The physiology of taste, by Brillat-Savarin

Meditation XII.


All who Wish to Be are Not Gourmands.

THERE are individuals to whom nature has refused a fineness of organs and a degree of attention, without which the most succulent food passes unperceived.

Physiology has already recognized the first of these varieties, by exhibiting the tongue of those unfortunate men who are badly provided with the means of appreciating flavors and tastes. Such persons have but an obtuse sensation, for to them taste is what light is to the blind.

The second of these varieties is composed of absent minded men, of ambitious persons, and others, who wish to attend to two things at once, and who eat only to eat.


Such was Napoleon; he was irregular in his meals and ate quickly. When hungry, his appetite had to be satisfied at once, and he was so completely served, that at any hour he could have fowl, game or coffee.

Gourmands by Destiny.

There is however, a privileged class, which organic and material organization invites to the enjoyments of the taste.

I was always a disciple of Lavater and Gall, and believe in innate ideas.

As persons have been born who see, walk, and hear badly, because they are near-sighted, lame, or deaf, why may there not be others inclined to peculiar sensations.

To the most careless observer there will ever be presented faces which bear the undeniable expression of some dominant sentiment, such as disdainful impertinence, self-satisfaction, misanthropy, sensuality, &c. A very meaningless face may express all this, but when the face has a determined expression, one is rarely mistaken.

Passions agitate the muscles, and often when a man is silent, the various feelings which agitate him may be read on his face. This tension, though habitual leave sensible traces, and give the face a permanent and well defined character.

Sensual Predestination.

The persons predestined to gourmandise are in general of medium stature. Their faces are either round or square, and small, their noses short and their chins rounded. The women are rather pretty than beautiful, and they have a slight tendency to obesity.

Those who are fondest of friandises have delicate features, smaller, and are distinguished by a peculiar expression of the mouth.

Agreeable guests should be sought for among those who have this appearance. They receive all that is offered them, eat slowly, and taste advisedly. They do not seek to leave places too quickly where they have been kindly received. They are always in for all the evening, for they know all games, and all that is neccessary for a gastronomical soiree.

Those, on the contrary, to whom nature has refused a desire for the gratifications of taste, have a long nose and face. Whatever be their statures, the face seems out of order. Their hair is dark and flat, and they have no embonpoint. They invented pantaloons.

Women whom nature has thus afflicted, are very angulous, are uncomfortable at the table, and live on lenten fare.

This physiological theory will, I trust, meet with not many contradictions: any one may verify the matter. I will, however, rely on facts.

I was sitting one day at a great entertainment, and saw opposite to me a very pretty woman with a very sensual face. I leaned towards my neighbor and said, that the lady with such features must be gourmande. “Bah!” said he, “she is not more than fifteen; she is not old enough — let us see though.”

The beginning was not favorable, and I was afraid of being compromised. During the first two courses, the young woman ate with a discretion which really amazed me. The dessert came, it was brilliant as it was abundant, and gave me some hopes. I was not deceived, for she not only ate what was set before her, but sent for dishes which were at the other end of the table. She tasted every thing, and we were surprised that so small a stomach could contain so much. My diagnostics succeeded and science triumphed.

Two years after I met this same lady, who had been married a week. She had become far more beautiful, was something of a coquette, for fashion permitted her to exhibit her charms. Her husband was a man worth looking at, but he was like one of those ventriloquists who laugh on one side of the face and weep on the other. He was very fond of his wife, but when any one spoke to her, quivered with jealousy. The latter sentiment prevailed, for he took his wife to one of the most remote departments of France, and I, at least, can write no more of her biography.

I made a similar observation about the Duke of Decres, long minister of marine.

We knew that he was large, short, dark and square; that his face was round, that his chin protruded, that his lips were thick, and that he had a giant’s mouth. I therefore had no hesitation in proclaiming him fond of good cheer and of women.

This physiognomical remark I whispered to a woman I thought very pretty and very discreet. I was mistaken though, for she was a daughter of Eve, and my secret was made known. One evening his excellency was informed of the idea I had deduced from his face.

I ascertained this the next day, by a pleasant letter which I received from the Duke, in which he insisted that he had not the two qualities I had attributed to him.

I confessed myself beaten. I replied that nature does nothing in vain; that she had evidently formed him for certain duties, and that if he did not fulfil them he contradicted his appearance. That besides, I had no right to expect such confidence, etc., etc.

There the correspondence terminated, but a few days after all Paris was amused by the famous encounter between the minister and his cook, in which his excellency did not get the best of the matter. If after such an affair the cook was not dismissed, (and he was not,) I may conclude that the duke was completely overcome by the artist’s talents, and that he could not find another one to suit his taste so exactly, otherwise he would have gotten rid of so warlike a servant.

As I wrote these lines, during a fine winter evening, Mr. Cartier, once first violinist of the opera, entered my room and sat by the fire. I was full of my subject, and looked attentively at him. I said, “My dear Professor, how comes it that you, who have every feature of gourmandise, are not a gourmand?” “I am,” said he, “but I make abstinence a duty.” “Is that an act of prudence?” He did not reply, but he uttered a sigh, a la Walter Scott.

Gourmands by Profession.

If there be gourmands by predestination, there are also gourmands by profession. There are four classes of these: Financiers, men of letters, doctors, and devotees.


Financiers are the heroes of gourmandise. Hero is here the proper name, for there was some contention, and the men who had titles crowd all others beneath their titles and escutcheons. They would have triumphed, but for the wealth of those they opposed. Cooks contended with genealogists; and though dukes did not fail to laugh at their amphitryon, they came to the dinner, and that was enough.

Those persons who make money easily must be gourmands.

The inequality of wealth produces inequality of wants. He who can pay every day for a dinner fit for an hundred persons, is often satisfied after having eaten the thigh of a chicken. Art then must use well its resources to revive appetite. Thus Mondar became a gourmand, and others with the same tastes collects around him.


Causes of another nature, though far less baneful, act on physicians, who, from the nature of things, are gourmands. To resist the attractions set before them they must necessarily be made of bronze.

One day I ventured to say, (Doctor Corvisart was at the end of the table — the time was about 1806):—

“You are,” said I, with the air of an inspired puritan, “the last remnant of a composition which once covered all France. The members of it are either annihilated or dispersed. No longer do we see farmers general, abbes, chevaliers, &c. Bear the burden they have bequeathed to you, even if you take the three hundred Spartans who died at Thermopylae; such a fate should be yours.”

Nobody contradicted me.

At dinner I made a remark which was worthy of notice:—

Doctor Corvisart was a very pleasant man when he pleased, and was very fond of iced champagne. For this reason, while all the rest of the company were dull and idle, he dealt in anecdotes and stories. On the contrary, when the dessert was put on, and conversation became animated, he became serious and almost morose.

From this and other observations, I deduced the following conclusion: Champagne, the first effect of which is exhilarating, in the result is stupefying, on account of the excessant carbonic gases it contains.


As I measure doctors by their diplomatu, I will not reproach them for the severity with which they treat their invalids.

As soon as one has the misfortune to fall into their hands, one has to give up all we have previously thought agreeable.

I look on the majority of these prohibitions as useless. I say useless, because patients never desire what is injurious to them.

A reasonable physician should never lose sight of the natural tendency of our inclinations, nor forget to ascertain if our penchants are painful in themselves, or improving to health. A little wine, or a few drops of liquor, brings the smiles to the most hypochondriac faces.

Besides, they know that their severe prescriptions are almost always without effect, and the patient seeks to avoid him. Those who are around him, never are in want of a reason to gratify him. People, however, will die.

The ration of a sick Russian, in 1815, would have made a porter drunk. There was no retrenchment to be made, for military inspectors ran from day to day through the hospitals, and watched over the furnishment and the service of the various houses.

I express my opinions with the more confidence, because it is sustained by much experience, and that the most fortunate practitioners rely on my system.

The canon Rollet who died about fifty years ago, was a great drinker; and the first physician he employed, forbid him to use wine at all. When, however, he came again, the doctor found his patient in bed, and before him the corpus delicti, i.e., a table covered with a white cloth, a chrystal cup, a handsome bottle, and a napkin to wipe his lips with.

The doctor at once became enraged, and was about to withdraw, when the canon said in a lamentable voice, “doctor, remember, if you forbade my drinking, you did not prohibit my looking at the bottle.”

The physician who attended M. Montlusin de Point de Veyle was far more cruel, for he not only forbid his patient to touch wine, but made him drink large quantities of water.

A short time after the doctor had left, Mme. de Montlusin, anxious to fulfil the requisition of the prescription, and contribute to her husband’s recovery, gave him a great glass of water, pure and limpid as possible.

The patient received it kindly and sought to drink it with resignation. At the first swallow, however, he stopped, and giving the glass back to his wife, said, “Take this, dear, and keep it for the next dose; I have always heard, one should never trifle with remedies.” Men of letters in the world of gastronomy, have a place nearly equal to that of men of medical faculty.

Under the reign of Louis XIV., men of letters were all given to drink. They conformed to fashion and the memoirs of the day, in this respect, are very defying. They are now gourmands — a great amelioration.

I am far from agreeing with the cynic Geoffroy, who used to say that modern works were deficient in power because authors now drank only eau sucree.

I think he made two mistakes, both in the fact and the consequences.

The age we live in is rich in talents; they injure each other perhaps by their multitude; but posterity, judging with more calmness, will see much to admire. Thus we do justice to the great productions of Racine and Moliere which when written were coldly received.

The social position of men of letters was never more agreeable. They no longer live in the garrets they used to inhabit, for the field of literature has become fertile. The stream of Hippocrene rolls down golden sands: equals of all, they never hear the language of protection, and gourmandise overwhelms them with its choicest favours.

Men of letters are courted on account of their talent, and because their conversation is in general piquant, and because it has for some time been established, that every society should have its man of letters.

These gentlemen always come a little too late: they are not however received the most on that account, for they have been anxiously expected: they are petted up to induce them to come again, are flattered to make them brilliant, and as they find all this very natural, they grow used to it and become genuine gourmands.


Among the friends of gourmandise are many very devout persons.

By the word devotee, we understand what Louis XIV. and Moliere did, persons the piety of whom consists in external observances; pious and charitable persons have nothing to do with this class.

Let us see how they effect this — among those who work out their salvation, the greatest number seek the mildest method. Those who avoid society, sleep on the ground and wear hair cloth, are always exceptions.

Now there are to them certain damnable things never to be permitted, such as balls, plays, and other amusements.

While they and those who enjoy them are abominated, gourmandise assumes an altogether different aspect, and becomes almost theological.

Jure divino, man is the king of nature and all that earth creates was produced for him. For him the quail becomes fat, the mocha has its perfume, and sugar becomes beneficial to the health.

Why then should we not use with suitable moderation the goods which Providence offers us, especially as we continue to look on them as perishable things, and as they exalt our appreciation of the Creator.

Other not less weighty reasons strengthen these — can we receive too kindly those persons who take charge of our souls? Should we not make a meeting with them pleasant and agreeable?

Sometimes the gifts of Comus come unexpectedly. An old college companion, an old friend, a penitent who humbles himself, a kinsman who makes himself known or a protege recalls them.

This has ever been the case.

Convents were the true ware-houses of the most adorable delacies: for that reason they have been so much regretted. *

[* The best liquors in France were made of the Visitandines. The monks of Niort invented the conserve of Angelica, and the bread flavoured with orange flowers by the notes of Chiteau–Thierry is yet famous. The nuns of Belley used also to make a delicious conserve of nuts. Alas, it is lost, I am afraid.]

Many monastic orders, especially the Bernardins paid great attention to good cheer. The cooks of the clergy reached the very limits of the art, and M. de Pressigny (who died Archbishop of Besancon) returned from the conclave which elected Pro Sesto, he said the best dinner he ate in Rome was given by the General of the Capuchins.

Chevaliers and Abbes.

We cannot bring this article to a better end than to make an honourable mention of two corporations we saw in all their glory: we mean the Chevaliers and the Abbes.

How completely gourmand they were. Their expanded nostrils, their acute eyes, and coral lips could not he mistaken, neither could their gossiping tongue; each class, however, ate in a peculiar manner.

There was something military in the bearing of the Chevaliers. They ate their delicacies with dignity, worked calmly, and cast horizontal looks of approbation at both the master and mistress of the house.

The Abbes however, used to come to the table with more care, and reached out their hands as the cat snatches chestnuts from the fire. Their faces were all enjoyment, and there was a concentration about their looks more easy to conceive of, than to describe.

As three-fourths of the present generation have seen nothing like either the Abbes, or Chevaliers, and as it is necessary to understand them, to be able to appreciate many books written in the eighteenth century, we will borrow from the author of the Historical Treatise on Duels, a few pages which will fully satisfy all persons about this subject. (See Varieties, No. 20.)

Longevity of Gourmands.

I am happy, I cannot be more so, to inform my readers that good cheer is far from being injurious, and that all things being equal, gourmands live longer than other people. This was proved by a scientific dissertation recently read at the academy, by Doctor Villermet.

He compares the different states of society, in which good cheer is attended to, with those where no attention is paid to it, and has passed through every scale of the ladder. He has compared the various portions of Paris, in which people were more or less comfortable. All know that in this respect there is extreme difference, as for instance between the Faubourg St. Antoine and the Chaussee d’ Antin.

The doctor extended his research to the departments of France, and compared the most sterile and fertile together, and always obtained a general result in favor of the diminution of mortality, in proportion universally as the means of subsistence improve. Those who cannot well sustain themselves will be at least wise, to know that death will deliver them soon.

The two extremes of this progression are, that in the most highly favored ranks of life but one individual in fifty dies, while of those who are poorer four do.

Those who indulge in good cheer, are rarely, or never sick. Alas! they often fall into the domain of the faculty, who call them good patients: as however they have no great degree of vitality, and all portions of their organization are better sustained, nature has more resources, and the body incomparably resists destruction.

This physiological truth may be also sustained by history, which tells us that as often as impervious circumstances, such as war, sieges, the derangement of seasons, etc., diminish the means of subsistence, such times have ever been accompanied by contagious disease and a great increase of mortality.

The idea of Lafarge would beyond a doubt have succeeded in Paris, if those who had advanced it had introduced into their calculations the truths developed by Doctor Villermet.

They calculated mortality according to Buffoon’s tables, and those of Parcieux and others, all of which were based on the aggregate of all classes and conditions. Those who made the estimate, however, forgot the dangers of infancy, indulged in general calculations, and the speculation failed.

This may not have been the only, hut it was the principal cause.

For this observation, we are indebted to the Professor Pardessus.

M. de Belloy, archbishop of Paris, had a slight appetite, but a very distinct one. He loved good cheer and I have often seen his patriarchal face lighten up at the appearance of any choice dish. Napoleon always on such occasions paid him deference and respect.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51