Heroes (4/4) - Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755 - 1826)

We all have heroes, people we admire and want to emulate, perhaps to impress. Some of them will be distant figures who may have lived generations before us, others will be members of our own family. All of them make us who we are. A few years ago, I gave a series of dinners in celebration of some of my culinary heroes, the final of which marked my admiration for Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of La Physiologie du Goût (the physiology of taste). Unlike the three previous heroes (Elizabeth David, Anton Mosimann and Auguste Escoffier), Brillat-Savarin never left us a single recipe. He produced instead a finely written collection of meditations on the value of good eating, which guide us through an approach to food that is at once careful and exploratory. Modern psychology might recognise in many of his meditations what we would call "mindful" enjoyment of the pleasures of the table. That his master-work has not been out of print in French since its first publication is testimony to the power and influence of his thought in the collective psyche of the French people. I would even go so far as to suggest that Brillat-Savarin was the man who taught the French to eat.

Born in southern France, more-or-less on the border with Savoy, during the reign of Louis XV, he studied law, chemistry and medicine in Dijon, before returning to practice law in his hometown. He was elected mayor of Belay and was sent as député to the national assembly, participating in the debates around the Revolution and first constitutional discussions. However, in 1792, as the heat of the Revolution picked up, and belonging to an assembly faction that was falling out of favour, he decided to leave France. Some historians suggest there was a price on his head. Brillat-Savarin’s time in exile was not wasted. He was already a competent linguist, and his travels in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Great Britain and eventually to the new-born USA, allowed him to add fluency in German, Spanish and English to his knowledge of classical languages. You can see the influence of this in La Physiologie… in the way he drops in words and phrases from other languages without any translation or explanation. He dares to denounce French for having no adequate translation of the English verb “to sip.” In the USA, he made a living teaching French and music and was at one point first violinist in the Park Theater in New York. He writes warmly of the hospitality he received in America, and this seems to have influenced some of his reflections on hospitality, table-fellowship and the role of well-prepared food in engendering finer feelings.

Returning to France in late-1796, he became a magistrate and later a counsel in the Cour de Cassassion, the highest court in France. He continued to involve himself in causes he considered important to France, such as his zealous dedication to the National Council for the Promotion of Industry, of which he had been a founder. It seems that Brillat-Savarin’s high position in civic society put him in contact with any number of thinkers and scientists. He writes about “undertaking research” among men of learning, and of interviewing ladies about the effects of eating truffle on their sexual behaviour. (Needless to say, none of them gave him any useful information!) It isn’t hard to imagine that these researches were conducted in the relaxed atmosphere of a good dinner. Some of his conclusions may seem somewhat off the wall to the modern mind, but he is conscientious in drawing them from observation, and in that approach we can see the influence of the Enlightenment’s promotion of scientific method and the presence among his friends of physicians, chemists and natural historians.

La Physiologie du Goût was not Brillat-Savarin’s first published work. He had already published works on law and political economy. He had even managed an erotic short story, called Voyage à Arras. (I’ve lived in Arras and, believe me, it’s about as erotic as St Helens!) The form La Physiologie… takes is a series of meditative essays. Although collected into thematic sections, they wander gently around the subject, swinging from observation to anecdote to philosophical discourse. It is written in fairly plain French and is simple enough to read in its original version for anyone with a good grasp of the language.

Brillat-Savarin’s basic premise in La Physiologie du Goût is that taste happens through all five of the senses, and that the nerves of the mouth are simply the last ones to be stimulated. The more each sense is excited, the better the body prepares to receive the food, and the more goodness it is able to extract from it. But the story does not end with digestion and the physical benefits of food: Brillat-Savarin does not distinguish between nutritive goodness and moral or spiritual goodness. Well prepared food, including homely or simple food if prepared well, not only stimulates the body but enlivens a person’s finer qualities. Around the table, our physical nourishment allows us to be better people: good food calls forth from our carefully awakened âme (soul) careful thought, openness of mind, peacefulness, gratitude and, ultimately, love.

Brillat-Savarin was full of preferences, prejudices and other wonky ideas where food was concerned. He has little time for fish, for instance, dismissing it as ok for invalids and children but of little value for adults. He held the truffle in almost religious reverence, noting its mythical aphrodisiac properties but finding himself unable to find anyone willing to discuss their experience of those properties in sufficient detail for scientific research. (Oh, how times change!) He celebrated sugar’s ability to transform food and promoted the domestic beet sugar over cane sugar from France’s colonies. He regarded poultry as the most nourishing meat and turkey as the best of poultry. On the other hand, he also had ideas that sound remarkable modern. He observed that carnivorous animals and herbivores both remain lean, but the herbivores gain weight rapidly when fed on grain and potatoes, and he concluded that too much starch in the diet will cause obesity.

Brillat-Savarin died a little less than a year after the publication of his master-work. He never married, and in that light the dedication of the book to his cousin seems a little melancholic: "Madam, receive kindly and read indulgently the work of an old man. It is a tribute of a friendship which dates from your childhood, and, perhaps, the homage of a more tender feeling...How can I tell? At my age, a man no longer dares interrogate his heart.”



To celebrate the impact of Brillat-Savarin's work, I had to create a dinner that would stimulate and delight all the senses. We gathered on a summer evening, for aperitifs under a canopy of brightly-coloured silks that fluttered in the breeze. Indoors a table had been decorated with gilded pineapples, mirrors, fragrant freesias and pastel fans. (Guests were encouraged to take their fan home as a gift.) Food was served à la française in two removes. The first comprised salad and pastry dishes, including buttered asparagus, truffled veal en croûte and marinated herrings. After a short break, the second remove was served, comprising slightly heavier dishes like party-coloured eggs, roast turkey breast with truffles and braised summer vegetables. To further stimulate the eyes, I bought hundreds of edible flowers, so that each dish had its own multicoloured garnish. I am blessed with the friendship of another accomplished host who lives just a few hundred meters away, and we promenaded to his apartment as the evening became dark, for a buffet of fresh fruits, cakes and pastes. The (modern) dishes served would probably have been unrecognisable to the man we were celebrating, but I am confident he would have recognised in our approach to serving food something of his own desire that table-hospitality should delight the senses, nourish the body and open the heart.






Comments

  1. What a wonderful article. Love the fans on the table too. Such a beautful idea.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you.
      I have a friend who is very creative and who is always on hand to improve my visual presentation.

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