May 26, 2003


The first of possibly many entries concerning the history of cooks and cooking...

As it turns out, I've become quite a fan of Iron Chef. Not so much as a cooking show (though I get an inspiration here and there), but as cooking entertainment. Last night, I was hunting the exact wording of the quote that is shown at the beginning:

"Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you who you are." --Brillat-Savarin

Or, more colloquially, these days: "You are what you eat." Though I was tempted to go off on some deep cooking philosophical riff (you are what you cook?), instead I got distracted wondering about Brillat-Savarin, and discovered the following, courtesy of The Kitchen Project:

This article appeared in The Washington Times on July 11, 1999.

The Gastronomic Servings of Brillat-Savarin

By Amanda Watson Schnetzer

On April 1,1755 the little town of Belley (bay-yeah) northeast of Lyon saw the birth of the greatest gastronome the world has ever known: Brillat-Savarin

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's "The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy" is a treatise on good eating. It is about the relation between man's joy, survival and dominion on earth and his ability to know and experience the pleasures of taste. Brillat-Savarin's reflections on the matter have nourished food lovers for nearly two centuries. And his most glorious lines, such as "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are," have proved as perennial as the grass.

First published in 1825, the book took Parisian society by storm and has not been out of print since. Brillat-Savarin still is revered in France as one of the founding fathers of gastronomy. But the fact that his only book on the subject remains a staple in so many kitchens and libraries across America is due in great part to M.F.K. Fisher's celebrated 1949 translation, now available again in hard cover from Counterpoint Press [$35, 443 pages.)

Brillat-Savarin, for whom the scrumptious savarin yeast cake with rum syrup, whipped cream and fresh fruit is named, was a lawyer from Belley, France. He supported the Revolution in 1789 and was named the mayor of Belley in 1792. But when he shed his allegiance to the Jacobins, they forced him to leave France or face trial, and he spent two years in United States exile.

In 1796 Brillat-Savarin returned to France and joined the general gtaff of the French army. Later he served as a judge in Bourg and then in Paris. He died only four months after the publication of "The Physiology of Taste."

Brillat-Savarin wrote his masterpiece in secrecy, paid for its publication and withheld the truth of his authorship. Soon after its release, Paris - where the art and science of eating were in fashion - was abuzz with speculation. When it was revealed who was the author, writes his biographer Giles MacDonogh, Parisians were "mystified by this extraordianry study and by the puckish wit of the tall, portly judge who had put it together." But while stylish society was dazzled by Brillat-Savarin's gastronomic erudition, his fellow judges were overcome with hauteur. They, no doubt, dismissed him as a dilettante.

All human actions, writes Brillat-Savarin, are for two purposes: the preservation of the individual and the continuation of the species. To these ends, man has been endowed with "the actual and direct sensation" of satisfying his need to eat. He also has been blessed with "an impassioned, considered, and habitual preference for whatever pleases the taste."

Gastronomy, he then concludes, "rules over our whole life." Its subject matter is "whatever can be eaten." Its end is the "conservation of individuals." And its means of execution are "the culture which produces, the commerce which exchanges, the industry which prepares, and the experience which invents means to dispose of everything to the best advantage."

Brillat-Savarin spends only a handful of pages setting forth this physiology (or philosophy) of taste. The rest he devotes to its explication in essays and anecdotes that touch on "everything connected with society," including: an introduction to French cooking; theories on the "erotic properties" of truffles; meditations on commerce and trade; prescriptions for obesity an thinness; a plan for the ultimate dinner party; and a collection of recipes and "other such literary tidbits." These are the timeless morsels (much more than his philosophy) that have kept gourmands returning to consult the master.

M.F.K. Fisher's translation of Brillat-Savarin has been described as "perfection," and she herself has been lauded as "a rarity in American gastronomy." A prolific food writer, she wrote 26 original books including the World War II "How to Cook a Wolf," "Consider the Oyster" and "Serve it Forth." Her work is collected in "The Art of Eating." For Mrs. Fisher, who died in 1992, there were "two kinds of books about eating: those that try to imitate Brillat-Savarin's, and those that try not to." But neither kind, she contended, could ever measure up to "The Physiology of Taste."

It is, Mrs. Fisher wrote, a "well-balanced expression of one thinking man's attitude toward life. There are few of them, in any language . . . In a Western world filled with too many books, too many human beings angry or bored enough to be voluble, it is a good thing that there are a few such distillations as this one." Her translation is accompanied by a collection of respectful, informative and sometimes corrective notes, making up 20 percent of the book's text. In early editions, her glosses appeared as endnotes. In its 1994 oversized edition, Counterpoint raised them "greater prominence" by placing them at the bottom of each page where a reference appears. The 1994 edition also included a collection of charming drawings by Wayne Thiebaud.

Editors of the new edition, in a seeming effort to offer a more affordable book of standard size, have returned the translator's glosses to their original place. This decision is lamentable. Once you have elevated M.F.K. Fisher to Brillat-Savarin's level, it is unthinkable that she should be demoted for reasons of parsimony. Mr. Thiebaud's drawings have been removed from the new edition entirely.

With the notes are relegated to the end of each section, they are much less likely to be read, but for an American readership they are indispensable. Mrs. Fisher fleshes out the recipes that Brillat-Savarin - in keeping with French culinary tradition to sketch rather than give detailed directions - only outlines. Her notes also perform the critical jobs of telling us more about the history, people and social mores to which Brillat-Savarin introduces us, and of correcting his mistakes.

Such aesthetic and organizational changes aside, Fisher's translation of "The Physiology of Taste" remains a gastronomic classic and Counterpoint is to be commended for keeping it with us. Every self-respecting devotee of good food, wine and company should have a copy, and this smaller, more compact version does make for a handy reference. If you don't already have yours, now is the time to get it.

Posted by Jennifer at 9:14 AM | Comments (0)