Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin  

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"Brillat, as Honoré de Balzac correctly refers to him in the only profile written when people actually knew the man, had been a previously published author, but his writings are a motley list – an archeology of the mountains of his childhood, two papers on judicial theory, an essay on political economy and another on duelling (some pornographic stories remained unpublished) – and betray nothing of the long hours he was otherwise devoting to the contemplation of his dinner." --introduction to 21st century English edition

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1 April 1755, Belley, Ain – 2 February 1826, Paris) was a French lawyer and politician, and with Grimod gained fame as an epicure and gastronome. He is best-known for his work The Physiology of Taste, published in December 1825, two months before his death.


Brillat-Savarin was born in the town of Belley, Ain, where the Rhone River then separated France from Savoy, to a family of lawyers. He studied law, chemistry and medicine in Dijon in his early years and thereafter practiced law in his hometown. In 1789, at the opening of the French Revolution, he was sent as a deputy to the Estates-General that soon became the National Constituent Assembly, where he acquired some limited fame, particularly for a public speech in defense of capital punishment. He adopted his second surname upon the death of an aunt named Savarin who left him her entire fortune on the condition that he adopt her name.

He returned to Belley and was for a year the elected mayor. At a later stage of the Revolution there was a bounty on his head, and he sought political asylum at first in Switzerland. He later moved to Holland, and then to the new-born United States, where he stayed for three years in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Hartford, living on the proceeds of giving French and violin lessons. For a time he was first violin in the Park Theater in New York.

He returned to France under the Directory in 1797 and acquired the magistrate post he would then hold for the rest of his life, as a judge of the Court of Cassation. He published several works on law and political economy. He remained a bachelor, but not a stranger to love, which he counted the sixth sense: his inscription of the Physiognomie to his beautiful cousin Juliette Récamier reads

"Madam, receive kindly and read indulgently the work of an old man. It is a tribute of a friendship which dates from your childhood, and, perhaps, the homage of a more tender feeling...How can I tell? At my age a man no longer dares interrogate his heart."

His famous work, Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste) , was published in December 1825, two months before his death. The full title is Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l'ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusieurs sociétés littéraires et savantes. Its most notable English translation was done by food writer and critic M. F. K. Fisher, who remarked "I hold myself blessed among translators." Her translation was first published in 1949.

The body of his work, though often wordy or excessively - and sometimes dubiously - aphoristic and axiomatic, has remained extremely important and has repeatedly been re-analyzed through the years since his death. In a series of meditations that owe something to Montaigne's Essays, and have the discursive rhythm of an age of leisured reading and a confident pursuit of educated pleasures, Brillat-Savarin discourses on the pleasures of the table, which he considers a science. His French models were the stylists of the Ancien Régime: Voltaire, Rousseau, Fénelon, Buffon, Cochin and d'Aguesseau. Aside from Latin, he knew five modern languages well, and when the occasion suited, wasn't shy of parading them: he never hesitated to borrow a word, like the English sip when French seemed to him to fail, until he rediscovered the then-obsolete verb siroter.

The philosophy of Epicurus lies at the back of every page; the simplest meal satisfied Brillat-Savarin, as long as it was executed with artistry:

Those persons who suffer from indigestion, or who become drunk, are utterly ignorant of the true principles of eating and drinking.

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