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"The Physiology of Taste" Brillat-Savarin and the Joy of Eating

March 22, 2015 - Radio Kitchen - "The Physiology of Taste"  Brillat-Savarin and the Joy of Eating
 I always thought T.S. Eliot got it wrong, at least from a Maryland perspective.  It's March, not April, that is the cruelest month.  It weighs heavily on our spirits, still half-wintry, not yet green and warm.  At times like this, as a cooking, eating man I need a little inspiration, and as I told Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Schola Cooking School, I know just where to find it.

One of the earliest and most inspiring of the "food writers" was the great Frenchman Jean Anthelm Brillat-Savarin, who wrote the peculiarly titled book "The Physiology of Taste."

He was a survivor of the French Revolution, a very successful lawyer, and the friend of many a well-to-do fellow who kept a good table.

Being a "philosophe" of the French Enlightenment, he turned his keen and voracious appetite for analysis to the many and varied tributaries that flow into that great river of thought called "Food and its Enjoyment."

So in the middle of March, damp and gray and cruel, I picked up my 90 year old edition of "The Physiology of Taste," a gift from a dear friend, and I thumbed through it, picking up nuggets of inspiration and solace.  Being a book of brief thoughts, charming anecdotes and meditations, it isn't hard to jot down a few of his better lines.

Apropos of the season, Brillat-Savarin was devoted to the first peas of spring. He noted that they were so treasured that a plate of them could cost you 800 francs (when you could get a good meal for 25.) 

He loved the first asparagus, and the story about the priest who found a giant asparagus growing in his garden is hilarious.  Turns out a scamp of a friend carefully carved an enormous asparagus out of wood, and planted it where the priest couldn't miss it.

He was passionate about the creation of food and entertaining at the table.

"The discovery of a new dish is more beneficial to humanity than the discovery of a new star," he proclaimed. 

And should you ask friends over for dinner, he reminds us, "to invite anyone, implies that we charge ourselves with his happiness all the time that he is under our roof."

A good meal produces these effects on the guests:  "Both body and soul enjoy a particular happiness.  Physically, whilst the brain is enlivened, the physiognomy brightens, the color rises, the eyes sparkle, and a pleasant warmth is diffused in every limb."

He goes on to say that "Gourmandise is one of he principal links of society; it extends gradually that spirit of conviviality which unites...different classes...and softens the angles of conventional inequality."

Brillat-Savarin's descriptions of feasts he attended will make your mouth water.  And he fills his pages with anecdotes about the people he encountered at table. 

Take for instance someone not unlike myself and Jerry, "A man who was fond of wine was offered some grapes at dessert after dinner.  'Much obliged,' said he, pushing the plate aside, 'I am not accustomed to take my wine in pills.'"

A lover of food and drink, Brillat-Savarin was nonetheless a preacher of moderation.  He would not invite drunkards or gluttons to his table, and avoided them in society.  He does, however offer advice to those who want to lose weight.

"Drink every summer, " he suggests, "thirty bottles of Seltzer water, one large tumbler in the morning, two others before lunch and as many at bedtime...avoid beer as you would the plague.  Ask often for radishes, artichokes with oil and vinegar, asparagus, celery and cardoon. Among meats choose veal and poultry and only eat the crust of bread." 

His advice is familiar to anyone concerned with lowering blood sugar:  avoid wheat based foods, and eat rye bread rather than white.

And he would totally agree with today's Eat Local movement.  He thought, and I paraphrase, "A feast skillfully arranged should be like the region in miniature, when every quarter of the region is typified by it representatives."

"The Physiology of Taste" is currently available on Amazon.  It's ISBN number is 0307390373.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.