The Physiology of Taste, Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy

The Physiology of Taste, Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy

Book - 2009
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A culinary classic on the joys of the table--written by the gourmand who so famously stated, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are"--in a handsome new edition of M. F. K. Fisher's distinguished translation and with a new introduction by Bill Buford.

First published in France in 1825 and continuously in print ever since, The Physiology of Taste is a historical, philosophical, and ultimately Epicurean collection of recipes, reflections, and anecdotes on everything and anything gastronomical. Brillat-Savarin, who spent his days eating through the famed food capital of Dijon, lent a shrewd, exuberant, and comically witty voice to culinary matters that still resonate today: the rise of the destination restaurant, diet and weight, digestion, and taste and sensibility.
Publisher: New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2009
ISBN: 9780307269720
Call Number: 641.013 B7698pf 2009
Characteristics: lviii, 446 p. ; 21 cm


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Nov 10, 2018

Most of what we know about gastronomy, the French knew two hundred years ago. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was a lawyer, judge and mayor but spent the last twenty-five years of his life doing something even more significant: compiling all known knowledge of human nutrition into book form. Continuously in print, still widely quoted, still lovingly admired by top chefs, still referenced by culinary experts and foodies all over the world, The Physiology of Taste is a witty guide for how the best life ought to be lived.

Gastronomy, the study of food and culture, is a meal quickly forgotten and at the same time the very foundation of civilization. In a personal sense, he writes that to be a gourmandise is to be equated with social character and therefore free from the gluttony and intemperance with which it is often confounded. Yet in a greater perspective, the fate of nations is often decided on in a banquet. Even “savages” discussed important affairs over feasts. When deciding weighty issues, which judge would you prefer: one who has just returned from lunch or one who has been fasting?

It seems as if the narrator is often just returning from lunch himself. He certainly is someone you’d love to invite to dinner. Apparently many people did. There are descriptions of elaborate meals which are as much fun to read as they must have been to experience. Often these tales of extravagant multi-course adventures in eating become almost parodies, like a BBC4 satire of 19th century pompous French aristocrats. Is Brillat-Savarin showing off? Or is he making fun of himself?

Collected herein is an abundance of science-based writing which unexpectedly holds up (taste is mostly smell, for example). And some that humorously does not. Chocolate is as healthful a food as it is pleasant, he writes, and is a prescription for obesity. Coffee is not. He warns that a man can drink two bottles of wine a day for a long time but if he drank that quantity of coffee he would become imbecile and die of consumption. Caffeine, obviously, has yet to be discovered.

The accompanying aphorisms are indisputably the reason this book remains in print. Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are is the best known. The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star and A meal without wine is like a day without sun are a few more quotes you might have come across on hand-painted signs while stumbling through a cute cafe or wine shop.

The kindle 2004 Robinson translation is like a quiet friend sharing conversation over a dimly-lit dinner. The best-selling book was translated by M.F.K. Fisher in 1959. That version is like a screaming party full of wild teenagers drinking for the first time, with mom in the corner, crazy drunk herself, narrating. (Her opinions are without basis in fact, ubiquitous and labeled “glosses.”) The updated 2009 Fisher version includes an introduction by Bill Buford (“Heat”). Buford becomes the calm dad in this metaphor, bringing the crazy kids and the self-absorbed, chatty mom together to calm down enough to laugh at themselves. He lays down a much-needed foundation, beginning with an explanation of the original subtitle (“A Theoretical, Historical, and Contemporary work Dedicated to the Gastronomes of Paris, by a Professor, a Member of Several Literary and Scholarly Societies”) and ending with a convincing argument that Brillat-Savarin is playing with us, tongue-in-cheek. With this final layer of information, the book is easily digested in the manner to which it was intended: pure enjoyment.


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