Reader Allen wants to know if Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste was more a book about science and physiology or more about philosophy and other intangibles/ineffables. The answer is yes. You really have to read the book to get a feel for it, Allen, or at least a few parts of it. To me it’s really about fun.
When you set out to tackle Physiology it’s important to remember that it is very much a product of its time: the mid-Enlightenment. This was a period when most learned people took a keen interest in science and the physical world, but practiced science rather informally. Yes the scientific method was around, but techniques for conducting experiments were still evolving, so more than a few of the “science” books written around the time were simple collections of observations, anecdotes and speculations.
Many are delightful things to read. Even the tables of contents are amusing…long lists of subjects and sub-subjects that often veer off in odd and sometimes hilarious directions. In an encyclopedia of the time — and indeed there were lots, because they were very much in vogue — you might have a chapter entitled “Astronomical Phenomena”. Beneath that, a topic list might read something like:
The Sun and Its Rotation — Phases of the Moon — Stars & Their Origin — Constellations Over the Millennia — Cultural Interpretations — Christianity, Howler Monkey Reproduction, etc.
Etcetera? Suddenly you’re rifling through the book trying to figure out how the author got from point A to point B to the square root of last Tuesday. That’s sort of how The Physiology of Taste works, though to be honest Brillat-Savarin makes a very good show of being organized at the outset. The first half starts out with very sensible definitions and taxonomies of the senses, foods, cooking methods, drinks and such, punctuated with only a few odd digressions into oh say, the end of the world.
By the middle of the book Brillat-Savarin is on shakier ground as he muses on diet, sleep, dreaming, low-carb diets and death. By the end he’s truly all over the place. The second half of the book is a hodgepodge of chapters covering everything from “Eggs in Gravy” to “Ablutions”, “Disappointment”, “Three Strengthening Prescriptions, Devised by The Professor to Meet the Case of Meditation 25” and “Traveller’s Luck.” You get the idea.
Organizational problems aside, the main thing you come away with when you start to get into the text is that Brillat-Savarin began with the noblest of intentions. He seems to have set out believing that the practice of eating — perhaps it’s fairer to say the the practice of enjoying eating — could be reduced to an actual science with a set of governing laws. In that he clearly failed, as his book reads like a full transcription of the Society of Amateur Foodologists’ annual meeting, the members of which are getting drunker as the evening wears on.
Funnier, too. For that’s something else you take away from Physiology, what a card Brillat-Savarin was. No doubt I didn’t get half the jokes he intended when I was browsing the book over the weekend, but there’s no question he wrote much of the text with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Some sections start out with a clinical tone, then he just seems to give up and get cheeky instead. Even the several pages of aphorisms that open the book — no doubt his own — seem put there as fair warning for the many servings of hokum to come.
So why then, given all its faults, is The Physiology of Taste regarded as such a watershed in gastronomy and food writing? That’s an excellent question. Indeed there many other, more genuinely scientific books that appeared right around the time of Physiology‘s publication that aren’t nearly as well known today. I think it’s because the book is, quite simply, charming. Brillat-Savarin never did succeed in making a proper science out of eating, but he did manage to capture the odd mix of deadly earnestness and childlike joy that serious eaters bring to the dinner table…to say nothing of the semi-informed, semi-sober musing they engage in there. In that way he managed to put his finger on something that no one else did, or maybe ever has as well.