The physiology of taste, by Brillat-Savarin

Meditation XIV.

On the Pleasures of the Table.

MAN of all the animals who live on the earth, is beyond doubt, the one who experiences most suffering.

Nature condemned him to suffering by robbing him of hair, by giving him such a peculiar formation of his feet, also by the instinct of destruction, and of war which has followed man every where.

Animals have never been stricken with this curse, and with the exception of a few contests, caused by the instinct of reproduction, harm would be absolutely unknown to the lower animals of creation. Man, though he cannot appreciate pleasure except by a small number of organs, may yet be liable to intense agony.

This decree of destiny was engraved by a crowd of maladies, which originated in the social system. The result is that the most intense pleasure one can imagine, cannot atone for certain pains, such as the gout, the tooth-ache, etc., acute rheumatisms, strictures, and many other diseases we might mention.

This practical fear of pain has had the effect, that without even perceiving it, man has rushed into an opposite direction, and has devoted himself to the small number of pleasures nature has placed at his disposal.

Origin of the Pleasures of the Table.

Meals, as we understand the word, began at the second stage of the history of humanity. That is to say as soon as we ceased to live on fruits alone. The preparation and distribution of food made the union of the family a necessity, at least once a day. The heads of families then distributed the produce of the chase, and grown children did as much for their parents.

These collections, limited at first to near relations, were ultimately extended to neighbors and friends.

At a later day when the human species was more widely extended, the weary traveler used to sit at such boards and tell what he had seen in foreign lands. Thus hospitality was produced, and its rights were recognized everywhere. There was never any one so ferocious as not to respect him who had partaken of his bread and salt.

Difference Between the Pleasure of Eating and the Pleasures of the Table.

Such from the nature of things, should be the elements of the pleasures of the table which, where eating is a necessity, of course takes the precedence.

The pleasure of eating is a peculiar sensation directed to the satisfaction of a necessity. The pleasures of the table is a reflected sensation, originating in various facts, places, things and persons.

We share with animals in the pleasure of eating. They and we have hunger which must he satisfied.

It is peculiar to the human race, for it supposes a predisposition for food, for the place of meeting, and for guests.

The pleasures of the table exact, if not hunger, at least appetite. The table is often independent of hoth the one and the other.

This we may see at every entertainment.

At the first course every one eats and pays no attention to conversation; all ranks and grades are forgotten together in the great manufacture of life. When, however, hunger begins to be satisfied, reflection begins, and conversation commences. The person who, hitherto, had been a mere consumer, becomes an amiable guest, in proportion as the master of all things provides him with the means of gratification.


The pleasures of the table afford neither ravishing pleasure, ecstasy, nor transport, but it gains in intensity what it loses in duration. It is the more valuable because it exposes us to all other gratifications and even consoles us for their loss.

After a good dinner body and soul enjoy a peculiar happiness.

Physically, as the brain becomes refreshed, the face lightens up, the colors become heightened, and a glow spreads over the whole system.

Morally, the mind becomes sharpened, witticisms circulate. If La Farre and Saint Aulaire descend to posterity with the reputation of spiritual authors, they owe it especially to the fact that they were pleasant guests.

Besides, there are often found collected around the same table, all the modifications of society which extreme sociability has introduced among us: love, friendship, business, speculation, power, ambition, and intrigue, all enhance conviviality. Thus it is that it produces fruits of all imaginable flavors.


An immediate consequence of all these antecedents is that human industry has toiled to augment the duration of the gratifications of the table.

Poets complain that the throat is too short for the uses of degustation, and others lament the want of capacity of the stomach. Some even regret that digestion is accomplished in a single act and not divided into two.

This was but an extreme effort to amplify the enjoyments of taste; in this respect, however, it is impossible to exceed the limits imposed by nature, and an appeal was made to accessories, which offered more latitude.

Vases and goblets were crowned with flowers; crowns were distributed to the guests, and dinners served beneath the vault of heaven, in groves, and amid all the wonders of nature.

Music and song were made to increase the pleasures of the table. Thus while the king of the Pheacians ate, the singer Phemius sang the praises of the wars and warriors of other days.

Often dancers and pantomimists of both sexes, in all possible costumes, occupied the attention without injuring the pleasure of the meal. The most exquisite perfumes were diffused in the air, and guests were often waited on by unveiled beauty, so that every sense was appealed to.

I might consume many pages in proving what I advance. The Greek authors and our old chroniclers only need to be copied. These researches, however, only need to be made to be evident, and my erudition would be of little value

The 18th and 19th Century.

We have adopted to a greater or less degree various methods of enjoyment, and have, by new discoveries, somewhat enhanced the number.

The delicacy of our tastes would not permit the vomitoria of the Romans to remain. We did better, however, and accomplished the same object in a more pleasant manner.

Dishes of such an attractive flavor have been increased that they perpetually reproduce the appetite. They are so light that they flatter the appetite without loading the stomach. Seneca would have called them NUBES ESCULENTAS.

We have advanced so far in alimentation that if business called us from the table, or if it became necessary for us to sleep, the duration of the meal would have been almost indeterminable.

One must not, however, believe that all of these accessories are indispensable to the pleasures of the table. Pleasure is enjoyed in almost all its extent when the following conditions are united: good cheer, good wine, a pleasant company, and time.

I have often, therefore, wished to have been present at one of those pleasant repasts which Horace invited one of his neighbors to share, viz: a good chicken, a lamb (doubtless fat,) and as a desert, grapes, figs and nuts. Uniting these to wine, made when Manlius was consul, and the delicious conversation of the poet, I fancy I could have supped very pleasantly.

At mihi cum longum post tempus venerat hospes Sive operum vacuo, longum conviva per imbrem Vicinus, bene erat non piscibus urbe petitis, Sed pullo atque hasdo, tum * pensilis uva secundas Et nux ornabat mensas, cum duplice ficu. Thus it was only yesterday I regaled six friends with a boiled leg of mutton and a kidney A L’PONTOISE. They indulged in the pleasures of conversation so fully that they forgot that there were richer meats or better cooks.

[* Le dessert se trouve precisement designe et distingue par l’adverbe TUM et par les mots SECUNDAS MENSAS.]

On the other hand, let persons make as much research as possible for good cheer; there is no pleasure at the table if the wine be bad, and the guests collected without care. Faces will then be sure to seem sad, and the meal will be eaten without, consideration.


But perhaps the impatient reader will ask how, in the year of grace 1825, can any table be spread which will unite all of these conditions?

I will answer this question. Be attentive, readers. Gasterea, the most attractive of the muses, inspires me. I will be as clear as an oracle, and my precepts will live for centuries:—

“Let the number of guests never exceed twelve, so that the conversation may be general.

“Let them he so chosen that their occupations may be varied, their tastes analogous, and that they may have such points of contact that introduction may be useless.

“Let the dining-room be furnished with luxury, the table clean, and the temperature of the room about 16 degrees Reaumur.

“Let the men be intelligent, but not pedantic — and the women pretty, but not coquettes.

“Let the dishes be of exquisite taste, but few in number at the first course; let those of the second be as pleasant and as highly perfumed as possible.

“Let the coffee be hot, and let the master select his own wines.

“Let the reception-room be large enough to permit those who cannot do without the amusement, to make up a card party, and also for little COTERIES of conversation.

“Let the guests be retained by the pleasures of society, and by the hope that the evening will not pass without some ulterior enjoyment

“The tea should not be too strong, the roast dishes should be loaded artistically, and the punch made carefully.

“None should begin to retire before eleven o’clock, and at midnight all should have gone to bed.

“If any one has been present at an entertainment uniting all these conditions, he may boast of having witnessed his own apotheosis. He will enjoy it the more, because many other apotheosis have been forgotten or mistaken.”

I have said that the pleasure of the table, as I have described it, was susceptible of long duration, and I am about to prove it by the history of the longest meal I ever was present at. It is a BONBON I give the reader as a reward for patient attention to me. Here it is:–

I had a family of kinsfolk in the Rue de Bac, constituted as follows: a doctor, who was seventy-eight; a captain, who was seventy-six; and their sister, Jeannette, who was sixty-four. I used to visit them sometimes, and they always received me kindly.

“PARBLEU!” said Doctor Dubois, rising on his toes one day to tap me on the shoulder; “you have a long time been bragging about your FONDUES, (eggs and cheese,) and you always make our mouths water. The captain and I will come to dine with you, and we will see what your famous dish is.” (This took place about 1801.) “Willingly,” said I, “and to enable you to see it in all its glory, I will cook it myself. I am delighted with your proposition, and wish you to come punctually at ten to-morrow.”

At the appointed time my guests came, clean shaved, and with their heads powdered. They were two little old men; yet fresh, however, and well. They smiled with pleasure when they saw the table ready, set with three covers, and with two dozen oysters by each plate. At the two ends of the table were bottles of Sauterne, carefullly wiped, except the cork, which indicated that it had been long bottled. Alas! I have gradually seen oysters disappear from breakfast, though they were once so common. They disappeared with the ABBES, who never ate less than a gross; and the CHEVALIERS, who ate quite as many. I regret them but as a philosopher. If time modifies governments, how great must be its influence over simple usages. After the oysters, which were very good, grilled kidneys, a PATE of FOIE GRAS with truffles, and then the FONDUE.

The elements had been put in a chafing-dish, and brought to the table with spirits of wine. I set at once to work, and my two cousins watched every motion I made.

They were delighted, and asked for the recipe, which I promised, telling them two anecdotes, which the reader will perhaps meet with elsewhere.

After the FONDUE we had the various fruits which were in season, and a cup of real mocha, made A LA DU BELLOY, which was then becoming fashionable. We ended with two kinds of LIQUEURS.

Breakfast being over, I invited my two kinsmen to take a little exercise, and to accompany me through my lodgings, which are far from being elegant, and which my friends, in consequence of their size and splendor, prefer to the gilding and OR MOLU of the reign of Louis XV.

I showed them the original bust of my pretty cousin, Mme. Recamier by Chinard, and her miniature by Augustin. They were so much pleased, that the Doctor kissed the latter with his thick lips, and the Captain took a liberty with the bust of the first, for which I reproved him. Were all the admirers of the original to do as he did, the bust would soon be in the condition of the famous statue of St. Peter at Borne, which the kisses of pilgrims have worn away.

I showed them afterwards, casts of old statuary, some pictures, which are not without merit, my guns, my musical instruments, and several fine editions of the French and foreign classics.

They did not forget the kitchen in their voyage of discovery. I showed them my economical furnace, my turnspit by clock-work, my roasting apparatus, and my vaporiser. They were much surprised, as every thing in their house was done in the style of the regency.

Just as we were about to enter the room, the clock struck two. “Peste!” said the Doctor, “the dinner time and Jeannette awaits us; we must go, not because I wish to eat, but I must have my bowl of soup like Titus DIEM PERDIDI.” “My dear Doctor,” said I, “why go so far? what is here? Send some to my cousin and remain here, if you will, and accept my apology for a somewhat hasty dinner and you will delight me.”

There was an ocular consultation on the matter between the two brothers, and I at once sent a messenger to the Faubourg St. Germain. I also told my cook what I wished. After a time, in part with his own resources and from the neighboring restaurants, he served us up a very comfortable little dinner.

It was a great gratification to me, to see the SANG FROID and quiet nerve with which my kinsmen sat down, unfolded their napkins and began. They met with two surprises which I did not anticipate; I gave them PARMESAN with soup, and a glass of dry Madeira. These two novelties had just been introduced by M. De Tallyrand, the first of our diplomatists, to whom we are indebted for so many shrewd expressive words, and whom public attention has always followed with marked interest even when he had retired.

Dinner passed very comfortably, and as far as the substantiate and the accessories were concerned, my friends were as agreeable as they were merry.

After dinner, I proposed a game of PIQUET, which they refused, preferring, as the Captain said, IL FAR NIENTE of the Italians, and we sat around the fireplace.

In spite of the pleasures of the FAR NIENTE, I have often thought that nothing enlivens conversation more than any occupation which distracts but does not absorb all coversation.

Tea was a novelty to the French at that time. They however took it; I made it in their presence, and they took it with greater pleasure, because, hitherto they had only looked on it as a remedy.

Long observation had informed me, that one piece of complaisance ever brings on another, and that after one step there is no choice but to continue in the same route.

“You will kill me,” said the Doctor. “You will make me drunk,” said the Captain. I made no reply, but rang for rum, sugar, and lemons. I made some punch, and while I was preparing some, excellent well buttered toast was also prepared.

My cousins protested that they could not eat a morsel more; but, as I was familliar with the attraction of this simple preparation, I insisted, and the Captain having taken the first slice, I had no hesitation in ordering more.

Time rolled on, and the clock was on the stroke of eight. “Let us go,” said the worthies, “for we must eat a salad with our sister, who has not seen us to day.”

I did not object, and accompanied the two pleasant old men to their carriage, and saw them leave.

Perhaps, the question may be asked, if their long visit did not annoy me.

I answer, no. The attention of my guests was sustained by the preparation of the FONDUE, by their examination of my rooms, by a few novelties after dinner, by the tea, and especially by the punch, which was the best they had ever tasted.

The Doctor, too, knew all the genealogy and history of the people of Paris. The Captain had passed a portion of his life in Italy, either as a soldier or as envoy to the Court of Parma. I had travelled much, and conversation pursued its natural bent. Under such circumstances time could not but fly rapidly.

On the next day, a letter from the Doctor informed me, that their little debauch had done them no harm, but that after a quiet night’s rest, they awoke convinced that they could go over the whole matter again.

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