Thursday, June 3, 2010

Brillat-Savarin and the very bonnest of mots

A small divertissement, if you will be so kind as to indulge me.

This week I’ve been reading Brillat-Savarin’s “The Philosopher in the Kitchen” and it’s wonderful. I have a modest passion for the history of cooking and attitudes towards food and I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, but F dropped a copy in my lap and it’s been good cheer ever since.

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote at a time when hyphens were plentiful and Napoleon was fading from memory. He was a lawyer and a politician, a violin player and teacher. His legend was written with the release of his “The Physiology of Taste” and dashed when he became the spiritual leader of Iron Chef.

It’s fun in the twenty-first century to read Brillat-Savarin and to savour the gap between his world and ours. For example, he offers a typology of gourmands which elevates the love of food to something close to deity. Some of us are doomed to be denied the pleasures of the (cooked) flesh, whilst others are born to lustfully enjoy oral (and gastronomical) sensual pleasures. To quote the man, “I believe in innate tendencies.” You either have it or you don’t.

Savarin (the cake, not the man)
photo by flickr user open-arms

The revolution is clearly long gone in France by the time Brillat-Savarin writes, and for him a man must be measured by his birthright (and his inherited assets). You can either enjoy the culinary arts with a pleasure that glides from the curves of velvety sensuality to the apex of fiery lust, or you can eat shit and die like a peasant. Are you with us, or do you smell like a turd in a barn? Anyone who calls financiers “the heroes of gourmandism” did not live in the same century as Macquarie Bank or Goldman Sachs.

Brillat-Savarin’s taxonomy of gourmands suggests his higher thoughts were well and truly taxed. Gourmands were born, and these could be spotted at a distance by their “ unusually acute perception of certain sensations” and a passion that “acts on the muscles… and… leaves visible traces, and so give a permanent and recognizable character to the physiognomy.”

Indeed, those predestined to be gourmands are “generally of medium height; they have round or square faces, bright eyes, small foreheads, short noses, full lips, and well-rounded chins.” Except, of course, for the women who love sweet things, for they, “have finer features, a more delicate air, neater figures, and above all, a very special way with their tongues.” Nurse!

Of course, those who “refused an aptitude for the pleasures of taste, have long faces, noses and eyes, whatever their height”… I’ve got a bad feeling that could be describing me.

In any event, Mr Brie has been a jolly good read and there’s much I want to share, cut into fat slices as befits a nineteenth century gentleman and gourmand, so over the next few weeks I’m going to dip into the old Jean-Anthelme Yeast-Cake and pull out some of the bonnest of mots. Bon appetite!

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