Today is the birthday (1755) of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French lawyer and politician who was, and still is, an enormously influential food writer. He served as mayor of Belley, the city where he was born, but his opposition to the Jacobins during the French Revolution made it necessary for him to flee to Switzerland in 1792. He then made his way to New York, where he taught language and played violin in the John Street Theater Orchestra to support himself.
After two years in New York, Brillat-Savarin spent time in Connecticut familiarizing himself with U.S. culture and food. His discourse on hunting and cooking wild turkey (including his discussions on the subject with Thomas Jefferson) is riveting reading. Approximately four years after his exile, Brillat-Savarin was able to return to France after being reinstated as an honorable person. Soon after, he began serving as a judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal in Paris, a post he held for the rest of his life.
Brillat-Savarin embraced Parisian society and intellectual life, but he is best known for his culinary expertise and his twenty aphorisms on food, the most famous of which is, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Even as a child he loved to be near the kitchen. While in Paris, he wrote Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, which he published anonymously. Chapters discussed, among other things, the aphrodisiac properties of certain foods, the nature of digestion, and the dangers of acids in the stomach. The book was an success, and the people of Paris were anxious to learn the identity of this witty and knowledgeable author. His colleagues were not as impressed as the public, however, and looked down on him, not considering him to be an expert in a relevant field of study. He had previously written various treatises on dueling, economics, and history, but these were not very well known.
Brillat-Savarin contributed to the knowledge of digestion and nutrition through his essays on food and taste. He also shared his ideas on food preparation and its role in life and philosophy, and he provided discourses on obesity and its cure. In recognition of his achievements, various dishes, garnishes, a cake mold, and a cheese bear his name.
Brillat-Savarin’s work reflects interactions with philosophers and physicians of his time. While he remained a bachelor all his life, he had many prominent guests sitting at his table for meals, and he often sat at the best tables of Paris. Among his guests were Napoleon’s doctor, Jean-Nicolas Corvisart, the surgeon Guillaume Dupuytren, the pathologist Jean Cruveilhier, and other medical experts. Cruveilhier was such an authority on the stomach that gastric ulcers are referred to as Cruveilhier’s disease. Through such interactions, Brillat-Savarin undoubtedly gained knowledge about the chemistry of food and how it relates to the physiology of digestion. So passionate was Brillat-Savarin about food that many people identified him more often as a chef rather than a lawyer.
Brillat-Savarin died on 2 February 1826 in Paris and is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery. I am slightly worried by his headstone (pictured) because it says that he was born on 2 April, yet all authorities I have read agree he was born 1 April.
The complete text of The Physiology of Taste in an early English translation can be found online here:
Otherwise it is available in numerous print versions in French and English (it has never been out of print). I encourage you to dip into it. I am going to present you first with his 20 aphorisms and then his discussion of the great French dish pot-au-feu.
Aphorisms of the Professor.
To Serve as Prolegomena to His Work and Eternal Basis to the Science.
I. The universe would be nothing were it not for life and all that lives must be fed.
II. Animals fill themselves; man eats. The man of mind alone knows how to eat.
III. The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed.
IV. Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.
V. The Creator, when he obliges man to eat, invites him to do so by appetite, and rewards him by pleasure.
VI. Gourmandise is an act of our judgment, in obedience to which, we grant a preference to things which are agreeable, over those which have not that quality.
VII. The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all aeras; it mingles with all other pleasures, and remains at last to console us for their departure.
VIII. The table is the only place where one does not suffer from ennui during the first hour.
IX. The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity, than the discovery of a new star.
X. Those persons who suffer from indigestion, or who become drunk, are utterly ignorant of the true principles of eating and drinking.
XI. The order of food is from the most substantial to the lightest.
XII. The order of drinking is from the mildest to the most foamy and perfumed.
XIII. To say that we should not change our drinks is a heresy; the tongue becomes saturated, and after the third glass yields but an obtuse sensation.
XIV. A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman who has lost an eye.
XV. A cook may be taught, but a man who can roast, is born with the faculty.
XVI. The most indispensable quality of a good cook is promptness. It should also be that of the guests.
XVII. To wait too long for a dilatory guest, shows disrespect to those who are punctual.
XVIII. He who receives friends and pays no attention to the repast prepared for them, is not fit to have friends.
XIX. The mistress of the house should always be certain that the coffee be excellent; the master that his liquors be of the first quality.
XX. To invite a person to your house is to take charge of his happiness as long as he be beneath your roof.
Pot-au-feu is one of the great classic dishes of France, served by rich and poor alike. Brillat-Savarin was not enamored of haute cuisine or fancy cooking. He prepared simple, hearty dishes prepared well and served without fanfare. His discussion of pot-au-feu is a classic.
Section I. POT-AU-FEU, POTAGE, ETC.
Pot-au-feu is a piece of beef, intended to be cooked in boiling water, slightly salted so as to extract all the soluble parts.
Bouillon is the fluid which remains after the operation.
Bouilli is the flesh after it has undergone the operation.
Water dissolves at first a portion of the osmazome; then the albumen coagulates at 50 degrees Reaumur, and forms the foam we see. The rest of the osmazome, with the extractive part of juice, and finally a portion of the wrapping of the fibres detached by the continuity of ebullition.
To have good bouillon, the water must be heated slowly, and the ebullition must be scarcely perceptible, so that the various particles necessarily dissolved, may unite ultimately and without trouble.
It is the custom to add to bouillon, vegetable or roots, to enhance the taste, and bread or pates to make it more nourishing. Then it is what is called potage.
Potage is a healthy food, very nourishing, and suits every body; it pleases the stomach and prepares it for reception and digestion. Persons threatened with obesity should take bouillon alone.
All agree that no where is potage made so well as in France, and in my travels I have been able to confirm this assertion. Potage is the basis of French national diet, and the experience of centuries has perfected it.
Section II. BOUILLI.
Bouilli is a healthful food, which satisfies hunger readily, is easily digested, but which when eaten alone restores strength to a very small degree, because in ebullition the meat has lost much of its animalizable juices.
We include in four categories the persons who eat bouilli.
1. Men of routine, who eat it because their fathers did, and who, following this practice implicitly, expect to be imitated by their children.
2. Impatient men, who, abhorring inactivity at the table, have contracted the habit of attacking at once whatever is placed before them.
3. The inattentive, who eat whatever is put before them, and look upon their meals as a labor they have to undergo. All that will sustain them they put on the same level, and sit at the table as the oyster does in his bed.
4. The voracious, who, gifted with an appetite which they seek to diminish, seek the first victim they can find to appease the gastric juice, which devours them, and wish to make it serve as a basis to the different envois they wish to send to the same destination.
Professors of gastronomy never eat bouilli, from respect to the principles previously announced, that bouilli is flesh without the juices.
Pot-au-feu is one of my favorite dishes – so much so that a make a version of it about once per week. Many cultures have their own version of pot-au-feu such as the northern Italian bollito misto or the Argentine puchero. I am not inclined to give you a fixed recipe because that would destroy the spirit of pot-au-feu.
A classic pot-au-feu begins with marrow bones and stewing beef which may be browned or not. For 4 people you will need about 2 lbs of beef cut in large chunks and 1-2 lbs of bones. Place them in a large, heavy stock pot and add 4 pints of water. The essential secret concerning pot-au-feu is that the water must be brought to a simmer very slowly and maintained at the merest simmer for the entire cooking time – 5 hours or longer. Some people add vegetables right at the beginning, but I find that this practice, while making a rich broth, overcooks the vegetables. So I let the meat and bones simmer for about 3 hours before adding the vegetables.
When the water starts to simmer, add salt to taste. This was bring a brownish-grey scum to the surface. Use a slotted spoon to remove it, add a small amount of cold water to the pot to stop the simmering and then let it warm to the simmer again. This will induce more scum to rise, which should be removed. Repeat this process for about 15 to 20 minutes until there is no more scum, just a white froth.
Add a bay leaf, a coarsely chopped onion, a minced clove of garlic, and some parsley and thyme, and let gently simmer, covered for 3 hours. Then add coarsely diced carrots, leeks, turnips, and celery, or whatever hardy vegetables you desire. It is customary to cook potatoes separately if you desire them.
When the meat is very tender, strain off the broth (bouillon) into a fresh pot and bring to the boil. If you desire you can clarify it to make a consommé, but I prefer it as is. Keep the meat and vegetables (bouilli) warm whilst you serve the bouillon. Serve the bouilli with sauces and garnishes of your choice, which might include mustard, horseradish, cornichons, pickled onions and the like. I serve the meat and vegetables all together but it is also common to serve the meat and vegetables in separate serving dishes.