BOOK REVIEW / Peasant stew and other food for thought: Brillat-Savarin: The judge and his stomach - Giles MacDonogh; John Murray pounds 25
Saturday 18 July 1992
Certainly it is one of the more intriguing accidents of history that a system of public restaurants unparalleled for quality and imagination since the time of Apuleius should have been the legacy of France's 1789 revolution, while England's regicides spawned only a tradition of bulllike country squires whose homes were their castles, and who regarded it as indecent to be seen eating in public except, in extremis, at one's club.
Compare Hobbes's heavy directives composed in the remote fastness of an English country house with Voltaire's lightning banter, fruit of a thousand conversations at court. Contrast the traditional sepulchral silence of the Reform Club with the brisk intellectual banter of Maxim's. Could this essentially domestic dichotomy illuminate the difficulty that the two countries have always had in understanding each other's mentalities?
Giles MacDonogh does not begin to speculate along these lines, but his engaging and well-researched biography of one of the founding fathers of gastronomy provides plenty of food for such thoughts. Jean-Anthelme BrillatSavarin (1755-1825) emerges as an enormously likeable man: witty, sensual, and as adept as the Vicar of Bray at walking the political tightrope faced by all those in public life in revolutionary France. A lawyer by profession, he represented his rugged Savoie home province of Bugey in the Estates General.
Moderate but non-committal as the king and queen lost their heads, in 1792 he sensibly left for the United States to avoid the wave of Jacobin extremism which was sweeping the continent. There he showed considerable ingenuity in making a living by teaching French and playing first violin for a New York orchestra ('I spoke like them: I dressed like them. I was careful not to give the impression I was cleverer than them'), but returned home as soon as he could.
Restored to his dignities in Bugey, he then became one of the judges of the important national appeal court in Versailles, and deftly, negotiated survival through Bonaparte's Empire and the restoration of the monarchy in 1815.
The book that made his name was La Physiologie du Gout, 'or meditations on transcendental gastronomy'. Published when he was 70, it was something of a bombshell to colleagues on the bench who knew him only as a rotund and old-fashioned bachelor, known more for legal absentmindedness (his hunting dog once ate a brief that he had carelessly let fall underneath his chair) than witty and cultured culinary epigram. But it was hailed by the beau monde as a landmark, uniting as it did the then fashionable medical theories of the body with the compulsive eating that was also a hallmark of public life.
For all his love of Parisian restaurants and an assured place at the court of the legendary Madame Recamier, Brillat's heart remained rooted in his beloved Bugey. MacDonogh visits the gentilhommerie Brillat owned in Vieu, kept by its present owner much as it was in the gourmet's day. He describes the layout: a ground floor bedroom for two gout-ridden sisters, a tiny bedroom off the dining-room for Brillat himself, an ice-house set under an ash tree in the garden 'so that food served should be reliably fresh, and the old judge need not do without the sorbets he had grown to love at Tortoni and Velloni in the grand boulevards of Paris'. He then reiterates the feasts served there, the management of the vineyard, and Brillat himself wandering, Horace in hand, through the countryside.
He died, aged exactly three score years and ten, only two months after his famous book was published, and leaving life, in the words of his nephew, 'like a well-fed guest leaving a banquet - tanquam conviva satur - without regret, without weakness'. La Physiologie remains his monument - though perhaps not the one he would have chosen for himself. Rambling and discursive, frequently autobiographical, it was described as 'olla podrida' (peasant stew) by Balzac, who wrote his own Physiologie de Mariage a few years later. It has endured, never out of print in 167 years, albeit more quoted from than read these days.
But Brillat had a quite different literary legacy. Fond as he was of food, he was proud above everything of his many flirtations with women, and enjoyed writing about them. He started a novel dedicated to Madame Recamier which might have become another Liaisons Dangereuses, and amused himself with writing saucy contes de conquetes, which were apparently read aloud with relish on high days and holidays at Vieu as late as the 1890s.
Regrettably, prudish descendants destroyed them in the 1920s, except for one fragment which MacDonogh reprints. It is delightful, like a gracefully erotic Greek vase written in words.
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