The physiology of taste, by Brillat-Savarin

Meditation XXVII.

Philosophical History of the Kitchen.

COOKERY is the most ancient of arts, for Adam must have been born hungry, and the cries of the infant are only soothed by the mother’s breast.

Of all the arts it is the one which has rendered the greatest service in civil life. The necessities of the kitchen taught us the use of fire, by which man has subdued nature.

Looking carefully at things, three kinds of cuisine may be discovered.

The first has preserved its primitive name.

The second analyzes and looks after elements: it is called chemistry.

The third, is the cookery of separation and is called pharmacy.

Though different objects, they are all united by the fact that they use fire, furnaces, etc., at the same time.

Thus a morsel of beef, which the cook converts into potage or bouilli, the chemist uses to ascertain into how many substances it may be resolved.

Order of Alimentation.

Man is an omnivorous animal: he has incisors to divide fruits, molar teeth to crush grain, and canine teeth for flesh. Let it he remarked however, that as man approaches the savage state, the canine teeth are more easily distinguishable.

The probability was, that the human race for a long time, lived on fruit, for it is the most ancient food of the human race, and his means of attack until he had acquired the use of arms are very limited. The instinct of perfection attached to his nature, however, soon became developed, and the sentiment attached to his instinct was soon exhibited, and he made weapons for himself. To this he was impelled by a carniverous instinct, and he began to make prey of the animals that surrounded him.

This instinct of destruction yet exists: children always kill the animals that surround them, and if they were hungry would devour them.

It is not strange that man seeks to feed on flesh: He has too small a stomach, and fruit has not nourishment enough to renovate him. He could subsist on vegetables, but their preparation requires an art, only reached after the lapse of many centuries.

Man’s first weapons were the branches of trees, and subsequently bows and arrows.

It is worthy of remark, that wherever we find man, in all climates and latitudes, he has been found with and arrows. None can see how this idea presented itself to individuals so differently placed: it must be hidden by the veil of centuries.

Raw flesh has but one inconvenience. Its viscousness attaches itself to the teeth. It is not, however, disagreeable. When seasoned with salt it is easily digested, and must be digestible.

A Croat captain, whom I invited to dinner in 1815, was amazed at my preparations. He said to me, “When in campaign, and we become hungry, we knock over the first animal we find, cut off a steak, powder it with salt, which we always have in the sabretasche, put it under the saddle, gallop over it for half a mile, and then dine like princes.”

When the huntsmen of Dauphiny go out in Septemher to shoot, they take both pepper and salt with them. If they kill a very fat bird they pluck, season it, carry it some time in their caps and eat it. They say it is the best way to serve it up.

If our ancestors ate raw food we have not entirely gotten rid of the habit. The most delicate palates like Aries’ sausages, etc., which have never been cooked, but which are not, on that account, the less appetising.

Discovery of Fire.

Subsequently to the Croat mode, fire was discovered. This was an accident, for fire is not spontaneous. Many savage nations have been found utterly ignorant of it.


Fire having been discovered it was made use of to perfect food; at first it was made use of to dry it, and then to cook it.

Meat thus treated was found better than when raw. It had more firmness, was eaten with less difficulty, and the osmazome as it was condensed by carbonization gave it a pleasing perfume.

They began, however, to find out that flesh cooked on the coals became somewhat befouled, for certain portions of coal will adhere to it. This was remedied by passing spits through it, and placing it above burning coals at a suitable height.

Thus grillades were invented, and they have a flavor as rich as it is simple. All grilled meat is highly flavored, for it must be partially distilled.

Things in Homer’s time had not advanced much further, and all will be pleased here to read the account of Achilles’ reception of the three leading Greeks, one of whom was royal.

I dedicate this story to the ladies, for Achilles was the handsomest of all the Greeks, and his pride did not prevent his weeping when Briseis was taken from him, viz:

[verse in Greek]

The following is a translation by Pope:

“Patroclus, crown a larger bowl, Mix purer wine, and open every soul. Of all the warriors yonder host can send, Thy friend most honours these, and these thy friend.”

He said: Patroclus o’er the blazing fire Heaps in a brazen vase three chines entire: The brazen vase Automedon sustains, ‘Which flesh of porket, sheep, and goat contains: Achilles at the genial feast presides, The parts transfixes, and with skill divides. Meanwhile Patroclus sweats the fire to raise; The tent is brightened with the rising blaze:

Then, when the languid flames at length subside, He strews a bed of glowing embers wide, Above the coals the smoking fragments turns And sprinkles sacred salt from lifted urns; With bread the glittering canisters they load. Which round the board Menoetius’ son bestow’d: Himself, opposed to Ulysses, full in sight, Each portion parts, and orders every rite. The first fat offerings, to the immortals due, Amid the greedy Patroclus threw; Then each, indulging in the social feast, His thirst and hunger soberly repress’d. That done, to Phoenix Ajax gave the sign; Not unperceived; Ulysses crown’d with wine The foaming bowl, and instant thus began, His speech addressing to the godlike man: “Health to Achilles!”

Thus then a king, a son of a king, and three Grecian leaders dined very comfortably on bread, wine, and broiled meat.

We cannot but think that Achilles and Patroclus themselves prepared the entertainment, if only to do honor to the distinguished guests they received. Ordinarily the kitchen business was abandoned to slaves and women, as Homer tells us in Odyssey when he refers to the entertainment of the heralds.

The entrails of animals stuffed with blood were at that time looked on as very great delicacies.

At that time and long before, beyond doubt, poetry and music, were mingled with meals. Famous minstrels sang the wonders of nature, the loves of the gods, and warlike deeds of man. Theirs was a kind of priesthood and it is probable that the divine Homer himself was sprung from one of those men favored by heaven. He would not have been so eminent had not his poetical studies begun in his childhood.

Madame Dacier observes that Homer does not speak of boiled meat anywhere in his poems. The Jews had made much greater progress in consequence of their captivity in Egypt. They had kettles. Esau’s mess of potage must have been made thus. For this he sold his birthright.

It is difficult to say how men learned the use of metals. Tubal Cain, it is said, was the inventor.

In the present state of knowledge, we use one metal to manufacture another. We overcome them with iron pincers; cut them with steel files, but I never met with any one who could tell me who made the first file or pair of pincers.

Oriental Entertainments. — Grecian.

Cookery made great advances. We are ignorant however of its utensils, whether of iron, pottery or of tin material.

The oldest books we know of make honorable mention of oriental festivals. It is not difficult to believe that monarchs who ruled such glorious realms abounded in all that was grateful. We only know that Cadmus who introduced writing into Greece, was cook of the king of Sidon.

The idea of surrounding the table with couches, originated from this voluptuous prince.

Cookery and its flavors were then highly esteemed by the Athenians, a people fond of all that was new. From what we read in their histories, there is no doubt but that their festivals were true feasts.

The wines of Greece, which even now we find excellent, have been estimated by scientific gourmands the most delicious that were.

The most beautiful women that ever came to adorn our entertainments were Greeks, or of Grecian origin.

The wisest men of old were anxious to display the luxury of such enjoyments. Plato, Atheneus, and many others, have preserved their names. The works of all of them, however, are lost, and if any remember them, it is only those who have heard of a long forgotten and lost book, the Gastronomy [Greek word]— the friend of one of the sons of Pericles.

Such was the cookery of Greece, which sent forth a few men who first established themselves in the Tiber, and then took possession of the world.

Roman Festivals.

Good cheer was unknown to the Romans as long as they thought to preserve their independence or to overcome their neighbors, who were poor as they were. Their generals therefore lived on vegetables. Historians have never failed to praise these times, when frugality was a matter of honor. When, however, their conquests had extended into Africa, Sicily and Hellas, when they had to live as people did where civilization was more advanced, they brought back to Rome the tastes which had attended them in foreign lands.

The Romans sent to Athens a deputation charged to bring back the laws of Solon. They also sent them thither to study belles lettres and philosophy. While their manners became polished they became aware of the attractions of festivals. And poets, philosophers, orators, etc., all came to Rome at once.

As time advanced, and as the series of events attracted to Rome almost all the riches of the world, the luxury of the table became incredible.

Every thing was eaten — the grass-hopper and the ostrich, the squirrel and the wild-boar — all imaginable vegetables were put in requisition.

Armies and travellers put all the world in requisition. The most distinguished Roman citizens took pleasure, not only in the cultivation of fruits once known, such as pears, apples, etc., but sought out things Lucullus never dreamed of. These importations which naturally had a great influence, prove at least that the impulse was general, that each one sought to contribute to the enjoyment of those around him.

Our drinks were not the object of less attention, nor of less attentive cares. The Romans were delighted with the wines of Italy, Greece, and Sicily. As they estimated their value from the year in which they were made, we may understand Cicero’s much abused line,

Oh tortuna tam, natura, me consule Roman.

This was not all. In consequence of an instinct hitherto referred to, an effort was made to make them more highly perfumed, and flowers, aromatics, etc., were infused. Such things which the Romans called condita, must have had a very bad effect on the stomach.

Thus the Romans came to dream of alcohol, which was not discovered until long after they were born.

Resurrection of Lucullus.

The glorious days of old might arise again, and nothing but a Lucullus is needed, to bring this about. Let us fancy that any man, known to be rich, should wish to celebrate any great act, and give in this manner an occasion for a famous entertainment.

Let us suppose that he appeals to every one to adorn his entertainment, and orders every possible resource to be prepared.

Let him make every imaginable preparation and Lucullus would be as nothing compared with the civilized world as it is.

Both the Romans and the Athenians had beds to eat on. They achieved the purpose but indirectly.

At first they used beds only for the sacred festivals offered to the gods. The magistrates and principal men, adopted the custom, and ere long, it became general and was preserved until in the beginning of the fourth century.

These couches were at first, only boxes filled with straw, and covered with skins. Gradually, however, they became more luxurious, and were made of the most precious woods, inlaid with ivory, and sometimes with gems. Their cushions were soft and their covers magnificently embroidered.

People only laid down on the left elbow. Three usually slept together.

This the Romans called lectisternium. It is not a very bad name.

In a physical point of view incubitation demands a certain exhibition of power to preserve equlibrium, and is not without a degree of pain; the elbow supporting an undue proportion of the weight of the body.

In a physiological point of view, something also is to be said. Imbuccation (swallowing) is effected in a less natural manner. The food is passed with more difficulty into the stomach.

The ingestion of liquids, or drinking, is yet more difficult. It required particular attention not to spill the wine from the large cups on the tables of the great. Thence came the proverb:

“Between the cup and lip,
There is often time a slip.”

None could eat comfortably when reclining, especially when we remember that many of the guests had long beards, and that fingers, or at least only knives were used. Forks are an invention of modern times, for none were found at Herculaeneum.

Some violations of modesty must also have occurred at repasts which frequently exceeded the bounds of temperance, and where the two sexes have fallen asleep, and were mingled together. A poet says:

“Nam pransus, jaceo, et satur supinus,
Pertimdo tunicamque, palliumque.”

When Christianity had acquired some power, its priests lifted up their voices against intemperance. They declaimed against the length of meals which violated all prudence by surrounding persons by every species of voluptuousness. Devoted by choice to an austere regimen, they placed gourmandise in the list of capital sins, and rigidly commented on the mingling of sexes and the use of beds, a habit which they said produced the luxury they deplored.

Their menacing voice was heard; couches disappeared, and the old habit of eating sitting, was restored. Fortunately this did not violate the demands of pleasure.


Convivial poetry then underwent a new modification, and in the mouths of Horace and Tibullus assumed a languor the Greeks were ignorant of.

Dulce ridentem Lalagem amabo,
Dulce luquentem.
— HOR.

Quaeris quot mihi batiationes
Tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque.
— CAT.

Pande, puella, pande capillulos
Mavos, lucentus ut aurum nitidum.
Pande, puella, collum candidum
Productum bene candidis humeris.

Irruption of the Barbarians.

The five or six centuries we shall run over in a few pages, were glorious days for the cuisine; the irruption however of northern men overturned and destroyed everything.

When the strangers appeared, alimentary art made its appearance, as did the others that are its companions. The greater portion of the cooks were massacred in the palaces they served. The foreigners came and they were able to eat as much in an hour as civilized people did in a week.

Although that which is excessive is not durable — conquerors are always cruel. They united themselves with the victors, who received some tints of civilization, and began to know the pleasures of civilized life.

About the seventeenth century, the Dutch imported coffee into Europe. Solyman Agu, a Turk, whom our great, great grandfathers well remember, sold the first cups in 1760. An American sold it in 1670, and dealt it out from a marble bar, as we see now.

The use of coffee then dates from the eighteenth century. Distillation, introduced by the crusades, remained arcana, with few adepts. About the commencement of the reign of Louis XIV, alambics became more common, but not until the time of Louis XV., did the drink become really popular.

About the same time the use of tobacco was introduced. So that sugar, coffee and tobacco, the three most important articles of luxury in Europe, are scarcely two centuries old.

[The translator here omits a whole Meditation. It would now be scarcely pleasant.]

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