The physiology of taste, by Brillat-Savarin

Meditation XXI.


Were I a physician with a diploma, I would have written a whole book on obesity; thus I would have acquired a domicil in the domain of science, and would have had the double satisfaction of having, as patients, persons who were perfectly well, and of being besieged by the fairer portion of humanity. To have exactly fat enough, not a bit too much, or too little, is the great study of women of every rank and grade.

What I have not done, some other person will do, and if he be learned and prudent, (and at the same time a good-fellow,) I foretell that he will have wonderful success.

Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus hoeres!

In the intereim, I intend to prepare the way for him. A chapter on obesity is a necessary concomitant of a book which relates so exclusively to eating.

Obesity is that state of greasy congestion in which without the sufferer being sick, the limbs gradually increase in volume, and lose their form and harmony.

One kind of obesity is restricted to the stomach, and I have never observed it in women. Their fibres are generally softer, and when attacked with obesity nothing is spared. I call this variety of obesity GASTROPHORIA. Those attacked by it, I call GASTROPHOROUS. I belong to this category, yet, though my stomach is rather prominent, I have a round and well turned leg. My sinews are like those of an Arab horse.

I always, however, looked on my stomach as a formidable enemy: I gradually subdued it, but after a long contest. I am indebted for all this to a strife of thirty years.

I will begin my treatise by an extract from a collection of more than five hundred dialogues, which at various times I have had with persons menaced with obesity.

AN OBESE. — What delicious bread! where do you get it?

I. — From Limet, in the Rue Richelieu, baker to their Royal Highness, the Due d’Orleans, and the Prince de Conde. I took it from him because he was my neighbour, and have kept to him because he is the best bread maker in the world.

OBESE. — I will remember the address. I eat a great deal of bread, and with such as this could do without any dinner.

OBESE No. 2. — What are you about? You are eating your soup, but set aside the Carolina rice it contains! I. — Ah: that it is a regimen I subject myself to.

OBESE. — It is a bad regimen. I am fond of rice pates and all such things. Nothing is more nourishing.

AN IMMENSE OBESE. — Do me the favor to pass me the potatoes before you. They go so fast that I fear I shall not be in time.

I. — There they are, sir.

OBESE. — But you will take some? There are enough for two, and after us the deluge.

I. — Not I. I look on the potatoe as a great preservative against famine; nothing, however, seems to me so pre-eminently fade.

OBESE. — That is a gastronomical heresy. Nothing is better than the potatoe; I eat them in every way.

AN OBESE LADY. — Be pleased to send me the Soissons haricots I see at the other end of the table.

I. —(Having obeyed the order, hummed in a low tone, the well known air:)

“Les Soissonnais sont heureux, Les haricots font chez eux.”

OBESE. — Do not laugh: it is a real treasure for this country. Paris gains immensely by it. I will thank you to pass me the English peas. When young they are food fit for the gods.

I? — Anathema on beans and peas.

OBESE. — Bah, for your anathema; you talk as if you were a whole council. I. —(To another.) I congratulate you on your good health, it seems to me that you have fattened somewhat, since I last saw you.

OBESE. — I probably owe it to a change of diet.

I. — How so?

OBESE. — For some time I eat a rich soup for breakfast, and so thick that the spoon would stand up in it.

I. —(To another.) Madame, if I do not mistake, you will accept a portion of this charlotte? I will attack it.

OBESE. — No, sir. I have two things which I prefer. This gateau of rice and that Savoy biscuit — I am very fond of sweet things.

I. — While they talk politics, madame, at the other end of the table, will you take a piece of this tourte a la frangipane?

OBESE. — Yes; I like nothing better than pastry. We have a pastry– cook in our house as a lodger, and I think my daughter and I eat up all his rent.

I. —(Looking at the daughter.) You both are benefitted by the diet. Your daughter is a fine looking young woman.

OBESE LADY. — Yes; but there are persons who say she is too fat.

I. — Ah! those who do so are envious, etc., etc. By this and similar conversations I elucidate a theory I have formed about the human race, viz: Greasy corpulence always has, as its first cause, a diet with too much farinacious or feculent substance. I am sure the same regime will always have the same effect. Carniverous animals never become fat. One has only to look at the wolf, jackal, lion, eagle, etc.

Herbiverous animals do not either become fat until age has made repose a necessity. They, however, fatten quickly when fed on potatoes, farinacious grain, etc.

Obesity is rarely met with among savage nations, or in that class of persons who eat to live, instead of living to eat.

Causes of Obesity.

From the preceding observation, the causes of which any one may verify, it is easy to ascertain the principle causes of obesity.

The first is the nature of the individual. Almost all men are born with predispositions, the impress of which is borne by their faces. Of every hundred persons who die of diseases of the chest, ninety have dark hair, long faces and sharp noses. Of every hundred obese persons, ninety have short faces, blue eyes, and pug noses.

Then there are beyond doubt persons predestined to obesity, the digestive powers of whom elaborate a great quantity of grease.

This physical fact, of the truth of which I am fully satisfied, exerts a most important influence on our manner of looking at things.

When we meet in society, a short, fat, rosy, short-nosed individual, with round limbs, short feet, etc., all pronounce her charming. Better informed than others, however, I anticipate the ravages which ten years will have effected on her, and sigh over evils which as yet do not exist. This anticipated compassion is a painful sentiment, and proves that a prescience of the future would only make man more unhappy.

The second of the causes of obesity, is the fact that farinacious and feculaferous matter is the basis of our daily food. We have already said that all animals that live on farinaceous substances become fat; man obeys the common law.

The fecula is more prompt in its action when it is mingled with sugar. Sugar and grease are alike in containing large quantities of hydrogen, and are both inflammable. This combination is the more powerful, from the fact that it flatters the taste, and that we never eat sweet things until the appetite is already satisfied, so that we are forced to court the luxury of eating by every refinement of temptation.

The fecula is not less fattening when in solution, as in beer, and other drinks of the same kind. The nations who indulge the most in them, are those who have the most huge stomachs. Some Parisian families who in 1817 drank beer habitually, because of the dearness of wine, were rewarded by a degree of embonpoint, they would be glad to get rid of.


Another cause of obesity is found in the prolongation of sleep, and want of exercise. The human body repairs itself much during sleep, and at the same time loses nothing, because muscular action is entirely suspended. The acquired superfluity must then be evaporated by exercise.

Another consequence is, that persons who sleep soundly, always refuse every thing that looks the least like fatigue. The excess of assimilation is then borne away by the torrent of circulation. It takes possession, by a process, the secret of which nature has reserved to herself, of some hundredths of hydrogen, and fat is formed to be deposited in the tubes of the cellular tissue.


The last cause of obesity is excess of eating and drinking.

There was justice in the assertion, that one of the privileges of the human race is to eat without hunger, and drink without thirst. Animals cannot have it, for it arises from reflection on the pleasures of the table, and a desire to prolong its duration.

This double passion has been found wherever man exists. We know savages eat to the very acme of brutality, whenever they have an opportunity.

Cosmopolites, as citizens of two hemispheres, we fancy ourselves at the very apogee of civilization, yet we are sure we eat too much.

This is not the case with the few, who from avarice or want of power, live alone. The first are delighted at the idea that they amass money, and others distressed that they do not. It is the case, however, with those around us, for all, whether hosts or guests, offer and accept with complaisance.

This cause, almost always present, acts differently, according to the constitution of individuals; and in those who have badly organized stomachs, produces indigestion, but not obesity.


This one instance, which all Paris will remember.

M. Lang had one of the most splendid establishments of the capital; his table especially, was excellent, but his digestion was bad as his gourmandise was great. He did the honors with perfect taste, and ate with a resolution worthy of a better fate.

All used to go on very well, till coffee was introduced, but the stomach soon refused the labor to which it had been subjected, and the unfortunate gastronomer was forced to throw himself on the sofa and remain in agony until the next day, in expiation of the brief pleasure he had enjoyed.

It is very strange that he never corrected this fault: as long as he lived, he was subjected to this alternative, yet the sufferings of the evening never had any influence on the next days’ meal.

Persons with active digestion, fare as was described in the preceding article. All is digested, and what is not needed for nutrition is fixed and turned into fat.

Others have a perpetual indigestion, and food is passed without having left any nourishment. Those who do not understand the matter, are amazed that so many good things do not produce a better effect.

It may be seen that I do not go very minutely into the matter, for from our habits many secondary causes arise, due to our habits, condition, inclinations, pleasures, etc.

I leave all this to the successor I pointed out in the commencement of this work, and satisfy myself merely with the prelibation, the right of the first comer to every sacrifice.

Intemperance has long attracted the attention of observers. Princes have made sumptuary laws, religion has moralized for gourmandise, but, alas, a mouthfull less was never eaten, and the best of eating every day becomes more flourishing.

I would perhaps be fortunate in the adoption of a new course, and in the exposition of the physical causes of obesity. Self– preservation would perhaps be more powerful than morals, or persuasive than reason, have more influence than laws, and I think the fair sex would open their eyes to the light.

Inconvenience of Obesity.

Obesity has a lamentable influence on the two sexes, inasmuch as it is most injurious to strength and beauty.

It lessens strength because it increases the weight to be moved, while the motive power is unchanged. It injures respiration, and makes all labor requiring prolonged muscular power impossible.

Obesity destroys beauty by annihilating the harmony of primitive proportions, for all the limbs do not proportionately fatten.

It destroys beauty by filling up cavities nature’s hand itself designed.

Nothing is so common as to see faces, once very interesting, made common-place by obesity.

The head of the last government did not escape this law. Towards the latter portion of his life, he (Napoleon) became bloated, and his eyes lost a great portion of their expression.

Obesity produces a distaste for dancing, walking, riding, and an inaptitude for those amusements which require skill or agility.

It also creates a disposition to certain diseases, such as apoplexy, dropsy, ulcers in the legs, and makes all diseases difficult to cure.

Examples of Obesity.

I can remember no corpulent heroes except Marius and John Sobieski.

Marius was short, and was about as broad as he was long. That probably frightened the Cimber who was about to kill him.

The obesity of the King of Poland had nearly been fatal to him, for having stumbled on a squadron of Turkish cavalry, from which he had to fly, he would certainly have been massacred, if his aids had not sustained him, almost fainting from fatigue on his horse, while others generously sacrificed themselves to protect him.

If I am not mistaken, the Duc de Vendome, a worthy son of Henry IV., was also very corpulent. He died at an inn, deserted by all, and preserved consciousness just long enough to see a servant snatch away a pillow on which his head was resting.

There are many instances of remarkable obesity. I will only speak, however, of my own observations.

M. Rameau, a fellow student of mine and maire of Chaleur, was about five feet two inches high, but weighed five hundred pounds.

The Duc de Luynes, beside whom I often sat, became enormous. Fat had effaced his handsome features, and he slept away the best portion of his life.

The most remarkable case, though, I saw in New York, and many persons now in Paris will remember to have seen at the door of a cafe in Broadway, a person seated in an immense arm-chair, with legs stout enough to have sustained a church. *

[* Many persons in New York remember the person referred to. The translator has heard, that as late as 1815, he was frequently to be seen at the door of a house near where the Atheneum Hotel was. Brillat Savarin is said scarcely to exaggerate.]

Edward was at least five feet ten inches, and was about eight feet (French) in circumference. His fingers were like those of the Roman Emperor, who used to wear his wife’s bracelets as rings. His arms and legs were nearly as thick as the waist of a man of medium size, and his feet were elephantine, covered by fat pendant from his legs. The fat on his cheek had weighed down his lower eye-lid, and three hanging chins made his face horrible to behold.

He passed his life near a window, which looked out on the street and drank from time to time a glass of ale from a huge pitcher he kept by his side.

His strange appearance used to attract the attention of passers, whom he used always to put to flight by saying in a sepulchral tone “What are you staring at like wild cats? Go about your business, you blackguards,” etc.

Having spoken to him one day, he told me that he was not at all annoyed and that if death did not interrupt him, he would be glad to live till the day of judgment.

From the preceding, it appears that if obesity be not a disease, it is at least a very troublesome predisposition, into which we fall from our own fault.

The result is, that we should all seek to preserve ourselves from it before we are attacked, and to cure ourselves when it befalls us. For the sake of the unfortunate we will examine what resources science presents us.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31