Brillat – Savarin and the Physiology of Taste

Brillat-Savarin and the Physiology of Taste

(An essay written for the module ‘Principles of Gastronomy’ in the Masters in Gastronomy delivered by Cordon Bleu and Adelaide Uni)


Why did Brillat-Savarin write his Physiology? ‘When I came to consider the pleasures of the table in all their aspects, I soon perceived that something better than a mere cookery book might be made of the subject, and that there was a great deal to about such a basic everyday function, bearing so closely upon our health, our happiness, and even our work….But I had made these researches without the slightest intention of becoming an author; a praiseworthy spirit of curiosity spurred me on, together with a fear of being behind the times, and a desire to be able to hold my own in conversations with men of science, whose company I have always enjoyed.’[1]

Brillat-Savarin’s lifespan (1775-1826) serendipitously coincides with the development of the gourmand’s natural habitat, the restaurant.[2] Nine years prior to the birth of the first true gourmand in Belley (a euphonius name for such an event), in 1766, Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau opened the door of what Spang persuasively argues was the first true restaurant, in Paris.[3] In this essay, I draw on Spang’s work to argue how Brillat-Savarin’s treatment of gastronomy and gourmandism are both innovative and also the product of the era, specifically the period from pre-Revolutionary France to the First Empire.

I do this by considering in turn, the key elements in his statement of authorial intent – the notion of the pleasures of the table; creating something more than a ‘mere cookery book’; the relationship of food to health, happiness and work; being behind the times; and holding one’s own among men of science. I am going to alter the strict sequence of these elements as they appear in the citation for the sake of the historic narrative of the restaurant and the life of Brillat-Savarin.

A warning, however. The story to be told is a complicated one, like Spang’s description of the story of the invention of the restaurant; ‘ in which subjects that are often considered unrelated – restaurant reviews and political banquets, fashionable innovation and Enlightenment science, revolutionary zeal and aesthetic hierarchies, adulterous dalliances and medicinal concoctions – overlap and intertwine’.[4] My version of this story in this assignment will be telegraphic and incomplete in order to remain reasonably within the word limit.
The relationship of food to health, happiness and work

The effect of the ingestion on particular foods and drinks on the health of the individual has been a source of discussion in Western culture since at least the times of Hippocrates. Similarly, dietary regimes were a part of Pythagorean, Cynic and Platonic practices. Similar writings continued throughout the middle ages.[5]

Parts of the Physiologie are firmly in the tradition of treatise on the health properties of various foods. For example, Brillat-Savarin’s views on the properties of chocolate place it still in the realm of a health drink. ‘(Chocolate) is an agreeable form of food….(It) has proved beneficial in cases of chronic illness, and remains the last resource in diseases of the pylorus.’[6] But his writing also shows the impact of Enlightenment scientific inquiry into the precise relationship between the constituent elements of food and their effect on the body. For example, ‘fish is much less nourishing than meat, either because it contains no osmazome, or because being much lighter in weight, it contains less matter in the same volume’.[7]

The birth of the native habitat of the gastronome, the restaurant, also derives from the earlier tradition of the effect of particular foods on particular temperaments and constitutions. Restaurants were, in their first form, literally places where one went to have a restaurant, a restorative broth. Indeed, the Encyclopedie of Diderot and Alembert, published just prior to Brillat-Savarin’s birth, gives restaurant as a medicinal term inclusive of a range of substance including broths, brandy, chickpeas and chocolate.[8] ‘In its initial, form, then, the restaurant was specifically a place one went not to eat, but to sit and weakly sip one’s restaurant.’[9] As restaurants began to incorporate meals into their fare, they promoted themselves as places where those of a sensitive temperament or digestion could eat lightly and with delicacy as opposed to being faced with the groaning board of an inn.

By the time of the Physiologie, however, the character of restaurants had changed significantly. Brillat-Savarin identified the change as deriving from the desire of a unnamed perceptive Frenchman to ensure that travellers in France, particularly those from other nations, ‘who had not the good fortune to be invited to dine at some rich house’ did not ‘leave our capital in total ignorance of the resources and delights of French cookery’.[10] Note the change in emphasis here. Restaurants are not promoted for the health properties of their fare, but for their opportunity to take ‘delight’ in food. More than this, Brillat-Savarin also catches the growing desire for convenience and economy in satisfying one’s needs: ‘A restaurateur is a person whose trade consists in offering to the public an every-ready feast, the dishes of which are served in separate portions, at fixed prices, at the request of each consumer. The establishment is called a restaurant…’.[11]
Holding one’s own among men of science

Spang shows how much culinary matters were a part of academic and erudite public discussion in the Old Regime. Diet and cookery, as subjects of wide relevance, fascinated many of the era’s most prominent thinkers, and were located, if not always at the center, then at least on the margins…of the major intellectual and artistic debates of the day’.[12] Etienne Laureault de Foncemagne wrote ‘scholarly prefaces to cookbooks; ‘abbe Claude Fleury commented on the varied cuisines of ancient peoples’; ‘the chevalier de Jaucourt, who wrote many of the articles on food, dining, and physiology for (Diderot’s) bEncyclopedie, explored diet and cuisine in his moralizing critique of “modern” luxury; ‘the aesthetician DuBos scattered references to food and cuisine throughout his Reflexions critiques sur la poeise et la peinture’.[13] Brillat-Savarin, as the son of a distinguished lawyer, a judge himself, representative of Belly at Versailles in the Constituent Assembly, would have socialised and dined in circles where material like this was conversational currency, where ‘interest in food was not a distinctive or peculiar preoccupation, but simply a part of being involved in general social, cultural, and political life’.[14]

The discussion was deeply affected by the surge in scientific inquiry during the Enlightenment. ‘….science seemed perpetually poised on the brink of proving even the most extraordinary claims; if blood circulated through the body…..who was to say that spices had not caused the fall of Rome, or that a change in the national diet might not do much to revive French poetry?’[15] Brillat-Savarin writes in this context in his discussion on the perfecting of the senses. Through spectacles ‘the eye escapes, so to speak, from the senile decay which afflicts most of our other organs’; the microscope ‘has given us knowledge of the interior configuration of bodies’; ‘machinery has multiplied strength’; and, finally and significantly, ‘the last few centuries have also seen important advances in the sphere of taste; the discovery of sugar and its various uses, alcohol, ices, vanilla, tea, and coffee provided our palate with hitherto unknown sensations’.[16]
More than mere cookery books

The Physiologie can strike one as a curiosity, a ‘polyphonic, ludic, and often downright disturbing text …forever playing with the heteroglossia and hyperbole characteristic of Renaissance and Classical table talk’.[17] Within its pages are scientific treatise (On the senses, On taste), discussions on the economics of food distribution (under the Advantages of Gourmandism), recipes, memoirs, philosophical meditations, poems. Was there precedent for this in writing about culinary matters?

The inclusion of culinary discussion is other texts has a long history. Santich points out that ‘advice and guidance on eating and drinking were(also) included in philosophic and medical writings of the ancient Greek and Roman areas, and information on food and drink, what and how to eat and cook were incorporated in a range of other texts, for example, treatises on agriculture and natural history’.[18]

I have already indicated that even in the Olden Regime writings on areas as wide ranging as philosophy and aesthetics commonly included discussion of dietary and culinary matters. Roze de Chantoiseau was himself a writer, creating the Almanach general d’indication d’adresse personnelle et domicile fixe des Six Corps, Arts de Metiers. This was an inventory of persons who enjoyed royal privilege, developed cures, were inventors or business innovators. It also included promotions for his restaurant.

The immediate precursor to the Physiologie in the gastronomic field is Grimod de la Reyniere’s Almanac de gourmands, a book ‘Interspersing anecdotes about meals eaten (or missed) with helpful hints, hyperbolic descriptions, restaurant reviews, and occasional elaborate recipes (which) combined the Classical Renaissance traditions of the symposium with the increasingly popular forms of the guidebook and the almanac’.[19]

This doesn’t sound far removed from the format of the Physiologie. Certainly de la Reyniere’s Almanac went further than Roze de Chantoisueau’s. The restaurant no longer had to be justified by an appeal to the health giving properties of its fare. “….early nineteenth century discussions of restaurant going came to focus …on the grand restaurant’s ability to stimulate and satisfy any desire, on its exemplary place in the spectacle that was Napoleon’s Paris.’[20] But this is only an artistic and aesthetic discourse.

What is different of Brillat-Savarin and the Physiologie is that it marries the passion for scientific investigation and discovery of the Enlightenment with the emergent passion for pleasure in food and in eating. In so doing it puts food at the centre of intellectual discourse for the first time. For this to happen, there needed to be a final shift, and that was shifting taking pleasure in food form gluttony to gourmandism.
The pleasures of the table

Spang says that by the time Roze de Chantoiseau opened his innovative take on the restaurant, the discourse on cuisine was expanding, ‘the curious product of mechanistic physiology, physiocratic emphasis on agriculture, and mondaine beliefs in the beneficial effects of luxury’.[21]

In Old Regime France, however, the tables at which the benefit of this luxury was available were largely private, those of the rich. Spang quotes the German Joachim Neimitz who was ‘singularly disappointed by the cooking at traiteur’s public table, but found ‘wealthy people of quality feast deliciously, for they all have their own cooks’.[22] It’s clear from Brillat-Savarin’s exposition of the origin of the restaurant that he was aware of these views, perhaps had encountered them first hand from foreign visitors he entertained in his position as magistrate or Assembly representative.[23]

The response to the economic threat being posed to French public cooks and other merchants who relied on travellers was the development of the restaurant beyond its role as purveyor of health to the frail and sensitive. The impact of this was the beginning of the democratisation of the table, a process given full impetus with the Revolution and its democratisation of all aspects of French society.

Brillat-Savarin was still in France during the early years of the Revolution and its likely he enjoyed these developments as much as the other gastronomes who were engaging in the expanding discourse Spang identifies. He was no longer in France, however, when the discourse changed during the Reign of Terror. The change began earlier, when, says Spang, the Revolutionary public table developed as ‘a stark contrast to the individualised service and attention to style that already characterised the earliest restaurants.’[24] These new tables ‘functioned as spaces of solidarity and uniformity, not distinction and restoration’.[25] As the Revolution progressed into the Terror, uniformity and frugality in food became as institutionalised as other areas of the life of its citizens. Finally, Bertrand Barere, Spokesman for the Committee of Public Safety, denounced the fraternal table as the hiding place of reactionaries with a revolutionary facade, as dissimulations of true fraternity and hospitality, and excuses ‘ for “the chefs of aristrocrats” to cook up a counter-revolution .[26] Any wonder that Brillat-Savarin stayed away.

By the time of de la Reyniere’s Almanac governmental attitudes to feasts and the public table had altered. They no longer bore the burden of overt political meaning. Or rather, they began to bear an alternative political meaning. In 1801, censors within the Ministry of Police began ‘avidly endorsing articles that might celebrate the regimes freedom of “pleasure” and religion’.[27] Gastronomic literature now had the space to create ‘ a world in which eating was not a biological imperative but an artistic passion….(exempting) itself from incendiary questions of subsistence, and (placing) the table squarely in the realm of literary and artistic debate’.[28]

Brillat-Savarin had returned to France in 1796 and was appointed to the staff of the future Marshal Augereau, specifically being put in charge of catering for the general staff. It is assumed that he began work on the Physiology during this time. That is, Brillat-Savarin while writing the meditations would have had access, and in all likelihood was reading the new gastronomic writing. Certainly he would have read the first edition of the Almanac in 1803, had even perhaps used its ground-breaking restaurant reviews to pursue his gastronomic needs.

Consider the following descriptions of gourmandism from the Physiologie:

…social gourmandism, which combines the elegance of Athens, the luxury of Rome, and the delicacy of France, and which unites careful planning with skilled performance, gustatory zeal with wise discrimination; a precise quality, which might well be called a virtue, and is at least the source of our purest pleasures…

Gourmandism is an impassioned, reasoned, and habitual preference for everything which gratifies the organ of taste.

Gourmandism is the enemy of excess; indigestion and drunkenness are offences which render the offender liable to be struck off the rolls.

Gourmandism includes friandise, which is simply the same preference applied to light, delicate, and insubstantial food, such as preserves and pastry.

From the moral point of view, it shows implicit obedience to the commands of the Creator, who, when He ordered us to eat in order to live, gave us the inducement of appetite, the encouragement of savour, and the reward of pleasure.[29]

Here is as explicit and thorough a manifesto of the new order as possible. It joyously re-instates pleasure in eating (and in sex, too, the sixth sense according to Brillat-Savarin). More than this, it gleefully damns the frugality of the Terror, with its implicit moral equation of anything above frugality with gluttony.

Most importantly, the Physiologie as a whole, re-asserts the classlessness of gourmandism. This is made explicit when Brillat-Savarin lists the advantages of the restaurant. ‘Anyone with fifteen or twenty pistoles at his disposal, who sits down at a table of a first-class restaurateur, eats as well and even better than if he were at the table of a prince; for the feast which is offered him is just as splendid, and moreover, having every conceivable dish at his command, he is undisturbed by an personal consideration’.[30]


This essay has shown how the arc of the development of the restaurant, the arc of the French Revolution, and the (re)birth of gastronomy provided the discursive space within which Brillat-Savarin could produce the Physiologie. It shows the whole of the Physiologie to have been of its time. It also shows how the Physiologie advanced gastronomy beyond its times.

The tale of how the vision of the democracy of gourmandism was corrupted into the elite gourmetism of the late 20th century is for another time.

[1] Brillat-Savarin p.21

[2] All dates for Brillat-Savarin are taken from Introduction: To Make A Restaurant in Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, Trans. Anne Drayton, (Penguin 1970) pp.9-12

[3] Rebecca L Spang, The Invention of the Restaurant. Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000) p.14

[4] Spang p.3

[5] Barbara Santich Lecturer presentation 2: A brief history of gastronomy. Material produced for Principles of Gastronomy subject in the Masters in Gastronomy, Le Cordon Bleu and the University of Adelaide, 201

[6] Brillat-Savarin p.108

[7] Brillat-Savarin p.85

[8] Spang p.1

[9] Spang p.2

[10] Brillat-Savarin 267-268

[11] Brillat-Savarin p.267

[12] Spang p.15

[13] Spang p.15

[14] Spang p.15

[15] Spang p.15

[16] Brillat-Savarin p.33

[17] Spang p.162 This is actually Spang’s description of de la Reyniere’s Almanac, but it seems to me equally good as a description of the Physiologie.

[18] Santich

[19] Spang p.151

[20] Spang p.151

[21] Spang p.16

[22] Spang p.7

[23] Brillat-Savarin pp.267-268

[24] Spang p.93

[25] Spang p.93

[26] Spang p.112

[27] Spang p.150

[28] Spang p.150

[29] Brillat-Savarin pp.132-133

[30] Brillat-Savarin pp.269

Paul van Reyk © 2002

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