A review of:

The Physiology of Taste

or, Meditations
on Transcendental Gastronomy

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

(translated by M. F. K. Fisher)

Reviewed by Diann. Originally published by M. Brillat-Savarin in 1825; the current edition translated and copyright 1949. The Heritage Press, New York. Book found in my father's collection, and doubtless out of print.

This book has been a fascinating find, one well worth the reading. Perhaps in part the readiblity has been enhanced by the translation.

The writings owe, of course, to an older, archaic style, but for all that it is clearly written to these eyes at least. Much of the literature of that time and place (early 19th century France) tended to that which was more flowery and less direct than exemplified in this book. M. Brillat-Savarin wrote at his leisure, evidently surprising his friends and acquaintances when he brought the book out. "He spoke of it to almost nobody, and when finally it appeared, a few months before his own death [at age 71] and anonymously and at his own expense, his friends were astounded that he had written it, for he had never flashed before them in its full colors the rich tapestry of his mind, but had instead woven quietly and in secret peace." -- translator's note.

When first coming upon this book in my father's closet I supposed it to be a more recent tome, perhaps akin to All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present (by Stephen Mennell, Basil Blackwood Ltd., Oxford, UK, 1985), with perhaps a bit more biological basis. While both books shall be comfortable together on the same shelf, the Physiology of Taste is more a work of letters, subtle wit, and a period piece which reaches through time to edify and amuse a reader today. Oh, M. Brillat-Savarin discusses the role of tastebuds in taste -- it is his conclusion that it is the solubility of substances which are thus appreciated by the tastebuds. He recognizes the role of aroma: "I am also tempted to believe that small and taste form a single sense, of which the mouth is the laboratory and the nose is the chimney." He states his theory that taste causes sensations of three types: the direct (on the tongue), the complete (aroma and tastebuds), and the reflective ("the opinion which one's spirit forms from the impressions which have been transmitted to it by the mouth.") And there, early in the book, we leave the cause of physiology as we know it today in the 20th century, behind.

Still, Gastronomy is a pursuit, and a science, and an experiential one at that. There is no indication that the author of this book was unwilling, in the cause of the duty he'd taken upon himself, to taste and experience first-hand all manners of food and drink. Indeed, he proposes other studies herein -- attempts to understand why some people have no interest in food at all beyond sustinance, those who eat food in apparently unlimited quantities without tasting it, and those who have honed their appreciation of foods.

Chapters and discussions include: "Theory of Frying", "On Gourmandism" (not to be begrudged), "On Hunting Luncheons", "On Fasting", "On Obesity", "On Thinness" (note that what we seem to consider "just right" today would have been considered the height of emaciation in his day, especially in women.), with asides on "The End of the World", which for him relates more to comets than food. There's the (European) history of cuisine, and a fascinating section on chocolate (then, as now, apparently one of the major Food Groups...) -- its history, preparation (the French way is "better" than the American). There are also thoughts on proper nutrition, and a healthy realization that what is good nutrition for one person may not necessarily apply to another.

As for poultry: "We do not seem to be able to satisfy ourselves with the qualities which nature has given to the roosterish clan; art has stepped in; and with the pretext of bettering them we have made them into martyrs. Not only do we deprive them of their means of reproduction, but we condemn them to solitary confinement and darkness, we force them to eat, and by doing so we make them much heavier than they were ever meant to be." But M. Brillat-Savarin doesn't complain of the results. (Of interest here is the realization that poultry-rearing has been interfered with and manipulated for a long, long time before we "civilized" folks invented free-range birds...)

He speaks with gustatory awe of the turkey, an immigrant from America, and the problems rearing them on farms in France. "Heavy raindrops, beaten against them by the wind, hurt their tender unprotected skulls and cause their death." (Just the other day I was reading online about an annual turkey parade in California which had to be cancelled after the year it rained in the middle of the parade. The turkeys all stopped, held up their heads to drink the rainwater, and drowned because they didn't know when enough was enough. I am left wondering the fate of the wild turkeys who summered briefly in my yard, as there was never again any sign of them after Tropical Storm Bertha passed through.)

At any rate, the book, and its multitude of asides, (as well as the asides of the translator, given as footnotes at the ends of chapters), continues to amuse. This is one work which can be opened and read almost at random, for the sense of words, of style, and even a bit of knowledge concerning the gastronomer's pursuit back in the early 19th century. If you can track it down, perhaps in some used book store or library, this is a book well worth one's allowing it to simmer and froth with periodic sips on the reader's part at one's kitchen table. Or, outside in the garden, watching one's little corner of the world whenever one comes up to reflect or smile.

The Library: for more bookish information.

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Last Updated: Tuesday, September 3, 1996