The physiology of taste, by Brillat-Savarin

Meditation VIII.

On Thirst.

THIRST is the internal feeling of a wish to drink.

A heat of about 32 [degrees] Reaumur, constantly vaporizing the different fluids the circulation of which sustains life, the diminution they undergo would unfit them for their purposes, if they were not renewed and refreshed. The necessity of this renewal is what we call thirst.

We think the seat of thirst is in the digestive system. When athirst (we have often felt the sensation when hunting) we feel distinctly that all the inhaling portions of the nostrils, mouth and throat are benumbed and hardened, and that if thirst be sometimes appeased by the application of fluids to other parts of the body, as in the bath, the reason is that as soon as they are absorbed they hurry rapidly to the seat of the evil and become remedies.

Varieties of Thirst.

Looking at the subject in all its bearings we may count three varieties of thirst: latent, factitious and permanent.

Latent or habitual thirst, is the insensible equilibrium established between transpiratory vaporization and the necessity of supplying what is lost. Thus, though we experience no pain, we are invited to drink while we eat, and are able to drink at almost every moment of the day. This thirst accompanies us every where, and is almost a portion of our existence.

Factitious thirst is peculiar to man, and results from the instinct which impels him to seek in drink the strength he needs. It is an artificial enjoyment rather than a natural want. This thirst is really governless, because the fluids we take have the faculty of reviving it, and this thirst becomes habitual, makes drunkards in every country. The consequence is, that they drink as long as liquor lasts, or until they are utterly overcome.

When, on the other hand, thirst is appeased by pure water, which seems the most natural remedy, we never drink more than we actually need.

Hardening thirst is the result of the increase of the want, and of the impossibility to satisfy latent thirst.

It is so called because it is accompanied by hardness of the tongue, dryness of the palate, and a devouring heat in all the body.

The sensation of thirst is so intense, that in all tongues it is synonymous with excessive desire, and irrepressible longing: thus we thirst for gold, wealth, power, science, &c., expressions which never would have become common had men not have been athirst and aware of their vengeance.

Appetite is pleasant when it does not reach the point of hunger. Thirst is not so, and as soon as we feel it we are uncomfortable and anxious. When there is no possibility of appeasing it, the state of mind is terrible.

To compensate us for this, the sense of thirst procures us great pleasure; and when great thirst is appeased, or a delicious drink is offered to one moderately athirst, the whole papillary system is aroused, from the tip of the tongue to the extremity of the stomach.

We die of thirst more rapidly than of hunger. Men with an abundance of water, have lived for eight days without bread. Without water, the system succumbs on the fifth.

The reason is that in starving, man dies more of weakness; in thirst of a burning fever.

People are not always able to resist thirst so long: in 1787, one of the hundred Swiss of Louis XVI., died from having been twenty– four hours without drink.

He was at a cabaret with some of his comrades, and as he was about to carry his glass to his lips, he was reproached with drinking oftener than the rest, and with not being able to do a moment without it.

He then made a bet of ten bottles of wine, that he would not drink for twenty-four hours.

He ceased at once, and sat by, for two hours, seeing the others drink.

The night passed well enough, but at dawn he found it difficult to do without his habitual glass of brandy.

All the morning he was uneasy and troubled; he went hither and thither without reason, and seemed not to know what he was about.

At one o’clock he laid down, fancying he would be calmer: he was really sick, but those about him could not induce him to drink. He said he could get on till evening: he wished to gain his bet, and it is probable also, that some military pride was mingled in the matter, which prevented him from yielding to pain.

He kept up until seven o’clock, but at half-after seven was very sick and soon died, without being able to swallow a glass of wine which was presented to him.

I was informed of all these details that very night, by the Sieur Schneider, the fifer of the hundred Swiss, in the house of whom I lived at Versailles.

Causes of Thirst.

Many circumstances, either united or separate, contribute to thirst. We shall mention some which are not without influence on our habits.

Heat augments thirst. Whence comes the disposition men have always had to build their habitations near the sea.

Corporeal labor augments thirst. Persons who employ labourers, always gratify them by drink — hence the proverb that wine given them is always well sold.

Dancing increases thirst, and for this reason the ball-room is always supplied with invigorating drinks.

Declamation also increases thirst, which accounts for the glass of water readers always seek to drink with grace, and which is always beside the white handkerchief on the desk.

Genesiac pleasure excites thirst, and accounts for the poetical descriptions of Cyprus, Amathonte, Gnidus, and other homes of Venus, in which there are always shady groves and murmuring streamlets.

Song augments thirst, and therefore all vocalists are said to be such huge drinkers. A musician myself, I protest against this assertion, which has neither rhyme nor reason.

The artists in our saloons drink with as much prudence as sagacity; what they lose in this, however, they atone for on the other side; if not given to drink, they are untiring gourmands, so much so, that I am told at the Circle of Transcendental Harmony, * the festivals of St. Cecile lasted twenty-four hours.

[* A well known “Musical Society.”]


Exposure to a rapid current of air, causes a rapid augmentation of thirst, and I think the following observations will be read with pleasure by all the lovers of the chase.

It is well known that quail are fond of huge mountains, where their broods are in more safety, from the fact that the harvests are later.

When the rye is cut, they go into the barley and oats; and when the latter is being harvested, they go into that portion which is less matured.

This is the time to shoot them; because in a small number of acres, are found all the birds which a few months before were strewn through a whole commune and are at that time fat as possible.

I went with some friends for the purpose of shooting to a mountain in the arrondissiment of Nantua, in the canton known as plan d’Hotonne, where we were about to commence the day’s work under a brighter sun than any Parisian badaud ever saw.

While we were at breakfast a violent north wind arose which was much in the way of our sport: we however continued.

We had scarcely been out a quarter of an hour, when the most effeminate of the party said he was thirsty. We now, doubtless, would have laughed at him, had we not all experienced the same sensation.

We all drank, for an ass loaded with refreshments followed us, but the relief afforded was of brief duration. The thirst soon appeared with increased intensity, so that some fancied themselves sick, and others were becoming so, and all talked of returning. To do so was to have travelled ten leagues for no purpose.

I had time to collect my ideas, and saw the reason of this strange thirst; and told them we suffered from the effects of three causes. The dimunition of atmospheric pressure made our circulation more rapid. The sun heated us, and walking had increased transpiration. More than all these — the wind dried up this transpiration, and prevented all moistness of the skin.

I told them that there was no danger, that the enemy was known, and that we must oppose it.

Precaution however was ineffectual, for their thirst was quenchless. Water, wine and water, and brandy, all were powerless. We suffered from thirst even while we drank, and were uncomfortable all day.

We got through the day, however; the owner of the domain of Latour entertaining us, joining the provisions we had, to his own stores.

We dined very well and got into the hay-loft, where we slept soundly.

The next day’s experience showed my theory to be true. The wind lulled, the sun was not so warm, and we experienced no inconvenience from thirst.

But a great misfortune had befallen us. We had very prudently filled our canteens, but they had not been able to resist the many assaults made on them. They were bodies without souls, and we all fell into the hands of the cabaret-keepers.

We had to come to that point, not however without murmuring. I addressed an allocution full of reproaches to the wind, when I saw a dish fit to be set before a king, “D’epinards a la graisse de cailles,” destined to be eaten with a wine scarcely as good as that of Surene. *

[* A village two leagues from Paris, famous for its bad wine. There is a proverb which says that to get rid of a glass of Surene, three things are needed, “a drinker and two men to hold him in case his courage fail.” The same may be said of Perieux, which people however will drink.]

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