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Book Review: The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

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I think it’s fair to say that cooking and eating have been topics of conversation for as long as humans have been engaging in such activities. That is, forever. It’s trendy to think that we are the first to try a 10-day fast or to cut out carbs or to ponder the link between sex and food. But, as we read in The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy (2011, Vintage), these things are at least as old as the French Revolution. Written in 1825 by the French judge Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and in continuous print ever since, The Physiology of Taste is a 444-page tome on all things food-related.

After spending a brief time in the United States in exile during the Revolution, Brillat-Savarin returned to his native France to gather a lifetime of food obsession and observation in this book. He does a fair amount of what might be interpreted as pretentious posturing, but this is balanced with an equal amount of self-deprecating humor. He somewhat pompously refers to himself as “The Professor,” even originally publishing this title anonymously as such, but he also is very quick to point out the unflattering elements of his appearance, for example. This back and forth is key to this work being relatable to today’s reader instead of slipping into the realm of dead documents. Brillat-Savarin is writing about the pleasures of the table and having fun doing so.

He opens with twenty succinct aphorisms, “tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are” being the most famous among them. The rest of the work, however, is not nearly so succinct. Like much nineteenth century writers, Brillat-Savarin can be long-winded, but I came to appreciate his attention to detail as he recounted each course of a dinner party, the demeanor of all those present, or his method for steaming an extremely large fish. All of these small elements come together to paint a very vivid picture of the experience of cooking and eating almost 200 years ago. His description of the perfect piece of toast, for example, made me want to go directly to the kitchen to make some.

In her 1949 translation, M.F.K. Fisher, a well-known food writer in her own right, provides not only a guide to the life and times of “The Professor,” but also a gentle lens through which to view him. She is admittedly smitten with the man and helps the reader to reach past his sometimes belabored points in order to see the witticisms nestled within. It is with her help that we can see how relevant this work is today and her notes truly do add much to the work.

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