Sunday, May 1, 2011

Philosopher in the kitchen

Very French-sounding concept, that, isn't it? It's actually the English title of 'La physiologie du gout' (Physiology of taste) by the great French writer on gastronomy, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin(1755--1826). It's a gorgeous book, full of witty and intriguing anecdotes, stories from his life, sharp observation, funny theorising and precise and amusing aphorisms, and I love it and frequently dip into it.

Born in Belley, in the Savoy region of France in 1755, Brillat-Savarin studied law, medicine and chemistry and became a lawyer in his home town. In 1789 at the outbreak of the Revolution, he was sent as a deputy to the newly formed National Assembly where he served for a short while. He later became Mayor of Belley in 1793, but during the Terror fell foul of Robespierre and his gang and with a price on his head, fled into Switzerland. One of the loveliest and most characteristic of stories about him is that when he was fleeing in danger of his life, he still stopped for lunch at an inn and had an excellent meal, and never mind the revolutionary soldiers hot on his trail! But to cap it all off, those very same soldiers also stopped to have a good lunch--proof that even in a revolution, gastronomy is to be treated with respect in France!

Later, Brillat-Savarin emigrated to America, where he spent a few years, earning his living by giving French lessons and playing the violin in an orchestra(he was also a gifted musician) but returned to France in 1797, under Napoleon's Directoire, and became a magistrate, living in peace, honour and gastronomic bliss in Paris for the rest of his life. He'd often written as a hobby, but was finally persuaded by his friends to write a book compiling his many observations, anecdotes and theories on gastronomy. He self-published La Physiologie du Gout in December 1825, but modestly, did not append his name to it. The book was an immediate success--and soon 'tout Paris' had guessed the identity of the author, and Brillat-Savarin was famous. But he did not long enjoy his fame, dying in February 1826.

His book has had a long and honoured life in France ever since then, and in the greatest accolade of all, his name was given to a delicious soft cheese from Normandy, the Brillat-Savarin, and to a baba-like succulent yeast cake, the Savarin.

Philosopher in the Kitchen is most certainly not a standard cookbook--there are only a few recipes--but it's a great pleasure to read, with a timeless, engaging appeal. For it is not only about gastronomy as both a science and an art--but above all as a way of life. Brillat-Savarin was a gourmet, a raconteur and a bon vivant(funnily apposite, isn't it, how all those terms have to be rendered in French even in English, as it were!)but he also truly was a philosopher and his mind ranged widely over many subjects.

His book does not confine itself to observations on cooking or food and drink in general--he has chapters on all sorts of aspects of human life, such as sleep and dreams, and even including death! His historical and literary erudition is worn very lightly and though some of his theorising seems quaint now, a lot of it is still very relevant indeed and has been very influential. He was the first to suggest a low-carb diet as a way of countering obesity, for instance. And some of his aphorisms have entered common parlance. For instance, it was he who coined the famous aphorism, 'Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.'

But there's lots more worth quoting from in this book, here are a few for your pleasure:

The fate of nations depends on the way they eat.

The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.

The Creator, who made man such that he must eat to live, incites him to eat by means of appetite, and rewards him with pleasure.

The man who invites his friends to his table and fails to give his personal attention to the meal they are going to eat, is unworthy to have any friends.

Another gorgeous aphorism which isn't rendered as such but which I'm paraphrasing from one of his chapters, on the senses, is this:

There are six senses--sight, hearing, smell, taste; touch--and love.

And to finish, here's an extract from a fabulous and amusing short chapter entitled 'Privations' which I think encapsulates some of this book's enduring charm:

First parents of the human race, whose gourmandism is historical: you lost all for an apple, what would you not have done for a truffled turkey? But in the earthly paradise there were no cooks or confectioners. How I pity you!

Great kings who laid proud Troy in ruins, your valour will go down from age to age; but your table was pitiful. reduced to ox-thighs and the backs of swine, you never knew the charms of fish-stew, nor the bliss of chicken fricassee. How I pity you!

Aspasia, Choloe, and all you others whom Grecian chisels made eternal for the despair of the beauties of today, never did your charming mouths taste the suavity of rose or vanilla meringue; you scarcely even advanced as far as gingerbread. How I pity you!

Invincible paladins, celebrated in the songs of troubadours, when you had smitten giants hip and thigh, set damsels free and wiped out armies of the foe, no black-eyed captive maiden brought you sparkling champagne, Madeira malvoisie, or our great century's liqueurs; you were reduced to ale or Suresnes wine. How I pity you!

And you too, gastronomes of 1825, sated already in the midst of plenty, and dreaming now of novel dishes, you will never know the mysteries science shall reveal in 1900, mineral esculences perhaps, liqueurs distilled from a hundred atmospheres; you will never see what travellers as yet unborn shall bring from that half of the globe which still remains to be discovered or explored:

How I pity you!

No comments:

Post a Comment