For many years I have been wanting to read The Physiology of Taste, by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. My other passions in life, outside of literature and fine press books, tend to center around fine wine and food. Therefore, it seemed natural that I would be anxious to read what is often considered the greatest book on food and dining ever written. However, what really grabbed my interest is the fact that the book itself has transcended food and gastronomy to being considered one of the greatest works of literature to come out of France, in fact one of the greatest in the world.
How can a book with the sub-title of Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy become one of the world’s great works of literature? It turns out that gastronomy and food only provide the basis around which Brillat-Savarin’s true genius lay. That being a man with incredible wit and a penetrating mind that not only dissects the most tasty fowl the world has to offer, but also is able to cut directly into the heart of deeper questions across an array of human topics. This book is about thinking and reaching tranquility through contemplation along with enjoying the best of what the world has to offer.
Brillat-Savarin is inquisitive, pondering anything and everything that happens to flow into his mind. I would almost say that his may be amongst the first ‘stream of consciousness” books written, in that the book meanders through topics in a way that could only come from this author, nobody else. Lastly, he is a master storyteller. There is nothing more enjoyable in this book than his many, many tales of happenings and/or rumors that he was privy too in his many years around the rich and powerful.
Rather than me blabbing on too much about Brillat-Savarin’s writing style and my opinions of his meditational capability, let me give you a taste of his light, witty and thoughful style. Some of my favorite aphorisms from Brillat-Savarin include:
- Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.
- Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.
- The creator, while forcing men to eat in order to live, tempts him to do so with appetite and then rewards him with pleasure.
- Good living is an act of intelligence, by which we choose things by which have an agreeable taste rather than those which do not.
- Men who stuff themselves and grow tipsy know neither how to eat, nor how to drink.
Brillat-Savarin describes the process of taste in a way all creative writing students should study when he writes:
As soon as an edible body has been put into the mouth, it is seized upon, gases, moisture, and all, without possibility of retreat. Lips stop whatever might try to escape; the teeth bite and break it, saliva drenches it, the tongue mashes and churns it; a breathlike sucking pushes it toward the gullet; the tongue lifts up to make it slide and slip; the sense of smell appreciates it as it passes the nasal channel, and it is pulled down into the stomach to be submitted to sundry baser transformations without, in this whole metamorphosis, a single atom or drop or particle having been missed by the powers of appreciation of the taste sense.
An example of Brillat-Savarin’s active mind is obvious when talking about the origins of science. He defines such origins by saying:
The sciences are not like Minerva, who sprang fully armed from the brains of Jupiter; they are the daughters of time, and take shape very gradually, at first by the assembling of methods developed through experience, and then later by the discovery of principles which have been deduced from the combining of these methods.
Our diplomats and aspiring political science students should remember his observation that:
A well fed man is not at all the same as a hungry one; that the table constitutes a kind of tie between the bargainer and the bargained with, and makes the diners more willing to receive certain impressions, to submit to certain influences….meals have become a means of governing, and the fate of whole peoples is decided at banquet.
What does it mean to be a gourmand? “Gourmandism is an impassioned, considered and habitual preference for whatever pleases the taste.” Besides the pleasure a pursuit of gourmandism gives, there are other benefits. Brillat-Savarin says:
A series of precise and exhaustive observations has proved beyond a doubt that a tempting diet, dainty and well prepared, holds off for a long time the exterior signs of old age. It adds brilliance to the eyes, freshness to the skin,and more firmness to all the muscles….other things being equal, the ladies who know how to eat are comparatively ten years younger that those to whom this science is a stranger.
Also, for you married readers, I fear our modern society has forgotten this:
When gourmandism is shared, it has the most marked influence on happiness which can be found in a marriage. A married couple who enjoy the pleasures of the table have, at least once a day, a pleasant opportunity to be together,,,it is well known that intimate table talk is full of its own charm.
We do not need to all be the world’s greatest cooks to have enjoyable evenings around the table. These pleasures “can be savored almost to the full whenever the four following conditions are met with: food at least passable, good wine, agreeable companions, and enough time.” Some further advice towards this end includes such tidbits as:
- Let the number of guests be less than twelve, so that conversation may always remain general
- Let them be so chosen that their professions will be varied, their tastes analogous, and that there be such points of contact that the odious formality of introductions will not be needed
- Let the dining room be more than amply lighted, the linen of dazzling cleanliness, and the temperature maintained at from sixty to sixty-eight degrees
- Let the gentleman be witty without pretension, and the ladies charing without too much coquetry
- Let the dishes be of exquisite quality, but limited in their number, and the wines of the first rank also
- Let the progression of the former be from the most substantial to the lightest, and of the latter from the simplest wines to the headiest
- Let the tempo of eating be moderate..the guests hsould behave like travellers who must arrive together at the same destination
- Let the leavetakings not begin before eleven o’clock, but by midnight every guest should be home and abed
Some other sayings that struck a chord with me:
- “The truffle is the diamond of the art of cookery.”
- “But with time and experience, those two sublime teachers…”
- “People who have not worked at a certain subject , no matter what it may be, have no conception of the difficulties which must be overcome to attain perfection in it…”
- “Good things are meant for good people; otherwise one must fall back on an absurdity and believe that God created them solely for the evildoers.”
Lastly, a witty story and excerpts from a poem he quotes. First, the story:
A heavydrinker was at dinner , and during dessert he was offered some grapes. “Thank you very much,” he said, pushing the plate to one side, “but I am not accustomed to taking wine in capsules.
Next, the excerpts:
Praise Bacchus for his gift of wine,
Yea, reeling praise its potent fumes;
Sure, ’tis an essence all divine,
And whoso drinks not, yet assumes
By grace of God the manly rank,
Would be an angel if he drank
Winking, the wine invites my kiss;
It drives the sadness out of me
And fills my very soul with bliss;
O ne’er were lovers fond as we:
I ravish, then am ravished,
I capture and am captive led.
I enjoyed the book. The style of writing is somewhat long-winded, but the witty nature and lightness of his prose more than makes up for that. I must confess a slight bit of a letdown, in that I expected just a bit more. Having said that, there are no regrets in having spent the better part of six or seven nights in the company of Brillat-Savarin. He is an entertaining guest, full of classical knowledge, a clear reminder to moderns of the wisdom of Epicurus, and a constant reminder of how much more serious men used to be about leisure.
The book was first published in 1825, though Brillat-Savarin had been working on it for the previous 25 years. He began his career as a lawyer, serving as a deputy to the Estates-General. Late in the French Revolution, he had a bounty placed on his head, so he traveled to Switzerland, Holland, and the United States (spending three years in the U.S.). He returned to France in 1797, and became a magistrate, a post he would hold the rest of his life. The Physiology of Taste has never been out of print since first published, and remains an important and influential book today.
M.F.K. Fisher here produces one of the world’s great translations. Fisher was a well respected author and critic herself (mostly dealing with food). It is impossible to consider a translation surpassing this one, in which she spent more than two years achieving. Her annotations and notes add tremendously to the book, without in any way distracting from it.
The illustrations by Sylvain Sauvage are a perfect example of a marriage made in heaven for the text and context for which they are produced. They are truly marvelous. Simple and light, exuding wit and thought. Beautiful coloring. Unfortunately, Sauvage died prior to the edition being published (this volume is an example of an unsigned LEC).
About the Edition
- Released in November 1949, by the Limited Editions Club, #211 (my copy is in near fine condition, not bad for 62 years old)
- Limited to 1,500 copies (mine is #139)
- 10.5″ by 7″ in size with 488 pages
- Type is Waverly by the Intertype Company
- Text is twelve point size with two points of leaded space between the lines
- Paper made of rags; a crisp , white, laid sheet from the Worthy paper Mills
- More than 100 illustrations, outlines printed in black ink, and then the colors are added with the water color inks printed from plates cut by hand in rubber by Herbert Rau
- Cover design based on Sauvage’s drawings, printed in several colors by offset lithography on a tough Kraft (also used on the slipcase)
- Shelf back of the cover is clothed in a first quality English pig skin (how appropriate)
And finally, photos for your edification!
Pictures of the Edition
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