A Lawyer Who Changed Hats: The Father of Gastronomy or the Story of a Judge and his Stomach.

Many lawyers have left the law for another career and/or gained fame as something other than being a lawyer. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826 Paris) did some of that. While he didn’t leave the law and ultimately became a judge of the Court of Cassation  appointed for life by Napolean Bonoparte under the new post-Revolution rules, he became best known for his epicurean tastes and associated writings. Mr. Brillat-Savarin wore multiple hats in his many career changes two of which endure to this day: he made consumption of food significant and applauded savant diners.

He was successful as a lawyer.

Like his forefathers, who had been for several generations devoted to the bar, the profession which pleased him, in consequence of his possession of great eloquence, he practised with great success.

As a judge he often worked on his magnum opus while presiding in court. His life (1755-1826) spanned perhaps the most turbulent period of France’s history.

Brillat-Savarin was a succesful French lawyer/Counsel of the Court of Cassation and politician who gained fame as an epicure and French gastronome when he wrote the gastronomic gem “The Physiology of Taste” (Physiologie Du Gout) which resonates nearly 200 years later. (“Physiology”)

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Portrait  of Jean-Antheime Brillat Savarin (1755-1826)  in Court attire – wig, cravat (jabot) and gown  engraved by Lambert, May 1789   

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A published writer on politics, economics, law and jurisprudence, as well as fiction, Brillat-Savarin is remembered mainly for The Physiology of Taste published in 1825.  Other successful works include “Critical and Historical Essay on Duel, with Relation to our Legislation and Morals,” and a work on judicial practice. (from “Physiology”).

While lawyers, politicians, historians and history buffs know this man for his multiple parts in legal and political history before, during and after the French Revolution, his enduring appeal comes from “Physiology”and its focus on the body and consumption and the aesthetic of pleasure.

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The Physiology of Taste draws in everybody not just savant diners and gastronomes or foodies, chefs and cooks. It’s a work for all of us not just culinary artists and experts or culinary historians. It’s not just for nutritionists, nutrition chemists and dieticians or food scientists and health experts or doctors, physiologists and anatomists. It’s a work for everybody interested in good food and enjoying it. It has not been out of print.

Defining Culinary Authority

To Brillat-Savarin ‘Good eating required a voracious appetite for knowledge of the sciences, literature, and history, as well as for food itself.’

He further distances indulgent dining from its age-old connotation as a sin by associating it instead with national honor‘ Defining Culinary Authority: The Transformation of Cooking in France, 1650-1830

‘Brillat-Savarin wrote his masterpiece in secrecy, paid for its publication and withheld the truth of his authorship. Soon after its release, Paris – where the art and science of eating were in fashion – was abuzz with speculation. When it was revealed who was the author, writes his biographer Giles MacDonogh, Parisians were “mystified by this extraordinary study and by the puckish wit of the tall, portly judge who had put it together.” But while stylish society was dazzled by Brillat-Savarin’s gastronomic erudition, his fellow judges were overcome with hauteur. They, no doubt, dismissed him as a dilettante.’ Who was Brillat-Saverin? – Kitchen Project

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‘He decided to become a lawyer like his father. He studied at …. returned to Belley at the age of 23 in 1778, having obtained his law licence, and began to practise.

In 1789, at the age of 35, he was elected to Estates General to represent Belley in the Third Estate at Versailles (the French Revolution sprang out of these meetings.)

Brillat-Savarin was not a very revolutionary soul — after all, life was good for him and his family — and he soon annoyed all his fellow revolutionaries by arguing against the introduction of the jury system, for the retention of the death penalty, and against reorganizing France into départements. One person he particularly annoyed was Robespierre, who ironically (given his later history) was arguing for the death penalty to be abolished.’

‘He worked on “Philosophy” over the course of many years. He kept notes in the breastpocket on his coat wherever he went.  At times, he would even take the manuscript to work with him at the courts and sneak in time to work on it. He also often brought his beloved hunting dog, Ida, to “work” with him at the courts in Paris where she would sit beneath his chair.’ The Philosopher in the Kitchen – Cooks Info

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Savarin cake

Brillat-Savarin Cheese

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In more senses than one, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin lived a very full life. At different times, he was a lawyer, a landowner, the mayor of his provincial town, a violinist in a New York theatre orchestra, and a Paris judge. In politics, he was a moderate supporter of the French Revolutionthen had to flee from the guillotine during the Terror, returned as an ardent and prosperous Bonapartist, and finally came to comfortable terms with the restored Bourbon monarchy. He was also a writer of unusual versatility, producing pornographic stories, tracts on political economy and judicial reform, and the first great gastronomic classic, La Physiologie du gout. Above all, he was a great survivor: of countless career changes, of the interminable vicissitudes of French politics, and of a life devoted to remorseless and unrepentant self-indulgence. Moreover, in producing La Physiologie (usually translated as The Philosopher in the Kitchen), he assured himself a fame he had never known in life. First published in 1825, scarcely three months before he died, the book has never been out of print since. Now, in this brief and affectionate biography, Giles MacDonogh in A Life at Full Belt seeks to bring alive the man and his milieu.

The first full and authoritative biography of the father of gastronomy, MacDonogh not only chronicles Brillat’s many pursuits, he also presents a fascinating picture of provincial France under the ancien regime and the dangerous years that followed its fall. “The world of revolutionaries and gourmets explored with elegance and scholarship.”‘–Observer The Judge and his Stomach

…. his engaging and well-researched biography of one of the founding fathers of gastronomy provides plenty of food for such thoughts. Jean-Anthelme BrillatSavarin (1755-1825) emerges as an enormously likeable man: witty, sensual, and as adept as the Vicar of Bray at walking the political tightrope faced by all those in public life in revolutionary France. A lawyer by profession, he represented his rugged Savoie home province of Bugey in the Estates General. Peasant Stew and Other Food for Thought

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Brillat-Savarin; HEMARD, Joseph The Physiology of Taste (2 Volumes – Full) Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy

‘A delightful and hilarious classic about the joys of the table, The Physiology of Taste is the most famous book about food ever written. First published in France in 1825 and continuously in print ever since, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s masterpiece is a historical, philosophical, and epicurean collection of recipes, reflections, and anecdotes on everything and anything gastronomical. Brillat-Savarin—who famously stated “Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are”—shrewdly expounds upon culinary matters that still resonate today, from the rise of the destination restaurant to matters of diet and weight, and in M. F. K. Fisher, whose commentary is both brilliant and amusing, he has an editor with a sensitivity and wit to match his own.’

We first visited M.F. K. Fisher in Fragments from the Veranda.

M.F.K. Fisher’s translation of Physiology of Taste

‘The most instructive joy of “The Physiology of Taste” is that so little seems to have changed since 1800. For present-day reading, it is not a book of history, nor of cooking tips or recipes or anxiety therapy for wine-worriers — though it is wonderfully all of those. It is, above all, a celebration of civilization. In her Postscript, Fisher defines it as “a well-balanced expression of one thinking man’s attitude toward life.” Civilization is How it Eats – Brillat-Savarin’s Gastronomy

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The Physiology of Taste is, as the subtitle promises, a series of meditations on topics ranging from the role of taste, the function of appetite, gastronomy & gourmets, obesity & fasting, death, cooking & restaurateurs.”

While not a cook book in the conventional sense, it is a book you want to have laying open on the table.

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The Physiology of Taste

‘Since its completion in 1825, this handbook has appeared in so many different guises – from 1889’s Gastronomy as a Fine Art to The Philosopher in the Kitchen in 1970 – that much of its wisdom has become idiomatic. Brillat-Savarin was, for example, the first to coin the phrase: “You are what you eat” – item four in a long list of “Aphorisms of the Professor” intended as “a lasting foundation for the science of gastronomy”. In fact, Brillat was no professor, but a judge who often worked on his magnum opus while presiding in court. His life (1755-1826) spanned perhaps the most turbulent period of France’s history. As Bill Buford writes in the introduction, he was “witness to what France no longer is and what it was about to become – especially in the way it thought about food”. It would be hard to place this book, which meanders from ruminations on the “inconveniences of obesity” to the philosophical history of cooking, in any one genre; it is perhaps best characterised as an intimate account of a man’s passionate relationship with food. “The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star,” Brillat insists and furthermore: “The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.” His pronouncements are both serious and self-parodying, often lascivious (“A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye“) and, in this volume, amplified by the playful, wise commentary of M. F. K. Fisher, who translated the text in 1949. “I could be accused, I know, of letting my pen run away with me,” Brillat acknowledges. But the result is certainly appetising’

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‘Brillat-Savarin- The Philosopher of Food’ – BLOG A La Mode Frangourou

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The Pleasures of the Table – Great Food

From Brillat-Savarin’s Cooking for Families
One day I was travelling with two women whom I was accompanying to Melun. We had left early that morning, and arrived in Montgeron with an appetite that threatened to devour everything.
Idle threats: the inn where we were stopping, though of fairly good appearance, was devoid of provisions; three coaches and chaises had happened by and, like the locusts of Egypt, had devoured everything. So said the chef.
However I could see a spit turning, loaded with a gigot [leg of lamb] just as it should be, and towards which the ladies, out of habit, threw very hopeful looks.

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Alas! It did not go well; the lamb belonged to three Englishmen [two of whom may seen through the open doorway in the scene depicted above] who had brought it with them and were waiting patiently while drinking champagne.
But, at least, I said half in sorrow and half begging, could you not whisk up some eggs for us in the juice of this gigot? We should content ourselves then with the eggs and a cup of coffee with cream.
‘Oh! Most gladly,’ answered the chef, ‘in law the juice belongs to the public, and I am going to attend at once to your request.’
With that he began the dutiful breaking of eggs.

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Once I saw him busy, I approached the fire and, pulling from my pocket a travelling knife, I made in the forbidden leg of lamb a dozen large wounds, from which the juice of passed out to the last drop.

During this operation, I feigned paying attention to the concoction of the eggs, not wishing him to be distracted. When all was ready, I took the dish of eggs and carried it to a room which had been prepared for us.
There we feasted, and laughed as if crazy about the fact that in reality we were swallowing the substance of the leg of lamb, leaving our English friends just the dried residue on which to chew. The Door of Perarolo

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20 Aphorisms of Brillat Savarin

“Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” from Physiologie du Goût ou: Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante.  This aphorism, Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are is perhaps one of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s most well known.

More from Brillat-Savarin:

A man who was fond of wine was offered some grapes at dessert after dinner.  ‘Much obliged,’ said he, pushing the dish away from him, ‘but I am not in the habit of taking my wine in pills.

An avid cheese lover, Brillat-Savarin remarked: ‘A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.’

Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.

Good living is an act of intelligence, by which we choose things which have an agreeable taste rather than those which do not.

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

Men who stuff themselves and grow tipsy know neither how to eat nor how to drink.

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

A host who makes all his guests wait for one late-comer is careless of their well-being.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin has been considered as the father of low-carbohydrate diet. He considered sugar & white flour to be the cause of obesity and he suggested instead protein-rich ingredients.

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The Pleasures of the Table

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An excerpt from The Physiology of Taste

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