There are many writers who celebrate the pleasures of the table, but few who do so with the elan of the original gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and his 20th century disciple MFK Fisher. Both authors genre hop between memoir, social history of food, anecdote, travel and preparation techniques. They remain immensely readable and inspiring today.
Writing in the early 19th century in France, Brillat-Savarin had a distinguished career as a judge and a man about town. He was reluctant to publish his collection of thoughts about food, The Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, while alive because he thought it would detract from his serious professional career. Though loath to be remembered as a writer of ‘fiddle-faddle’, this fiddle-faddle has enriched our thinking about food for the past 190 years and his many musings about food continue to inspire food writing today.
The Physiology of Taste is an eccentric and post modern bricolage of personal anecdote, theories about food and meditations on issues such as obesity and thinness, or the enervating dangers of too much fish in the diet (leading to the observation that fish eating people are less brave than those who live on meat). Brillat-Savarin lived during the dawn of the scientific age, and in common with educated men at that time, was as interested in the new scientific findings as he was in arts and culture. The book encompasses both grand theories on taste and the senses as well as specific instructions on who should or should not drink coffee or in the difficulties in making good chocolate. He also coined many aphorisms about food including ‘tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are’ and ‘the most indispensable quality of a cook is promptness and it should be that of the diner as well’.
Much of the joy in The Physiology is in knowing the book is Brillat-Savarin at play. He sometimes writes about himself as a third person character called the Professor. It is the Professor, ensconced in his easy chair, who calls in his cook to chastise him for a flabby sole, poorly prepared because of the cook’s neglect of the theory of frying. The book is both eccentric and enlightening and resonates anew with each generation.
MFK Fisher is an avowed fan of the Professors and her homages to him are many and heartfelt. She named her book The Art of Eating after one of his aphorisms, wrote about her ‘man crush’ on him in A Few of the Men and spent two years in the later 1940s translating the The Physiology of Taste. In a writing career of over 30 books, MFK picks up and amplifies many of the preoccupations of Brillat-Savarin.
MFK was born in the United States in 1908 to a newspaper family who soon relocated to the new growth area of California. As a newly wed, she lived with her husband in Dijon as he studied for his doctorate. Here, for the first time, she learnt the principles of fine dining and the joys of seasonal food, simply prepared. MFK’s experiences of France during the 1930s influenced her approach to life and she revisited Dijon and Provence for extended periods for the rest of her life. MFK’s books are a mixture of memoir and the social history of food. The Gastronomical Me is a memoir of her early married life in France and later Switzerland and pinpoints her moments of food awakening from her California childhood through to her experiences in France and Switzerland. In the 1940s she wrote a book dedicated to the oyster Consider the Oyster and in the 1960s specialised in writing about French food and Provence in particular.
MFK’s writing seeks to find the poetic in the everyday and her evocative stories stay with you. Vignettes such as her description of her first restaurant experience in Dijon, eating fresh peas cooked over a pinewood fire in Switzerland and of visiting her brother in Mexico and the female mariachi singer, disguised as a boy, who serenaded him, linger with you as if you too had shared the dish of peas or listened to the singing. It is easy to see why John Updike called her the ‘poet of the appetites’.
Both Fisher and Brillat-Savarin share the desire to elevate the experience of eating to one that is both transcendent and poetic and as Brillat-Savarin points out ‘the pleasures of the table are only known to the human race’. Both writers seek to improve our historic understanding of food as well as draw us into the universal understanding that food can be both indulgent and necessary to enhancing our everyday wellbeing.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin 2009. The Physiology of Taste or, Meditations on Transcendental Gatronomy (ed MFK Fisher). Everyman’s Library, New York.
Joan Reardon 2004. Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of MFK Fisher. North Point Press, New York.