The physiology of taste, by Brillat-Savarin

Meditation XVI.

On Digestion.

We never see what we eat, says an old adage, except what we digest.

How few, however, know what digestion is, though it is a necessity equalizing rich and poor, the shepherd and the king.

The majority of persons who, like M. Jourdan, talked prose without knowing it, digest without knowing how; for them I make a popular history of digestion, being satisfied that M. Jourdan was much better satisfied when his master told him that he wrote prose. To he fully acquainted with digestion, one must know hoth its antecedents and consequents.


Appetite, hunger, and thirst, warn us that the hody needs restoration; pain, that universal monitor, never ceases to torment us if we do not obey it.

Then comes eating and drinking which are ingestion, an operation which begins as soon as the food is in the mouth, and enters the oesophagus.

During its passage, through a space of a few inches much takes place.

The teeth divide solid food, the glands which line the inside of the mouth moisten it, the tongue mingles the food, presses it against the palate so as to force out the juice, and then collects the elements in the centre of the mouth, after which, resting on the lower jaw, it lifts up the central portion forming a kind of inclined plane to the lower portion of the mouth where they are received by the pharynx, which itself contracting, forces them into the oesophagus.

One mouthful having thus been treated, a second is managed in the same way, and deglutition continues until appetite informs us that it is time to stop. It is rarely, though, that it stops here, for as it is one of the attributes of man to drink without thirst, cooks have taught him to eat without hunger.

To ensure every particle of food reaching the stomach, two dangers must be avoided.

It must not pass into the passage behind the nose, which luckily is covered by a veil.

The second is that it must not enter the trachea. This is a serious danger, for any particle passing into the trachea, would cause a convulsive cough, which would last until it was expelled.

An admirable mechanism, however, closes the glottis while we swallow, and we have a certain instinct which teaches us not to breathe during deglutition. In general, therefore, we may say, that in spite of this strange conformation, food passes easily into the stomach, where the exercise of the will ceases, and digestion begins.

Duty of the Stomach.

Digestion is a purely mechanical operation and the digestive apparatus, may be considered as a winnowing mill, the effect of which is, to extract all that is nutritious and to get rid of the chaff.

The manner in which digestion is effcted has been so long a question for argument, and persons have sought to ascertain if it were effected by coction, fermentation, solution, chemical, or vital action.

All of these modes have their influence, and the only error was that many causes were sought to be attributed to one.

In fact food impregnated by all fluids which fill the mouth and oesophagus, reaches the stomach where it is impregnated by the gastric juices, which always fill it. It is then subjected for several hours to a heat of 30 [degrees] Reaumer; it is mingled by the organic motion of the stomach, which their presence excites. They act on each other by the effect of this juxtaposition and fermentation must take place. All that is nourishing ferments.

In consequence of all of these operations, chyle is elaborated and spread over the food, which then passes the pylorus and enters the intestines. Portion after portion succeeds until the stomach is empty, thus evacuating itself as it was filled.

The pylorus is a kind of chamber between the stomach and the intestines, so constructed that food once in it can ascend only with great difficulty. This viscera is sometimes obstructed when the sufferer, after long and intense agony, dies of hunger.

The next intestine beyond the pylorus is the duodenum. It is so called because it is twelve fingers long.

When chyle reaches the duodenum, it receives a new elaboration by being mingled with bile and the panchreatic juice. It loses the grey color and acidity it previously possessed, becomes yellow and commences to assume a stercoral odor, which increases as it advances to the rectum. The various substances act reciprocally on each other; there must, consequently, be many analagous gasses produced.

The impulse which ejected chyle from the stomach, continues and forces the food towards the lower intestines, there the chyle separates itself and is absorbed by organs intended for the purpose, whence it proceeds to the liver, to mingle with the blood, which it revives, and thus repairs the losses of the vital organs and of transpiration.

It is difficult to explain how chyle, which is a light and almost insipid fluid, can be extracted from a mass, the color of which, and the taste, are so deeply pronounced.

Be that as it may, the preparation of chyle appears to be the true object of digestion, and as soon as it mingles with the circulation, the individual becomes aware of a great increase of physical power.

The digestion of fluids is less complicated than that of solids, and can be explained in a few words.

The purely liquid portion is absorbed by the stomach, and thrown into circulation; thence it is taken to the veins by the arteries and filtered by urethras, * which pass them as urine, to the bladder.

[* These urethras are conduits of the size of a pea, which start from the kidneys, and end at the upper neck of the bladder.]

When in this last receptacle, and though restrained by the spinchter muscle, the urine remains there but a brief time; its exciting nature causes a desire to avoid it, and soon voluntary constriction emits it through canals, which common consent does not permit us to name.

Digestion varies in the time it consumes, according to the temperament of individuals. The mean time, however, is seven hours, viz., three hours for the stomach, and the rest of the time for the lower intestines.

From this expose which I have selected from the most reliable authors, I have separated all anatomical rigidities, and scientific abstractions. My readers will thence be able to judge where the last meal they ate is: viz., during the first three hours in the stomach, later in the intestinal canal, and after seven hours, awaiting expulsion.

Influence of Digestion.

Of all corporeal operations, digestion is the one which has the closest connection with the moral condition of man.

This assertion should amaze no one; things cannot be otherwise.

The principles of physiology tells us that the soul is liable to impressions only in proportion as the organs subjected to it have relation to external objects, whence it follows that when these organs are badly preserved, badly restored, or irritated, this state of degradation exerts a necessary influence on sensations, which are the intermediates of mental operations.

Thus the habitual manner in which digestion is performed or affected, makes us either sad, gay, taciturn, gossiping morose or melancholy, without our being able to doubt the fact, or to resist it for a moment.

In this respect, humanity may be arranged under three categories; the regular, the reserved, and the uncertain.

Each of the persons who belong to each of the series, not only have similar dispositions, and propensities, but there is something analagous and similar in the manner in which they fulfill the mission from which chance during their lives has separated them.

To exhibit an example, I will go into the vast field of literature. I think men of letters frequently owe all their characteristics to their peculiar mode of life. Comic poets must be of one kind, tragic poets of another, and elegiac, of the uncertain class. The most elegiac and the most comic are only separated by a variety of digestive functions.

By an application of this principle to courage, when Prince Eugene of Savoy, was doing the greatest injury to France, some one said, “Ah, why can I not send him a pate de foie gras, three times a week I would make him the greatest sluggard of Europe.”

“Let us hurry our men into action, while a little beef is left in their bowels,” said an English general.

Digestion in the young is very often accompanied by a slight chill, and in the old, by a great wish to sleep. In the first case, nature extracts the coloric from the surface to use it in its laboratory. In the second, the same power debilitated by age cannot at once satisfy both digestion and the excitement of the senses.

When digestion has just begun, it is dangerous to yield to a disposition for mental work. One of the greatest causes of mortality is, that some men after having dined, and perhaps too well dined, can neither close their eyes nor their ears.

This observation contains a piece of advice, which should even attract the most careless youth, usually attentive to nothing. It should also arrest the attention of grown men, who forget nothing, not even that time never pauses, and which is a penal law to those on the wrong side of fifty.

Some persons are fretful while digestion is going on. At that time, nothing should be suggested to and no favors asked of them.

Among these was marshal Augereau, who, during the first hour after dinner, slaughtered friends and enemies indiscriminately.

I have heard it said, that there were two persons in the army, whom the general-in-chief always wished to have shot, the commissary-in-chief and the head of his general staff. They were both present. Cherin the chief of staff, talked back to him, and the commissary, though he said nothing, did not think a bit the less.

At that time, I was attached to his general staff, and always had a plate at his table. I used, however, to go thither rarely, being always afraid of his periodical outbreaks, and that he would send me to dinner to finish my digestion.

I met him afterwards at Paris, and as he testified his regret that he had not seen me oftener, I did not conceal the reason. We laughed over the matter and he confessed that I was not wrong.

We were then at Offenbourg, and a complaint was made by the staff that we ate no game nor fish.

This complaint was well founded, for it is a maxim, of public law, that the conquerors should always live at the expense of the conquered. On that very day I wrote a letter to the master of the forests to point out a remedy.

This official was an old trooper, who doubtless was unwilling to treat us kindly lest we should take root in this territory. His answer was negative and evasive. The game keepers, afraid of our soldiers, had gone, the fishermen were insubordinate, the water muddy, etc. To all this, I said nothing, but I sent him ten grenadiers to be lodged and fed until further orders.

The remedy was effective; for early on the next day after, I saw a heavily loaded wagon come. The game-keepers had come back, the fishermen were submissive; we had game and fish enough to last for a week.

We had kid, snipe, lark, pike, etc.

When I received the offering, I freed the superintendent from his troublesome guests, and during the whole time we remained in that part of the country, we had nothing to complain of.

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