Civilization is how it eats: Brillat-Savarin's 'Gastronomy'; On Books


Because the numbers are so daunting that it's impossible to be fair, we don't publish holiday gift-lists on these pages. Go to a book shop and buy by whim. Mine leads me this season to one book that should belong to everyone who has a taste for fine food -- for nourishment that is not industrially processed or packaged.

It isn't new. It was first published, in fact, in 1826. A new printing of a modern edition is on the market: "The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy," by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Translated by M.F.K. Fisher (Counterpoint, 443 pages, $35).

This is one of a handful of works that have earned reputations as defining, unique and immortal -- books such as Izaac Walton's "The Compleat Angler," Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," James Boswell's "The Life of Samuel Johnson," much of Shakespeare and -- to all but the intensely orthodox or fundamentalist -- most of the Old and New Testaments.

Such works have earned their reputations through hard work, with genius, and by indestructible durability. Reading one provides an immense sense of discovery, a soaring experience of illumination.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was born in Belley, in the Ain region of France, on April 1, 1755. He became a lawyer and served as mayor of Belley. In 1793, he fled the Reign of Terror, went to Switzerland and then the United States, including two years in New York, where he taught and played violin professionally. In 1796, he returned to France and was appointed judge of the Court of Appeal in Paris. For the last 25 years of his life, he worked on this book, while continuing as judge, living comfortably and eating well.

M.F.K. Fisher, who died in 1992 at 84, was one of the most graceful writers of modern times. It is a disservice that she generally is thought of as a food writer -- through she did that better than anyone else in the 20th century. "A Considerable Town," her 1964 hymn to Marseille, is the most artful celebration of a city that I know. The sweep of her personal culture and the intensity of her industry show vividly in this translation and her commentary.

The most instructive joy of "The Physiology of Taste" is that so little seems to have changed since 1800. For present-day reading, it is not a book of history, nor of cooking tips or recipes or anxiety therapy for wine-worriers -- though it is wonderfully all of those. It is, above all, a celebration of civilization. In her Postscript, Fisher defines it as "a well-balanced expression of one thinking man's attitude toward life."

Brillat-Savarin starts with humankind's beginning. "If it is permissible to travel back, in one's imagination, to the dawn of humanity," he writes, "it is equally permissible to believe that man's first sensations were purely direct; that is to say that he saw but vaguely, that he heard dimly, that he chose without thought the food he ate without tasting, and that he copulated with brutality instead of pleasure."

For the last 25 years of a valuable life, he worked to explain and celebrate the course of man's progress from that origin.

A lot of Brillat-Savarin's analyses and conclusions are scientific. They are, of course, at the level of technical understanding at the time he was writing -- when a lone person could know virtually everything that there was to know. Some, of course, have been outdated by countervailing discoveries, but none of that seems to make his conclusions ridiculous.

He defines gastronomy as "intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man's nourishment. Its purpose is to watch over his conservation by suggesting the best possible sustenance for him."

He explores that in several dozen discrete chapters and sections, with titles clearly indicative of content. A sampling: "Reasons for the Action of the Senses," "Influence of Gastronomy on Business," "Effects of Gormandism on Sociability," "Differences Between the Pleasure of Eating and the Pleasures of the Table," "The Gastronomer in a Good Restaurant" and "Marvelous Effects of a Classical Dinner." No description could better indicate the breadth and the richness of the book.

Brillat-Savarin's explanations of and tributes to foods that came from the Western Hemisphere are powerful and delightful, none more so than his celebration of chocolate and its recipes and properties, of which I think the most charming may be:

"The Spanish ladies of the New World are mildly addicted to chocolate, to such a point that, not content to drink it several times each day, they even have it served to them in church. This sensuality has often brought down upon them the wrath of their bishops." Which set me to wondering how many M & M's are consumed among the faithful between the hours of 10 a.m. and noon on an average American Sunday.

Fisher's notes on the text are intensely serious and characteristically delightful. Her "Translator's Glosses" that follow almost every chapter contain observations in footnote form. In fact, they represent substantial digging and scholarship, bringing modern-day perspective to some but not all of Brillat-Savarin's observations.

She gives no quarter. In her notes on the chapter "Theory of Frying," she observes: "Most cooks, it would seem, are misunderstood wretches, ill-housed, dyspeptic, with aching broken arches. They turn more eagerly than any other artists to the bottle, the needle, and more vicious pleasures; they grow irritable; finally, they seize upon the nearest weapon, which if they are worth their salt is a long knife sharp as lightning . . . and they are in San Quentin."

The combination of Brillat-Savarin and Fisher produces a fare that is brilliant, frothy -- and substantial. Just the dish for a holiday season.

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