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