Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.
That observation, along with its variant “You are what you eat,” belongs to a French lawyer who, though on the run during the darkest hours of the Revolution, always found time to nosh. Fork in hand, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin also took time to ponder what he was putting into his body and what implications the food we eat holds for the larger project of civilization.
Just two months before his death in 1826, Brillat-Savarin published Physiologie du goût, or The Physiology of Taste, in which he popularized a term well-known to gourmands today: gastronomy, the field of custom related to the gastros, the belly. The book became a bible for French diners and chefs. When, after World War II, American diners who’d experienced haute cuisine clamored for more, a young cook and writer named M.F.K. Fisher tried her hand at bringing Brillat-Savarin to them, and 65 years ago, in 1949, she produced the first American English version of the classic book.
Like Thomas Jefferson and the Port-Royal grammarians of whom Michel Foucault wrote, Brillat-Savarin was an ardent classifier of things and ideas. Gastronomy—“the subject is always fashionable,” he exclaimed—is, by his lights, the science of taste, that being the mysterious something that lurks close to the heart of “moral man” and that “is influenced by any savorous body.”
Gastronomy, with its moral dimension, is thus a branch of natural history, physics, chemistry, business and political economy; it governs every aspect of our lives at every time of our lives, and its fundamental purpose is to guide us into making the best choices about our “conservation.” After training in gastronomy, in other words, an acolyte will come to prefer a nice basted egg atop a bed of organic arugula to a slab of heat-lamped industrial meat, because he or she is well-armed now with both moral sense and culinary wisdom, to say nothing of a more sharply engaged set of sensory receptors.
Throughout his book, Brillat-Savarin makes observations that are oddly prescient, given what we know about the chemistry of both food and humans today. For one thing, he urges, a well-cooked steak served with fresh butter, greens and a quantity of good red wine is a thing of beauty, whereas white flour and sugar are our bodies’ enemies. For another, he counsels that we eat more fish and fruit than most of us do—and did, back in his day. For yet another, he urges us to consider the economic consequences of a well-fed, healthy population—one that, because it’s well-fed and healthy, will also be happy.
We continue to eat all sorts of slop, but in the 65 years since The Physiology of Taste appeared here, Americans have become generally better guests at the table and better consumers overall. It’s possible to get a decent cup of coffee almost anywhere. You can buy olive oil in Nebraska, find a green salad in Mississippi, eat good tacos in Maine and eggs Benedict in Utah. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher earns our eternal thanks for her part in that evolution—and Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, our adulation. Bon appétit!
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.