Jun 282015


Today is the birthday (1712) of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of the 18th century. His political philosophy influenced the Enlightenment in France and across Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the overall development of modern political and educational thought.

Rousseau’s novel Emile, or On Education is a treatise on the education of the whole person for citizenship. His sentimental novel Julie, or the New Heloise was of importance to the development of romanticism in fiction. Rousseau’s autobiographical writings — his Confessions, arguably the first modern autobiography, and his Reveries of a Solitary Walker — exemplified the late 18th-century movement known as the Age of Sensibility, and featured an increased focus on subjectivity and introspection that later characterized modern writing. His Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract are cornerstones in modern political and social thought.


Rousseau was a successful composer of music, who wrote seven operas as well as music in other forms, and made contributions to music as a theorist. As a composer, his music was a blend of the late Baroque style and the emergent Classical tradition, and he belongs to the same generation of transitional composers as Gluck and C. P. E. Bach. One of his more well-known works is the one-act opera Le devin du village, containing the duet “Non, Colette n’est point trompeuse” which was later rearranged as a stand-alone song by Beethoven. The complete opera is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEucVoQ1fsU

During the period of the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most popular of the philosophes among members of the Jacobin Club, and many of his political ideals were adopted in North America by luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson during the American Revolution. As an anthropologist I am interested in his reflections on humans in the “state of nature” which are intriguing even though they are based on zero actual data and, therefore, of no value as scientific anthropology. The Enlightenment was characterized by conflicting theories of human nature. One, exemplified by Hobbes, saw humans as basically selfish and cruel who needed to be tamed by “civilization”; the other, exemplified by Rousseau, saw humans as basically noble who had been corrupted by “civilization”. Nowadays we would use the word “culture” instead of “civilization”. Because his speculations on humans are not informed by hard data they are worthless as anthropology; but they do provide insight into the minds and aspirations of the 18th century. I am not going to wade into these deep waters, but, given that this is nominally a food blog, I want to take a look at Rousseau’s thoughts on the relationship between diet and culture.


Based on Rousseau’s writings on meat and temperament, it has often been asserted that Rousseau was a vegetarian: he was not. Here are some pertinent quotes:

The peasants eat less animal food and more vegetables than our women in town; a regimen which is rather favorable than otherwise to them and their children.

One proof that the taste of meat is not natural to the human palate is the indifference children have for that kind of food, and the preference they give to vegetable aliments, such as milk-meats, pastry, fruit, etc. It is of the utmost importance not to vitiate this primitive taste in children, to make them carnivorous. Were even their health not concerned, it would be expedient on account of their disposition and character; for it is sufficiently clear from experience, that those people who are great eaters of meat, are in general more ferocious and cruel than other men.

This observation is true of all places and of all times. English coarseness is well known.. The Gaures, on the contrary, are the gentlest of men. All savages are cruel, and it is not their morals that urge them to be so; this cruelty proceeds from their food. They go to war as to the chase, and treat men as they do bears. Even in England the butchers are not received as legal witnesses any more than surgeons. Great criminals harden themselves to murder by drinking blood. Homer represents the Cyclopes, who were flesh-eaters, as frightful men, and the Lotophagi [lotus-eatersj as a people so amiable that as soon as one had any dealings with them, one straightway forgot everything, and one’s country, to live with them.

Our first food was milk. We accustom ourselves only by degrees to strong flavors. At first they are repugnant to us. Fruits, vegetables, kitchen herbs, and, in fine, often broiled dishes without seasoning and without salt, composed the feasts of the first men. The first time a savage drinks wine he makes a grimace and rejects it; and even amongst ourselves, whoever has lived to his twentieth year without tasting fermented drinks cannot afterwards accustom himself to them. We should all be abstinent from alcohol if we had not been given wines in our early years. In fine, the more simple our tastes are the more universal they are, and the most common repugnance is for made-up dishes. Did one ever see a person have a disgust for water or bread? Behold the impress of nature! Behold here, then, our rule of life. Let us preserve to the child as long as possible his primitive taste; let its nourishment be common and simple, let not its palate be familiarize with any but natural flavors, and let no more exclusive taste be formed.. . . . I have sometimes examined those people who attached importance to good living, who thought, upon their first waking, of what they should eat during the day, and described a dinner with more exactitude than Polybius would use in describing a battle. I have thought that all these so-called men were but children of forty years without vigor and without consistence – fruges consumere nati. Gluttony is the vice of souls that have no solidity (qui n’ont point d’étoffe).

The animals you eat are not those who devour others; you do not eat the carnivorous beasts, you take them as your pattern. You only hunger for the sweet and gentle creatures which harm no one, which follow you, serve you, and are devoured by you as the reward of their service

And in reflecting on eating outdoors with his “wife” (they were not officially married):

Who shall describe, who shall understand, the charm of these repasts, composed of a quartern loaf, of cherries, of a little cheese, and of a half pint of wine, which we drank together. Friendship, confidence, intimacy, sweetness of soul, how delicious are your seasonings!

Despite this clear statement on the virtues of avoiding meat, his friends all describe dinners to which they were invited as laden with plain roast meats of all kinds – poultry, lamb, and fish – and were often asked to help him turning the spit. In these cases it was the rich gravies and other accoutrements he objected to. Simplicity in all food was his motto. In later life, for health reasons, he followed a vegetarian regimen, but this was not his general inclination.


Longtime readers here will understand that I like roasting meats, but, unlike Rousseau, I like a nice gravy to accompany them. My general practice is to take the pan drippings in a heavy skillet, add flour to make a dark roux (which requires patient stirring over a medium flame), then slowly incorporate a stock made from chicken or beef. I bring this to a steady simmer to cook the flour, then add seasonings of my choice. For roast beef I generally add parsley and powdered cloves, for lamb, garlic and rosemary, and for chicken, parsley and sage – none of which herbs I have been able to find in China as yet. I always make a good quantity of gravy (at least a pint for 4 people), and there is rarely any left at the end of the meal.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.