The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin

The title page of Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of TasteOften cited as the most influential food book ever published in the western world, The Physiology of Taste was written by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.  Born in 1755 in Belley, France, “B-S”[1] grew up to become first a lawyer and then a judge in provincial France during, well, a fairly tumultuous time in European history.  The details of his life are fascinating.  My copy of TPT includes a brief biography containing lines like “crossed swords with Robespierre” and “incurred the displeasure of Napoleon”.  While he did live in exile in America for a short while, B-S managed to keep his head and most of his property throughout the Revolution and the Napoleonic years.  It was in the last years of his life that he wrote his most lasting work, The Physiology of Taste.

Even if you’ve never heard of B-S or this book, you’ve almost certainly heard some of the lines contained within.  Some have become proverbs.  He wrote, for instance, “You are what you eat.” (Okay, he wasn’t quite that succinct.  His aphorism is usually translated, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”  He also recognized that, “The destiny of nations depends on how they feed themselves.”  This line is often quoted by modern real-food crusaders like Michael Pollan.

One particularly hilarious quote that I’ve heard quoted multiple times: “A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”

Several of his one-liners are peppered throughout the work of nerdy food educators like Alton Brown (and me):

“We can learn to be cooks, but we must be born knowing how to roast.”

“Turkey is truly the finest gift that the New World gave to the Old.”

These quotes hopefully illustrate that despite its intimidating, scientific-treatise-sounding title, The Physiology of Taste contains all manner of quips, jokes, anecdotes, and practical advice.  It is a glimpse into classical French cuisine in all its decadence, including truffled turkey and Sauternes and foie gras, as well as a compendium of sound information on classic techniques like deep-frying.  It is a rich and deeply gratifying read, but I think what is most important, and what makes it so timeless, is Brillat-Savarin’s Doctrine of Gastronomy, which is very simple, but profound.

Allow me to paraphrase.

God wants us to eat.  To facilitate this process, He first stimulates us with Appetite, and then rewards us with Pleasure.  In eating and sating your hunger you are doing what you have been designed to do.  The point here is the connection between food and pleasure, and the idea that you needn’t feel shame in that pleasure, because the pleasure is an intrinsic part of the equation.

Immediately after hearing this many folks react with disgust and incredulity: “If all we did was sate our appetites we’d eat fat and sugar and alcohol all day and we’d all die early deaths!”

The second tenant of gastronomy is that all things must be taken in Moderation. Though promoting the pleasures of the table, Brillat-Savarin abhorred gluttony and drunkenness.  His ability to frankly enjoy and even revel in gastronomic pleasure while exercising restraint is the very essence of elegance and civility.

So yes: a hugely influential book.  There is in fact an entire group of writers and eaters that I consider direct intellectual descendants of Brillat-Savarin.  I’d like to discuss them each in turn, but the two main ones are MFK Fisher (who actually translated my edition of The Physiology of Taste from French to English…) and Jeffrey Steingarten, probably my favourite living food writer.

I have never met another human being in the flesh who has read B-S or MFK Fisher.  I know they exist but I’ve never met them or at least never talked to them about it.  By which I mean this is an über-nerdy and esoteric topic that I don’t expect many to take an interest in.  Stay tuned for more!

 

#ButtonSoupLibrary might or might not become a series of posts about my favourite books on food, including but not limited to conventional cookbooks.

 

  1. Unfortunate initials, I know.

Book Review: Salumi by Ruhlman and Polcyn

Ruhlman and Polcyn's new book SalumiMichael Ruhlman is one of my favourite food writers, and a handful of his books have changed the way I think about food and cooking.  I’m convinced that his book Ratio is the single most powerful and pragmatic cookbook ever written.  He had a hand in The French Laundry Cookbook, one of the most influential cookbooks of the last twenty years.  In his narrative Soul of a Chef he describes the discipline and dedication required to work in kitchens like that of The French Laundry.  And of course there is the seminal book Charcuterie, a collaboration between Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn that almost single-handedly started a cured meat revival in restaurants and home kitchens and backyards across North America.

The book Salumi has been branded as a companion to Charcuterie.  This is clear in the packaging: the book is from the same publisher, its the same size, and filled with the same instructive line drawings, though happily with the inclusion of some colour photographs, too.  Salumi is broken into four sections.  The first is theory and ingredients, then some basic recipes, followed by more complex recipes, and finally a chapter on cooking with salumi.

The chapter on dry-cured meats in Charcuterie is so thorough, both in theories and recipes, that I’ve been curious to see what new content would be introduced in Salumi ever since murmurs of the book first appeared on Ruhlman’s blog.

Thankfully there is some great original content in the theory and ingredients section.  Most important I think are the detailed instructions on cutting whole pigs in both the Italian and American fashions.  The logistics and economics of buying whole hogs was addressed in Charcuterie, so the most valuable info here is how to remove unique Italians cuts of pork like coppa, and how to clean a hing leg to make prosciutto.

While there is a lot of redundant information between this book and Charcuterie, there are some very interesting departures.  For instance, in Salumi all of the whole muscle cuts – coppa, pancettaguanciale, and so on – are cured with sea salt, without any sodium nitrate.  (The only exception is if you plan to roll your pancetta, than nitrite is recommended.)

There is also an interesting section on fermenting salami with natural bacteria.  While all the salami recipes in Salumi do call for Bacto-Ferm, there is a brief but informative discussion of how you could develop the same tanginess in your sausages without commercial products.

Since I just got my hands on the book last week, I haven’t had the chance to try any of the recipes.  There is a good variety, and if they are as reliable as the ones in Charcuterie they will be fantastic starting points from which to develop unique recipes tailored to your individual tastes.

The final chapter on serving and cooking with salumi is the least interesting to me, but there are some good ideas for condiments.

All in all, while Salumi is nowhere near as densely informative as Charcuterie, I think it’s a great reference on this hallowed corner of the cured meat universe.