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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
BRILLAT-SAVARIN was a French magistrate and legislator, whose reputation as man of letters rests mainly upon a single volume, his inimitable ‘Physiologie du Goût.’ Although writing in the present century, he was essentially a Frenchman of the old régime, having been born in 1755 at Belley, almost on the border-line of Savoy, where he afterwards gained distinction as an advocate. In later life he regretted his native province chiefly for its figpeckers, superior in his opinion to ortolans or robins, and for the cuisine of the innkeeper Genin, where “the old-timers of Belley used to gather to eat chestnuts and drink the new white wine known as vin bourru.”  1
  After holding various minor offices in his department, Savarin became mayor of Belley in 1793; but the Reign of Terror soon forced him to flee to Switzerland and join the colony of French refugees at Lausanne. Souvenirs of this period are frequent in his ‘Physiologie du Goût,’ all eminently gastronomic, as befits his subject-matter, but full of interest, as showing his unfailing cheerfulness amidst the vicissitudes and privations of exile. He fled first to Dôle, to “obtain from the Representative Prôt a safe-conduct, which was to save me from going to prison and thence probably to the scaffold,” and which he ultimately owed to Madame Prôt, with whom he spent the evening playing duets, and who declared, “Citizen, any one who cultivates the fine arts as you do cannot betray his country!” It was not the safe-conduct, however, but an unexpected dinner which he enjoyed on his route, that made this a red-letter day to Savarin:—“What a good dinner!—I will not give the details, but an honorable mention is due to a fricassée of chicken, of the first order, such as cannot be found except in the provinces, and so richly dowered with truffles that there were enough to put new life into old Tithonus himself.”  2
  The whole episode is told in Savarin’s happiest vein, and well-nigh justifies his somewhat complacent conclusion that “any one who, with a revolutionary committee at his heels, could so conduct himself, assuredly has the head and the heart of a Frenchman!”  3
  Natural scenery did not appeal to Savarin; to him Switzerland meant the restaurant of the Lion d’Argent, at Lausanne, where “for only 15 batz we passed in review three complete courses;” the table d’hôte of the Rue de Rosny; and the little village of Moudon, where the cheese fondue was so good. Circumstances, however, soon necessitated his departure for the United States, which he always gratefully remembered as having afforded him “an asylum, employment, and tranquillity.” For three years he supported himself in New York, giving French lessons and at night playing in a theatre orchestra. “I was so comfortable there,” he writes, “that in the moment of emotion which preceded departure, all that I asked of Heaven (a prayer which it has granted) was never to know greater sorrow in the Old World than I had known in the New.” Returning to France in 1796, Savarin settled in Paris, and after holding several offices under the Directory, became a Judge in the Cour de Cassation, the French court of last resort, where he remained until his death in 1826.  4
  Although an able and conscientious magistrate, Savarin was better adapted to play the kindly friend and cordial host than the stern and impartial judge. He was a convivial soul, a lover of good cheer and free-handed hospitality; and to-day, while almost forgotten as a jurist, his name has become immortalized as the representative of gastronomic excellence. His ‘Physiologie du Goût’—“that olla podrida which defies analysis,” as Balzac calls it—belongs, like Walton’s ‘Compleat Angler,’ or White’s ‘Selborne,’ among those unique gems of literature, too rare in any age, which owe their subtle and imperishable charm primarily to the author’s own delightful personality. Savarin spent many years of loving care in polishing his manuscript, often carrying it to court with him, where it was one day mislaid, but—luckily for future generations of epicures—was afterward recovered. The book is a charming badinage, a bizarre ragoût of gastronomic precepts and spicy anecdote, doubly piquant for its prevailing tone of mock seriousness and intentional grandiloquence.  5
  In emulation of the poet Lamartine, Savarin divided his subject into ‘Meditations,’ of which the seventh is consecrated to the ‘Theory of Frying,’ and the twenty-first to ‘Corpulence.’ In the familiar aphorism, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” he strikes his key-note; man’s true superiority lies in his palate! “The pleasure of eating we have in common with the animals; the pleasure of the table is peculiar to the human species.” Gastronomy he proclaims the chief of all sciences: “It rules life in its entirety; for the tears of the new-born infant summon the breast of its nurse, and the dying man still receives with some pleasure the final potion, which, alas, he is not destined to digest.” Occasionally he affects an epic strain, invoking Gasteria, “the tenth muse, who presides over the pleasures of taste.” “It is the fairest of the Muses who inspires me: I will be clearer than an oracle, and my precepts will traverse the centuries.” Beneath his pen, soup, “the first consolation of the needy stomach,” assumes fresh dignity; and even the humble fowl becomes to the cook “what the canvas is to the painter, or the cap of Fortunatus to the charlatan.” But like the worthy epicure that he was, Savarin reserved his highest flights of eloquence for such rare and toothsome viands as the Poularde fine de Bresse, the pheasant, “an enigma of which the key-word is known only to the adepts,” a sauté of truffles, “the diamonds of the kitchen,” or, best of all, truffled turkeys, “whose reputation and price are ever on the increase! Benign stars, whose apparition renders the gourmands of every category sparkling, radiant, and quivering!” But the true charm of the book lies in Savarin’s endless fund of piquant anecdotes, reminiscences of bygone feasts, over which the reader’s mouth waters. Who can read without a covetous pang his account of ‘The Day at Home with the Bernadins,’ or of his entertainment of the Dubois brothers, of the Rue du Bac, “a bonbon which I have put into the reader’s mouth to recompense him for his kindness in having read me with pleasure”?  6
  ‘Physiologie du Goût’ was not published until 1825, and then anonymously, presumably because he thought its tone inconsistent with his dignity as magistrate. It would almost seem that he had a presentiment of impending death, for in the midst of his brightest ‘Variétés’ he has incongruously inserted a dolorous little poem, the burden of each verse being “Je vais mourir.” The ‘Physiologie du Goût’ is now accessible to English readers in the versions of R. E. Anderson (London, 1877), and in a later one published in New York; but there is a subtle flavor to the original which defies translation.  7
 
 
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