Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) was a French politician, lawyer, and writer. A deputy at the National Constituent Assembly in 1789, he fled to Switzerland during the Reign of Terror. In 1796, Brillat-Savarin returned to France, and joined the general staff of the French army. During the Directory, he became a judge in the Court of Cassation.
He was, in the first instance, a gourmet, an enthusiast who described himself, and was described by his contemporaries as, someone who, better than anyone else, made exploration of the world of food one of the driving forces of his existence, without neglecting his work and his professional and personal responsibilities.
A writer on politics, economics, and jurisprudence, as well as fiction, he is remembered mainly for his book, Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante, which is known in English as The Physiology of Taste
. Published in 1825, this volume assured him popular success.
The physiology of taste and the new figure of the intellectual as gourmet
Brillat-Savarin lived through the French Revolution of 1789. It was said that the tumultuous events of that era did not even cause him a single case of indigestion. In his view, a gourmet was (as is) someone who knew how to take advantage of the delights of nature and can, thereby, turn the banal everyday need for nourishment into the art of eating well. His was not a cook-book, but a series of meditations on what we might call the “culture of the table”, covering topics such as taste, pleasure, digestion, and fasting, through to thirst and obesity.
While being a “divertissement”, the hedonist tone of The Physiology of Taste cannot conceal the fact that the topics covered are more than lively conversation round the dinner-table. Brillat-Savarin moves in a witty and agile fashion between philosophical, anthropological, medical, and scientific themes, alternating these with precepts regarding cooking.
Gastronomy … sustains us, from the cradle to the grave … increases the gratifications of love and the confidence of friendship … disarms hatred and offers us, in the short passage of our lives, the only pleasure which not being followed by fatigue makes us weary of all others.
Of all the senses with which we have been endowed by nature, taste is the one that, all things considered, procures us the most enjoyments.
1. Because the pleasure of eating is the only one, when moderately enjoyed, that is not followed, by fatigue.
2. It belongs to all eras, ages and ranks.
3. Because it necessarily returns once a day and may, without inconvenience, be twice or thrice repeated in the same day.
4. It mingles with all other pleasures, and even consoles us for their absence.
5. Because the impressions it receives are durable and dependant on, our will.
Brillat-Savarin’s heritage and relevance today
While Brillat-Savarin would, during convivial evenings with friends, read out excerpts from what became The Physiology of Taste, the volume was published anonymously. This was done to avoid the scandal that would ensue were it known that a judge of the Court of Cassation, the highest law court of the land, spent some of his time thinking about food and gastronomic frivolities.
Despite not putting his name to the volume, though, Brillat-Savarin was unable to keep his secret and the fame of the book, and its author soon emerged, in Paris and then in the rest of France. The book became a best-seller, achieving both public acclaim and some criticism. Balzac described it as an “olla podrida”, or peasant stew, because of its less-than-consistent structure.
Despite this, and despite – or because of – its nearly 200 years’ in existence, The Physiology of Taste maintains its charm, and relevance. Influencing many generations, it is considered a milestone of its genre. A corner-stone of bourgeois cuisine, thanks to reprints and translations into many languages, it has come to exert an extraordinary influence on the literature of cooking Europe-wide.
Visiting Expo Milano 2015 includes exploring the tastes, traditions, and food products of the many nations
participating. In Pavilion Zero
, meanwhile, visitors are invited to examine the history of humankind in relation to nature and food.