That question from reader Cynthia. The answer is that Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was a writer and eater who was also part scientist, part physician, part philosopher and part critic. He was, in other words, a man of letters who lived and thrived before modern specialized society put up the barriers that now mostly divide the humanities and the sciences. Thomas Jefferson was such a person, as I’ve remarked in the past, which makes it unsurprising that he and Brillat-Savarin knew each another. Jefferson in fact taught Brillat-Savarin how to truss a turkey. But as usual I’m getting ahead of myself.
Brillat-Savarin was a lawyer by profession, from a small town in central France called Belley. He lived during the time of the French Revolution, and though he wasn’t a member of the aristocracy, he managed to land himself on the Jacobins’ enemies list and was forced to leave France. Initially he fled to Switzerland but shortly made his way to the States where he taught languages (he spoke five of them) and played violin to pay the rent. He lived abroad for roughly four years, then returned to France where he became a permanent justice on France’s high court of appeals.
An odd career trajectory to be sure, especially for a fellow whose main preoccupation was with the art and science of eating, “gastronomy” in other words. Brillat-Savarin had in intense interest in what he felt were the scientific underpinnings of enjoying a good meal. He therefore devoted a great deal of time and energy to investigating technical matters pertaining to food consumption: the senses — especially taste and smell — digestion, indigestion, nutrition, the composition and characteristics of different foodstuffs, the causes of obesity, the causes of thinness, the effect of diet on sleep and dreams, the effects of acids on the stomach…the list goes on.
In time he produced a monumental book on the subject, called The Physiology of Taste, or Meditation on Transcendent Gastronomy, a Work Theoretical, Historical, and Programmed. Today we know it simply as The Physiology of Taste, though by present day standards it is less a book on physiology than a collection of essays on food with some science, personal anecdotes, humor, recipes and the occasional diatribe thrown in (hmm…something about that seems familiar). It’s a classic in the field of food writing and indeed it hasn’t been out of print since it was first published in 1826, just a few months before Brillat-Savarin’s death.
Today Brillat-Savarin is best known for a single quote, one that appeared at the opening of each episode of the original Japanese Iron Chef series: “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” It’s a pretty high-minded line, and one that isn’t terribly characteristic of Brillat-Savarin’s writing, which is actually quite charming and even occasionally folksy. Take this great quote from The Physiology of Taste:
Those who have been too long at their labor, who have drunk too long at the cup of voluptuousness, who feel they have become temporarily inhumane, who are tormented by their families, who find life sad and love ephemeral……they should all eat chocolate and they will be comforted.
Truer words have never been spoken, have they? We find sentiments like these charming, and on some level Brillat-Savrin probably did as well, though it’s important to remember that for him this wasn’t just a wry saying, it was a prescription. Just as with most physicians of the day, Brillat-Savarin saw food as more than food, in fact he regarded it as medicine. Interesting, isn’t it, how after a lengthy period during which foods and drugs were considered very different things, we’re starting to come back around to Brillat-Savarin’s way of thinking. Just witness the nutraceuticals movement.
Yet Brillat-Savarin’s investigations into food and eating went beyond even that. Sure, he wanted to know how food is related to health. But in what way — precisely — is it related to pleasure, beauty, passion, truth and human happiness? We’re still trying to puzzle all that out. But Brillat-Savarin was among the first to consider those questions as being worthy of serious, scholarly inquiry. And it’s for this that he is remembered.