Brillat-Savarin: The Man, The Cheese

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

So says Brillat-Savarin, the inventor of the gastronomic essay. But that is not how he started.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was, at first, a successful lawyer. Then the French citizenry became unrestful, and at age 37, Savarin was called to the National Assembly. There he gained repute as a statesman, a dangerous position during a revolution. With a bounty on his head, he fled first to Switzerland, then Holland, then the United States. When he finally returned to France, he became a judge, living out the measure of his days in relative peace.

It was only after his return to France that he set his pen to food. After twenty years of effort, he completed the Physiology of Taste, the most important book about eating ever written. It was published—by grace of his friends and despite his protestations—just two months before his death. That is what we remember him for. 

All this started at age 37. 

I am 36 right now.

Though it is clear from his writing that he loved women, Savarin never married. There is a chapter in the Physiology of Taste that gently hints at why. He cautions us that just as overeating can shorten one’s life, so can undereating. He mentions a woman he knew when young, a friend who could have been more than a friend, who began eating less and less. She first grew slim, then sickly, and eventually illness took her.

What better reason to write this book, a 400-page paean to the joys and practical necessities of a life well fed? It is the argument he was not able to make to her. If only they had been able to share one more meal, maybe she would have had the strength to persist. 

I need this argument. Lately I have forgotten how to eat well. I often skip meals by accident, finding myself sprawled in the afternoon with a dulled brain and tingling toes. Like Brillat-Savarin’s lost friend, my tendency is not to overindulge, but to eat so little as to disappear entirely. During these times I feel like a ghost hitching a ride, frustrated by the onerous needs of my physical form, dreaming and wasting. I get this way when I feel groundless. I get this way when I leave love behind, like I did just a few weeks ago.

When cooking is difficult and restaurants tire, convenience is called for. So I lean on the Frenchman twice over, ingesting not just his words, but the food that bears his name: a cheese.

Brillat Savarin cheese, like the man, is thick and stocky. It is a triple cream, soft and spreadable with a bloomy rind. Its outer layers are firm and chalky, a gruff, academic presentation, revealing little. But on the inside it is soft to the point of runniness, overflowing with genuine character. 

Brillat Savarin is distinguished by its tangy acidity. Other triple creams are lethargic, coating the tongue and dulling the palate. They overstay their welcome, necessitating an acidic wine or a handful of almonds to sweep them away. Brillat Savarin is no such bore. Amid its cream there is a lemony overtone, punchy and intense. With a spryness that belies its weight, it stands with brisk vitality, taking command of the room. 

Brillat Savarin has no funky stench to announce its presence. It is only via the mouth that it delivers its passionate statement, forged by endless practice at crowded tables. Though bold, it does not overbalance. Its strong personality has been smoothed by the passage of years that humble us all. 

It may be prone to exaggeration, and perhaps it speaks a bit too loudly or too much. Such excesses are easy to forgive, as they are obviously made in love. It bears enough truth to compel our attention and enough wryness to keep it. And when what it says is through, it cedes the spotlight with genteel humility. 

Not everyone knows how to get me to eat. But when Brillat-Savarin recommends I pick up my fork, his plea reaching centuries forward into a time he would neither like nor understand, I hear him and I believe.  

To feed someone is to argue in favor of their life. There is no glory in abstinence, nor sin in gluttony; love alone is the measure of our meals.

By eating, we shall be loved.


A Fox At The Table

Brillat Savarin: The Man, The Cheese