom Parker Bowles

Following Fish by
Samanth Subramanian

Eating Animals by
Jonathan Safran Foer

Immortal Milk: Adventures in Cheese
by Eric LeMay

For You, Mom. Finally
by Ruth Reichl

Farm City
by Novella Carpenter

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant
edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler

I ♥ Macarons
by Hisako Ogita

The Hamburger
by Josh Ozersky

Best Food Writing 2009 edited
by Holly Hughes

Gastrology
by Archestratos

Eat, Memory edited by Amanda Hesser

Eat My Globe
by Simon Majumdar

Eating
by Jason Epstein

What We Eat When We Eat Alone
by Deborah Madison

The Sweet Life
in Paris

by David Lebovitz

Modern Spice
by Monica Bhide


Reviews

REVIEW by Rachel Kurtz

The Physiology of Taste
by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
translated by M. F. K. Fisher
Everyman's Library, October 2009
Hardcover 504 pp. ISBN: 978-0307269720

For years, all I knew of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was the quote on Iron Chef, “Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.” Eventually I learned that Brillat-Savarin launched the whole genre of food writing with his imposing-sounding tome, The Physiology of Taste: or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. If I wanted to call myself a true foodie, I was going to have to tackle it.

This impressive volume, continuously in print since its first publication in 1825, takes on the entire realm of human experience through food. Brillat-Savarin explores causes of and cures for obesity and thinness (anticipating Atkins by noting that over-consumption of starch seems to make people gain weight), muses on both feasting and fasting, develops a poetic chemistry of digestion, ventures into theories of sleep and dreams, and even briefly reflects on the end of the world.

Our tour guide to the pleasures of the table, Brillat-Savarin appoints himself Professor, taking on medicine, physiology, chemistry, and history with a sly wink at the reader, “When I write and speak of myself as I, in the singular, it presupposes a collaboration with my reader: he can examine what I say, question it, argue, even laugh. But when I arm myself with the redoubtable we, I am The Professor: he must bow down!”

While our Professor studied chemistry and medicine, he was also a judge, a lover of food, a preparer of food cures, and an excellent dinner companion—but not a scientist. The whole text is delightful pseudoscience. In these meditations he mulls and draws conclusions from personal observations, anecdotes, and myths. He asserts that truffles must genuinely be aphrodisiacs because they seem to work. Included as evidence: a woman who served truffles at dinner and found herself scandalously failing to repel the flirtations of her husband’s friend.

Despite the scope of this work, which took Brillat-Savarin over three decades to write, I can’t help but note a peculiar dietary blind spot: As a vegetarian, I wanted Brillat-Savarin to consider that some people might purposefully avoid meat and still enjoy good food and health. One reason the Professor ignores us veggie-centric eaters might be that the professor simply loves his meat, a food, he writes, which derives its healthful and tasty properties from “osmazome,” an old term for “meaty flavor.” A meat diet is “above all strengthening and restorative,” and he offers quite a few healing tonics based on meat broths. A society living “solely on bread and vegetables,” he predicts, “would inevitably be conquered by a meat-eating enemy, as with the Hindus.”

Still, I like to think I fit Brillat-Savarin’s definition of a gourmand: a person with “an impassioned, considered, and habitual preference for whatever pleases the taste.” And I’d like to think I don’t fall into either of the two ill-fated categories of people who are incapable of truly appreciating food. The first can’t help it; they literally have inadequate taste buds. Then, and here is Brillat-Savarin at his prescient best, warning us: “This second class of unfortunates is made up of the inattentive, the flighty, the overly ambitious and all those who try to do two things at once, and eat only to fill their bellies.”

So while I’m not likely to try his recipes, I am cheered by his exhortations to pay attention to our food, enjoy well-prepared meals, and neither starve nor over-stuff ourselves. I, too, believe in the healing power of a good broth. One cure, prescribed by the Professor for treatment of exhaustion due to “amorous excess,” begins with vegetables browned in butter, to which the cook adds sugar candy, powdered amber, toasted bread and water, an “old rooster” (its flesh and bones pounded in a mortar), and two pounds chopped beef. I'll take my soup without the medicinal candy, amber, or meat, thank you.

A word of caution: Make sure you get the M.F.K. Fisher translation. Owning a Kindle and being a little bit cheap, first I ordered the Kindle Penguin paperback edition translated by Anne Drayton and plodded dutifully through it, complaining about its impenetrable sentences and ludicrous vocabulary. Afterward I read M.F.K. Fisher’s translation, a volume I found readable and charming, and I’ll continue to pull from my bookshelf, despite its carnivorous bias.

April 15, 2011