Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du goût

by Darra Goldstein

The New York Times announced last August that forty years after its publication, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking had finally reached number one on the nonfiction bestseller list, thanks to Meryl Streep and the hit movie Julie & Julia. The movie celebrated Julia Child’s exuberance and traced the evolution of her infatuation with French cooking. What it overlooked was her education in French culinary culture, which she undertook by systematically reading the great works of French gastronomy. Number one on that list is a book that changed the way people throughout the Western world think about food: Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du goût, ou Méditations de gastronomie transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l’ordre du jour, dédié aux gastronomes parisienspar un professeur, membre de plusieurs sociétés littéraires et savantes – known simply in English as The Physiology of Taste. This book, which has not gone out of print since its original publication (1825, dated 1826), has enriched us with such memorable aphorisms as “The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they nourish themselves” and “The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star.”

Rather amazingly, the first edition of Brillat-Savarin’s influential work now resides at Williams, in the collection of the Chapin Library. Thanks to the generosity of Bruce Healy, Class of 1968, and his wife, Alice, the Chapin was able to acquire one of only two known presentation copies of the book, inscribed by Brillat-Savarin to his friend Girod de l’Ain only two months before the author’s death. The Physiology of Taste offers a series of thirty meditations on “transcendental gastronomy” and sixteen “varieties,” providing readers with Brillat-Savarin’s thoughts on subjects from the “Marvelous Effects of a Classical Dinner” to its opposite, “Disappointment.” In addition to opining on such predictable topics as appetite and digestion, Brillat-Savarin meditates on the difficulties of making chocolate, the influence of gourmandism on wedded happiness, the treatment of obesity (including notes on an “antifat belt”), exhaustion, sleep, dreams, and even death. In the world of food, Brilliat-Savarin is foundational. He sought nothing less than to articulate a philosophy of the palate and the table, a comprehensive science of gastronomy.

The Healys’ extraordinary gift reflects Bruce’s own deep interest in gastronomy. Although he holds a Ph.D. in Physics, Bruce is celebrated among the food cognoscenti as the author of three cookbooks, including the now-classic Art of French Pastry (1984). Wishing to share his passion with his alma mater, Bruce decided to help the College acquire books relating to culinary history and gastronomy – French gastronomy, in particular. He explains: “Over the centuries, French gastronomy has been a quintessential element in the development of French culture and the French contribution to Western civilization. I realized that developing a collection from the field of French culinary literature would fit well alongside the remarkable collection of very early editions of culinary works already in the Chapin Library, including Pliny, Platina, Apicius, and Rabelais, as well as the Eleanor Fordyce collection of American cookbooks.” (In 1998 Eleanor T. Fordyce, mother of Robert P. Fordyce, Williams Class of 1956, donated more than five hundred American cookbooks, chiefly from the nineteenth century, to the Chapin Library.)

The Healys’ first two gifts to the Chapin were artist’s cookbooks, which fit very nicely with the interests of the Healys’ daughter, Charlotte (Williams ’10), an Art History major. The Library was able to acquire the exquisite Raoul Dufy illustrated edition of Brillat-Savarin’s Aphorismes et Variétés, as well as Henry Jean Laroche’s Cuisine, with illustrations by Edouard Vuillard, André Dunoyer de Segonzac, and André Villeboeuf. When Alice Healy’s beloved great-uncle, Albert O. Fenyvessy, died in 2008, the Healys decided to make a special purchase in tribute to him. Fortuitously, the Brillat-Savarin edition came onto the market shortly thereafter. The Chapin Library had to move quickly – such a rare book was bound to be snatched up. E-mails and phone calls ensued between Williamstown, Massachusetts; Boulder, Colorado (where the Healys live); Portland, Maine (where the bookseller was located); and Paris, France (where the book was on display at a book fair). Luckily, our timing was good, and within two weeks Brillat-Savarin had found a new home in the purple mountains.

Bruce comments that “Alice and I are delighted to be able to acquire this piece as a true cornerstone of the culinary collection. It is our hope and expectation that in the coming years we will succeed in creating a distinguished collection of classic French culinary literature in the Chapin Library.” The Chapin librarians are equally delighted. Robert L. Volz, Custodian of the Chapin Library, notes that “the Healy gift of Physiologie du goût maintains the high standard Alfred C. Chapin (Class of 1869) set in assembling his initial collection for the Library: books and manuscripts in original condition that would document the people, the events, and the ideas that have formed our civilization, in all its aspects. Collecting rare books on food, cookery, and dining reflects the Chapin Library’s mission to document civilization and support the study of important issues at Williams.” Assistant Librarian Wayne G. Hammond concurs, adding that “The Physiology of Taste is an ideal exemplar among the growing number of books on food and cookery in the Chapin Library, as culinary issues are increasingly recognized as important to the study of civilization.”

As scholars of food studies have shown, food is central to our identity, whether individual, communal, or national. Brillat-Savarin perceived that truth nearly two centuries ago. As he famously wrote, in his most oft-quoted aphorism, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”

Darra Goldstein is the Willcox B. and Harriet M. Adsit Professor of Russian, Emerita