Brillat-Savarin – The Physiology of Taste

The Physiology of Taste, by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, is arguably the most famous food book ever written. First published in 1825, and almost 200 years later, it’s still in print. It’s best known translation is the one by M.F.K. Fisher. I didn’t purchase that one. From comments I’ve read, that edition is famous as much for Fisher’s commentary as Brillat-Savarin’s own writing.

While now known primarily for his food writing, Brillat-Savarin spent most of his adult life as a politician serving in various cities and offices. At one point he was forced to flee the country during the French Revolution. However, he returned and lived out his life in France, and died in 1826. The publication of The Physiology of Taste was published in 1825, only a couple of months before his death. While the book received acclaim on publication, the author’s death meant that he didn’t get to enjoy most of it.

Brillat-Savarin Physiology of Taste
Writing about Brillat-Savarin while enjoying a good cup of coffee.

The Enduring Legacy of Brillat-Savarin

One of the things that makes the book such a long lasting favourite is Brillat-Savrin’s writing style. You can, as I did, read the book straight through from cover to cover. You can just as easily dive it at any given point and enjoy just a little snippet. Brillat-Savarin would be every bit at home on the web as he was in 18th and 19th century France. The book is shot full of aphorisms, poems, and gossip, all staples of internet writing. The most famous aphorism being:

Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are

He also has the habit of taking one example and universalizing it. Throughout the book he tells of how food can be used as medicine. He then generally gives one example where it worked, as if this constitutes universal proof. This too fits with the internet age, where everyone claims to be an expert on  health and wellness, because they have a friend…

He stands also at the crossroads between Humeric medicine, and modern medicine. This helps to explain why much of the science in the book is outdated, and in some cases, flat-out wrong(Osmazome, for example). Although it may be a reference to what we now call umami.

Throughout the book he also shares anecdotes about the ways in which food can contribute to one’s amorous well-being. Another aspect of this title that helps to account for it’s enduring appeal.

Food Preparation

While the book covers a whole range of topics around eating and dining, it also provides a good basis on how to prepare food. Brillat-Savarin, although employing a cook, clearly also enjoyed working in the kitchen. The second part of the book, details some of the foods he recommends. Often the recipes are embedded in the anecdotes he tells. Plus, they are not laid out in the way you would expect to find them in a modern cookbook. Nonetheless, there is a deep knowledge of food to be found in the book.

Among the aphorisms that feature is the following: ‘Whoever receives friends and does not participate in the preparation of their meal does not deserve to have friends.’

From a food perspective, He is also considered one of the first proponents of the Keto diet. He believed that flour and sugar were the biggest causes of obesity.

Gastronomy and Gourmandism

Beyond a very readable style, and some great recipes, the promotion of the idea of gastronomy and gourmandism might be the most significant gifts of Brillat-Savarin.

He defines Gastronomy as: The reasoned comprehension of all that relates to the nourishment of man. As for gourmandism there are several definitions given. What is worth noting, on page 104 of this edition, is that gourmandism is the enemy of excess. This point he makes on more than one occasion.

As he writes about gourmandism he also distinguishes between the pleasures of eating and the pleasures of the table. The pleasures of eating are all about the food. He doesn’t discredit these, but rather he gives higher place to the pleasures of the table. I think this is one area where I current food obsessed culture is getting things wrong. We tend to put more emphasis on the pleasures of eating rather than on the pleasures of the table.

At various points in the book, Brillat-Savarin takes pains to point out the hosts and guests roles in keeping the conversation lively and interesting to all present. Of course much of this advice needs to be updated. Brillat-Savarin’s writing reflects a male dominated world that doesn’t give much credit to women beyond the point of adornment. He is also very much a product of the colonial age, with non-Europeans being held in low regard.

One thing I find interesting is the regard in which he holds clergy. Rather than decrying their access to fine food he often praises them for their appreciation of such food and their great cellars. This marks him as somewhat out of touch with the majority of his compatriots.

I don’t think he invented it, but Brillat-Savarin is a master of the humble-brag. He refers to himself as the Professor, third-person writing at it’s finest.

Despite some of these problems, this is a great book. It is no wonder that it holds such a high place in the history of food writing. I am sure that I will be going back to this book over and over.

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  1. Interestingly, the book has a subtitle: The physiology of taste; or Transcendental gastronomy

    It is a great book!

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