Physiology of Gourmandism in Brillat-Savarin
By Pau Guinart
“Some knowledge of gastronomy is necessary to all men,
since it adds to the sum of human pleasures”
“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are”
Putting in context Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and his work means going back to one of them most crucial and exciting episodes of History: The Enlightenment. Brillat-Savarin was born in 1755 in Belley, France, an area well-known for its foodstuffs and wine. Since he was a little child he showed interest for knowing how food was prepared and he had often been caught in the kitchen looking and smelling his mother’s creations. While Brillat-Savarin was starting his magistracy in Belley, where he would later be elected Mayor of the town, France was experiencing the highest exponent of the Enlightenment process. Diderot and the encyclopaedists were finishing the Encyclopedie by the early 1770’s, culminating a process of twenty years of recompilation of information. This huge project reflected the spirit of a century in which the Anciene Regime had given shelter to a massive education of the population, and many exceptional intellectual figures had appeared. This group of people was known as the philosophes, being part of it personalities such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, Jean le Rond d’Alembert and the metaphysic materialists Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, and Julien Offray de La Mettrie among many others. Also Carl Linnaeus and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Compte de Buffon, had produced their works during the XVIII th. century, providing the illustrated community with revolutionary notions of taxonomy and biology.
All these authors were floating in the atmosphere where Brillat-Savarin was educated, but because he was from a province, and the eldest of eight brothers, his family pushed him to study Law in Dijon, where he also studied elementary Chemistry and Medicine. In 1789, the year when the French Revolution started, he was elected as representative to the National Assembly, where he vigorously defended the death penalty. He went back to his natal region and after a while the Jacobins took the power, establishing the Terror, and the Revolutionary Tribunal immediately accused him of “moderatism”. Due to the fact that he was declared an enemy to the Revolution, and a bounty had been put on his head, he had to flee to Switzerland, then to Holland and finally to the recently created United States. Wherever he was, Brillat-Savarin always tried to learn as much as he could about the autochthon cuisine. When he was in Switzerland he learned the art of preparing a proper fondue, and he particularly remembered a dinner he had with “chicken fricassee generously decorated with truffles” accompanied with “a sweet and magnanimous” white wine. During his three years in the United States he had to support himself playing as first violin for the John Street Theatre orchestra in New York and giving French lessons. Although he was not in the best situation to behave as a gourmand, he took advantage of all the occasions he had in order to taste and evaluate the new cuisine he was discovering in the New World. The Roasted Turkey, the Welsh Rarebit, the Corned Beef or the Punch were some of the new culinary creations he had the opportunity to enjoy. During that period, one day he had the chance to accompany a friend to meet the president-philosopher Thomas Jefferson, and he used that opportunity to ask him how to cook a wild turkey.
In 1797 Brillat-Savarin obtained the permit to return back to France, since Robespierre had just been guillotined. He had lost all his possessions in Belley, profoundly lamenting the loss of his vineyard, but after a short time he was named Councillor of the Supreme Court of Appeal and could enjoy a wealthy existence again. The rest of his life was spent peacefully, entertaining his friends lavishly and, in return, being invited to the best tables in Paris. He remained bachelor until he died in 1826, spending his free time writing on Economy, History and even a treatise on Duelling. He was also interested in Archaeology, Astronomy, Chemistry and, of course, Gastronomy. His death was provoked by a flu caught in the mass celebrated in honour of Louis XVI in the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Only two months before that, his book on gastronomy had anonymously appeared on the libraries with the complete name of: “Phisiologie du gout ou Meditations de gastronomie trascendente, ouvrage theorique, historique et a l’ordre du jour, dedie aux gastronomes parisiens par un professeur, membre de plusieurs societes litteraries et savantes”.
Brillat-Savarin’s work reflects interactions with philosophers and physicians of his time, many of whom he had had as guests sitting at his table. Therefore, in compensation to that, he had also been invited to the most magnificent banquets of Paris. Among his guests there were Napoleon’s doctor, Jean-Nicolas Corvisart, the famous surgeon Guillaume Dupuytren, the pathologist Jean Curvilhier, and other great minds. Through such interactions, Brillat-Savarin acquired knowledge about the chemistry of food and how it relates to the physiology of digestion.
Brillat-Savarin’s influence on cuisine has been extraordinary since his death, giving shape to the sense of taste of generations of chefs and gourmands coming after him, and also giving name to many gastronomic creations such as the cheese Brillat-Savarin.
The Physiology of Taste
“Brillat-Savarin: I was in the drawing room, enjoying
Gastronome: What? Eating in a drawing room?
Brillat-Savarin: I must beg you to observe, monsieur,
that I did not say I was eating my dinner, but enjoying it. I had dined an hour before.” 
Brillat-Savarin’s book experienced an immediate success, overcoming Grimord de la Reyniere’s gastronomic literature, due to the fact that it had the disproportionate ambition of converting the cuisine into a science. His continuous references to Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Anatomy could even make the text look a bit pedant, but his didactic spirit brought him to treat the discipline as an exact science, establishing all sorts of casual relations along with many anecdotes and some humour. This work was published in the right moment in order to contribute to the formation of a well educated and flourishing middle class, which respected the past and admired progress at the same time, and which, over all, had the aspiration to learn how to live better. Many people have regarded Brillat-Savarin’s book as “The Bible of gastronomy”, and it could be considered as the first gastronomic text ever written, since the ones produced before it, starting with Apicius, were only compilations of recipes.
The book consists on a collection of aphorisms, epigrams, anecdotes and essays on subjects as diverse as nutrition, obesity, appetite, gourmandism, digestion, dreams, frying, the end of the world, death or even a miniphilosophic history of cuisine which goes from man’s discovery of fire to the tables of Louis XVI. The main difference in relation to what Grimod de la Reyniere had been doing until that moment was that Brillat-Savarin attempted to find general principles which would liberate taste from authorities such as Grimod, who based his aesthetics of taste on the idiosyncrasies of each individual. His intention of offering a specific basis for the pleasures of taste was compatible with the “conservatism” because of which he had been sent into exile during the French Revolution. Making honour to the ideals of the Enlightenment, The Physiology of Taste is a noticeably egalitarian book.
As far as Brillat-Savarin was a man from the countryside who had been able to rise to the high ranks of the Parisian bourgeoisie, many people who were trying to improve their social standing took him as an example, and red his book in order to acquire refined sensibility. The culinary standards of excellence in The Physiology of Taste were not defined by professional chefs of the court, but by the quality of ingredients and a particular care on their preparation that could be learned by anyone. Although also eels and truffles are taken in consideration, they are not regarded as luxury items, but as part of a well stocked larder of any reasonably wealthy family. Brillat-Savarin even included the addresses of the best groceries and pastries in Paris at the end of the book, in order to help his readers to find the ingredients to cook at home. He also listed which ingredients came from France, which from England, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Africa, Holland and America, concluding that “a meal such as one can eat in Paris is a cosmopolitan whole in which every part of the world makes its appearance by way of its products” .
Brillat-Savarin’s literary style owes something to Montaigne’s essays and has the cadence of an age of leisured reading and of civilized pursuit of educated pleasures. His influences from the Encyclopedie are enriched by the taxonomical way of dealing with concepts like appetite, which he divides in different types depending on the specific characteristics like Linnaeus or Aristotle would have done. But his purpose was not only to write a systematized treatise on gastronomy, but also to entertain and give practical advices such as how to fry or ways of avoiding obesity. His kind and sincere speech is sometimes exalted with grandiloquent and self-confident sentences such as “The fate of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed” (Aphorisms III) which can remind us the French grandeur that Brillat-Savarin had also experienced in Napoleon’s period.
Just after his death some of his fellow gourmands couldn’t believe that Brillat-Savarin was the author of The Physiology of Taste. As Gussy said: “He ate copiously and badly, he didn’t select much, he spoke hesitating, without any vivacity in his eyes, and he usually felt asleep after the meal”, and also the great cook Careme declared about him that: “Neither Cameceres nor Brillat-Savarin ever Knew how to eat, they only filled their stomach”. But he also had a lot of admirers, especially Balzac, who once wrote about him: “From the XVI th. century, if we make an exception with La Ruyere and La Rochefoucault, none of the French prose writers have been able to give the phrase such prominence” .
“Animals feed: man eats.
Only the man of intellect knows how to eat”
Although very early in the book Brillat-Savarin admits that “man is far better equipped for suffering than for pleasure” (2.13), after a few lines he writes that “taste, such as Nature created it, remains as the one which, on the whole, gives us the maximum of delight”. He gives six reasons in order to justify his affirmation, for example: “because it is of all times, all ages, and all conditions” or also “because it can be enjoyed in company with all our other pleasures, and can even console us for their absence”, but over all, he points out that “the pleasure of eating is the only one which, enjoyed with moderation, is not followed by weariness” (2.13). The fact of emphasizing that the pleasure of eating must be enjoyed with moderation is very representative of what Brillat-Savarin is trying to communicate with his gastronomic meditations: that the sense of measure is as important in cooking as it is in eating. Right after pointing out that being restrained is fundamental in order to enjoy the sense of taste, the French gourmand says that it “is not followed by weariness”, which means that variety is basic if we want to give pleasure to our gustatory papillae. Measure and variety possibly are the two words which better define gourmandism, a concept which is tacitly present in the entire book and which is specifically studied in chapter 11.
Gourmandism is defined by Brillat-Savarin as “an impassioned, reasoned, and habitual preference for everything which gratifies the organ of taste. Gourmandism is the enemy of excess” and also “social gourmandism combines the elegance of Athens, the luxury of Rome, and the delicacy of France, and unites careful planning with skilled performance, gustatory zeal with wise discrimination” (11.55). From the beginning of the chapter dedicated to gourmandism the author especially emphasizes the fact that his intention is to clarify the endless confusion between gourmandism and gluttony or voracity, and that considered from whatever point of view, gourmandism deserves nothing but praise and encouragement.
According to Brillat-Savarin, as much as it involves peaceful and reciprocal exchange of objects serving for daily consumption, gourmandism is the common bond which unites the nations of the world. It should also be considered as an important source of wealth because “everything we consume pays tribute, and gourmands are the chief mainstay of every nation’s wealth… If nations were grateful, none would have better reason than France to raise altars and a temple to Gourmandism” (11.56). With this specification Brillat-Savarin tries to put the subject in the place it deserves and emphasize its importance, not only in each person’s private life, but also in a much general field such as world’s economy.
After pointing out the importance of gourmandism in economy, the French magistrate refers to the influence of gourmandism, not only on health, but particularly on beauty. Gourmandism seems to be favourable to beauty and “those who know how to eat look ten years younger than those to whom that science (gourmandism) is a mystery” (11.58). Brillat-Savarin, as Honore de Balzac or Walter Benjamin when they refer to the citizens of Paris, gave a lot of importance to physiology, and he even had a thesis on the physiological characteristics of gourmands: “Individuals predestined to gourmandism are generally of medium height; they have round or square faces, bright eyes, small foreheads, short noses, full lips, and well-rounded chins”, whereas “Those, on the contrary, to whom Nature has refused an aptitude for the pleasures of taste, have long faces, noses, and eyes; whatever their height, there is something elongated in their proportions. Their hair is dark and flat, and they are never plump; it was they who invented trousers” (11.62). This astonishing concluding sentence gives us a testimony of the French delicacy and care for details. Such precise perceptions can also be found in Balzac’s book Tell me how you walk, you take drugs, you dress and eat, and I will tell you who you are, much influenced by Brillat-Savarin, and where the French writer tries to build a revolutionary theory on walking. They can also be found in Walter Benjamin’s Essays on Baudelaire, where the German philosopher pays attention to the smallest details of Paris’ boulevards in order to find symptoms of Modernity in them. They all share the same refined sensibility thanks to which they can come up with universal laws which derive from very carefully observed particular cases.
The effects of gourmandism on sociability are also pointed out by Brillat-Savarin when he says that it is one of the principal bonds of society and that it “brings all sorts of people together, moulds them into a single whole, sets them talking, and rounds off the sharp corners of conventional inequality” (11.59). As he says in one of the aphorisms (XVIII) that open The Physiology of Taste: the man who invites friends at his table is responsible of their amusement while they are his guests. That is what makes the relations flow, since once someone is invited to a table he usually shows gratitude, provably brings a present, and afterwards invites the host to his next banquet, and so on. But gourmandism is not only considered important for social relations, but also for conjugal happiness: “gourmandism, when is shared, has the most marked influence on the happiness which can be found in the married state… they talk not only about what they are eating, but also of what they have eaten, what they are about to eat, what they have observed at other houses, fashionable dishes, new culinary inventions, etc; and such chat is full of charm” (11.60). Regarding the fact that Brillat-Savarin remained as a bachelor all his life (although he knew love with women of doubtful moral) he was able to imagine quite well how a married couple of gourmands would be, and he is also defining gourmandism through this description. It is interesting to state that one of the things a gourmand would do is to talk about what he has observed at other houses, showing that an accurate perception is one of the principal features a gourmand should have. Even when a meal is not good enough, a model gourmand still observes what is occurring on the table: “…observations I once made in a dinner party, quorum pars magna fui, where the pleasure of observing saved me from the agonies of suffering” (4.24).
Gourmandism is not only praised for its aesthetical qualities and the pleasures it offers, but also because of its healthy qualities. According to Doctor Villermet’s quoted studies, “mortality diminishes in proportion to the increased ability to eat well” (12.69) and Brillat-Savarin adds to this information that those who enjoy good cheer never fall sick and also that, all things being equal, they not only look ten years younger but usually live longer than others. The author’s particular aversion towards doctors is connected to this point due to the fact that he considers their medical prescriptions “useless” when they try to make a sick person eat what he doesn’t want: “I wish before I die to reprove them for the barbarous severity they show towards their patients… the sick almost never want to eat what would do them harm” (12.65). Brillat-Savarin thinks that a good doctor should always observe the natural tendencies of his patients, and never forget that distressing sensations are prejudicial by nature, and pleasant ones beneficial, a point of view which can be understood as another reason why gourmandism should always be encouraged.
Once having given the word gourmandism the meaning it deserved, Brillat-Savarin has achieved one of the goals he had when he started writing the book (Part Two: Transition), and he thinks that it is time to hail it now as one of the greatest attitudes towards life: “All honour to gourmandism, such as we describe it to our readers, as long as it does not make a man lazy or extravagant!” (11.60) but always remembering that: “When gourmandism becomes gluttony, greed, and debauchery, it loses both its name and its advantages”.
Gourmandism Today and Personal Considerations
More than two centuries after The Physiology of Taste was published, it could be considered that occidental society has achieved such a level of wealth that almost everyone has the opportunity to be a gourmand. As far as being a gourmand means to be able to carefully select the food that is going to be eaten, and do it with measure, it seems that our society offers the possibility of behaving as a gourmand without many problems. It is true that a lot of the food that one can find in a supermarket is not what Brillat-Savarin would consider worth eating, but that is because publicity and marketing campaigns are stronger than people’s information or their capacity to ignore them. If Brillat-Savarin was alive today he would only buy fresh and seasonal fruits or vegetables, free range chicken, wild salmon, etc. so the task of a gourmand nowadays is to select the best products from the huge amount of adulterated food that is offered in any supermarket.
Real gourmands don’t really give much importance to the price of foodstuffs, but they do care about their quality and the way they are prepared. Whereas in the XVIII century for most of the people the trouble was just to find food, nowadays the problem is to find out which is the best of the producers of the same product. In a similar manner as how Brillat-Savarin brought the cuisine of the French king’s court down to the flourishing bourgeoisie by means of writing a book on gastronomy, today there are thousands of books published every year talking about food and how to prepare it. But despite all this endless bibliography, Brillat-Savarin’s work is still valid because of its unique lessons of sensibility. Such an illustrated book gives a wide and general coverage of what cooking and eating means in a civilized context, whereas most of nowadays cooking books are too specialized to attend these questions. One of the last books written with Brillat-Savarin’s educational spirit was Jean-François Revel’s Un festin en paroles, which is very influenced by The Physiology of Taste, and which has also influenced great contemporary chefs such as Ferran Adria.
The kind of gourmandism represented by Brillat-Savarin and the Parisian high-society, with which he ate at the best banquets and restaurants, is nowadays represented by different evaluating organisations headed by the Michelin Guide. In the last few years a new kind of cuisine has been recognised by these evaluators, and a revolutionary methodology of preparing food has been executed by chefs like Ferran Adria or Heston Blumenthal. Even though some well-known fellow chefs such as Santi Santamaria have criticized this kind of cuisine for being too artificial, the basic principles they use are alike to those which Brillat-Savarin proposed in his Physiology of Taste. Among the 23 points of the Synthesis of El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s restaurant, the first three could be perfectly accepted by Brillat-Savarin:
- Cooking is a language through which all the following properties may be expressed: harmony, creativity, happiness, beauty, poetry, complexity, magic, humour, provocation and culture.
- The use of top quality products and technical knowledge to prepare them properly are taken for granted.
- All products have the same gastronomic value, regardless of their price.
The first point’s properties are almost exactly what Brillat-Savarin tries to express and make us feel with his texts, and the second and third represent the capacity of selecting and the open-mindedness a good gourmand should always have.
- Although the characteristics of the products may be modified (temperature, texture, shape, etc.) the aim is always to preserve the purity of their original flavour.
The gourmand open-mindedness is again represented in the fifth principle, where, although the characteristics of the products may be modified, the essence of the food remains the same and the properties of the first principle can be exalted at the same time.
- The information given off by a dish is enjoyed through the senses; it is also enjoyed and interpreted by reflection.
In this last principle the parallelism with Brillat-Savarin’s conception of cuisine is obvious in the first part, but also the second part is comparable to what the French gourmand wrote in the Preface of his book: “I consider pleasures of the table in all their aspects… often at the most sumptuous banquets I have been saved from boredom by the pleasure I derived from my observations”.
After all, in their essence, things haven’t changed too much. As Plato said: “Once someone has known the Good, it’s not possible for him to do bad anymore”. Good things don’t change, and if they do so, is just in order to keep being the same.
Balzac, Honore. Dime como andas, te drogas, vistes y comes, y te dire quien eres. Tusquets. Barcelona. 2005
Benjamin, Walter. Essays on Baudelaire. Michael Jennings Ed. New York.2006
Blom, Philip. Encyclopedie. Anagrama. Barcelona. 2007
Brillat-Savarin, Jean-Anthelme. Physiology of Taste. Penguin Classics. London. 1994
Onfray, Michel. La razon del gourmet. De la Flor Ed. Buenos Aires. 1999
Revel, Jean-Francois. Un festin en palabras. Tusquets Ed. Barcelona. 1996
Revel, Jean-Francois. Culture and Cuisine. Doubleday. 1982
All the contextual and bibliographical information has been taken from: P. Blom. Encyclopedie.2007; M. Onfray. La razon del gourmet. 1999. J. A. Brillat-Savarin. Physiology of Taste (Introduction).1994; www.chaineus. org /Brillat-Savarin; www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Anthelme_Brillat-Savarin
 H. Balzac. Dime como andas, te drogas, vistes y comes, y te dire quien eres. 2005
 The information related to The Physiology of Taste has been taken from: P. Blom. Encyclopedie.2007; M. Onfray. La razon del gourmet. 1999. J. A. Brillat-Savarin. Physiology of Taste. 1994; www.answers.com/top ic/anthelme-brillat-savarin; apuntes.rincondelvago.com/la-fisiologia-del-gusto_jean-anthelme-brillat-savarin;
 J.F. Revel. Culture and Cuisine. 1982
 Op. cit.
W. Benjamin. Essays on Baudelaire. 2006
In the title of this book Balzac imitates Brillat-Savarin’s maxim “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are”.
J.F. Revel. Un festin en palabras. 1996