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Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin is a legendary figure in gastronomical literature; a cursory scan through my cookery shelf sees him cited by Harold McGee, Hervé This and Jeffrey Steingarten, to name the first three that came to hand. An English translation of his masterwork, "The Physiology of Taste" is still in print. I was given a copy for my birthday, and I have written a few thoughts about it here.

In my opinion, the book is brilliant. Brillat-Savarin was writing both for a contemporary audience and for posterity: well-known contemporary figures are named or alluded to in the many anecdotes that take up much of the book, which must have boosted its sales when it was first published. However, the main part of the book is a series of monographs on aspects of "gourmandism", the laudable appreciation of good food and drink, distinct from gluttony, and "gastronomy", the "reasoned comprehension of everything connected with the nourishment of man". This last is probably a broader definition than many people today would use, as Brillat-Savarin expounds on subjects as diverse as sleep and dreams, obesity and dieting. The shorter, second part of the book, is a series of anecdotes drawn from the author's life, which saw him flee France during the Terror of the 1790s and live in Switzerland and, later, the USA.

For a book written in 1825, I found it remarkably easy to read, and considerable credit for this must accrue to the translator, Anne Drayton. A number of passages were so adroitly phrased that I laughed out loud: for example,

Suresnes, a pretty village ten miles from Paris. It is famous for its bad wines. There is a saying that to drink a glass of Suresnes, three persons are required: the one who drinks it, and two acolytes to hold him up and prevent him from losing heart. The same is said of the wine of Périeux; but people drink it all the same.

Similar pleasantries abound throughout the book, and the author (referring to himself as the Professor) not infrequently targets himself:

Here the Professor, full of his subject, lowered his hand and ascended to the upper regions. He went back down the ages, and visited in their cradles the sciences which minister to the gratification of taste. He followed their progress through the night of time, and perceiving that, for the delights they had to offer, former ages were less fortunate than those which came after them, he seized his lyre, and chanted, in the Dorian manner, the historical Elegy which will be found among the Miscellanea at the end of this work.

One thing that particularly interested me was the insight into changing eating habits. Brillat-Savarin was writing in an era where the Service à la Russe dining convention that is still familiar to us today was just coming into fashion, and has interesting things to say on the subject of liqueurs (invented for Louis XV as the king's palette faded with old age, apparently), the formerly ubiquitous habit of serving bouilli (the meat boiled to create bouillon), the origin of the turkey, the serving of tea (with buttered toast) as a post-prandial beverage, and many other similar subjects.

Those who insist on knowing more than anyone else maintain that the Romans were partial to the turkey, that it was served at Charlemagne's wedding feast, and it is therefore incorrect to praise the Jesuits for this savoury import [from North America]. One could answer these paradoxes with two simple facts:
1. The French name for the bird,
Coq d'Inde, clearly betrays its origin: for in the old days, America was known as the West Indies;
2. The appearance of the bird, which is clearly outlandish.
No scientist could have any doubts on the question.

It is unclear to me whether scientific rigour has increased during the last two hundred years, or if Brillat-Savarin was speaking tongue-in-cheek. I would certainly like to believe the latter. :-)

If one theme from the book stands out above the rest, however, it is the author's enthusiasm for the science of gastronomy. His predictions that food would be the subject of scientific study have been largely justified, but for well over a century the aims of food science have been largely confined to the improvement of hygiene and the the industrialisation of food: the development of additives and processes that have given us the 8p loaf of bread, "cheestrings" and strawberry-flavour dried cranberries. I believe the recent reclamation of science for the cause of optimising the pleasure to be obtained from food must be credited largely to Nicholas Kurti and his followers in the Molecular Gastronomy movement. I'd like to think that Brillat-Savarin would have been pleased.

..there can be no doubt that before many years have passed, gastronomy will have its own academicians, universities, professors and prizes.
First, some rich and zealous gastronome will institute periodical meetings beneath his own roof, where the most learned theorists will gather together with practising artists to discuss and examine the various aspects of the science of
Soon (for such is the history of all academies), the Government will intervene to offer its patronage and lay down rules, seizing the occasion to give the people compensation for all the children made fatherless by guns and all the Ariadnes saddened by the call to arms.
Happy the man who shall give his name to that academy! That name will go down from age to age, linked with those of Noah, Bacchus, Triptolemus, and all the other benefactors of humanity; he will be among ministers what Henri IV is among kings, and his praise will be in every
mouth without any law to make that obligatory.

To summarise, I think any foodie with an appreciation of history would enjoy the book, particularly one who is enthusiastic about the current fashion for more scientific cooking, and wants to see where it all started.

Date: 2008-03-23 01:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pozorvlak.livejournal.com
Sounds very interesting!


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