Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

A Taste for Words: Gastronomy and the Writing of Loss in Brillat-Savarin's Physiologie Du Gout

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

A Taste for Words: Gastronomy and the Writing of Loss in Brillat-Savarin's Physiologie Du Gout

Article excerpt

Gastronomic writing emerged in nineteenth-century France as a discourse aspiring to scientific rigour but also giving voice to a pervasive sense of loss and nostalgia. Through a reading of Brillat-Savarin's seminal gastronomic work, Physiologie du gout, this essay seeks to account for this persistent tension in gastronomic writing through a consideration of the problems of taste, language, and oral desire.

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"Nous ne goustons rien de pur"--Montaigne

La flanerie est une science," writes Balzac in La Physiologie du mariage, "c'est la gastronomie de l'oeil" (930). A "visual gastronomy," a "gastronomy of the eye": for Balzac, that quintessential activity of urban modernity, la flanerie, can most pertinently be grasped in terms of another great nine-teenth-century invention of modernity, the discourse of gastronomy. Writing only some thirty years after the appearance of the word "gastronomie" in the French language around 1800, Balzac draws here on a figure that had already rapidly established itself in the first decades of the nineteenth century as a key cultural topos: the art of discriminating dining, the discourse of culinary "taste" in both the literal and figurative senses of the term. For Balzac, the flaneur is a discriminating observer of the urban scene, analogous to the reflective diner in his ability to "taste" selectively among the most refined visual pleasures that Paris has to offer, to comprehend and appreciate them at their true worth. In particular, Balzac's flaneur experiences the spectacle of the Paris streets through the metaphor of degustation (another word that first appeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century), taking in the urban sights through a kind of sophisticated "savouring" informed by knowledge and unerring judgement. In La Fille aux yeux d'or, Balzac refers in this regard to "l'heureuse et molle espece de flaneurs, les seuls gens reellement heureux a Paris, et qui en degustent a chaque heure les mouvantes poesies" (1053), likewise describing them in Ferragus as "un petit nombre d'amateurs [...] qui degustent leur Paris" (795, emph. mine). For Balzac, la flanerie is certainly a pleasurable activity--"flaner, c'est jouir," he writes (Physiologie 930)--but in the comparison he draws with gastronomy, such an activity would ultimately seem to be less about self-indulgence than knowledge. Balzac's "gastronomic" flaneur takes pleasure in the urban scene, but in a way that is guided by careful selection, self-restraint, and the avoidance of all excess--sampling the city's "mouvantes poesies" while remaining vigilant against the dangers of excessive "movement" that Balzac elaborates in a text such as Theorie de la demarche. Since Balzac concludes in his study of the problem of demarche that intellectual energy is squandered by both "unreflective" walking and mindless gluttony--by what he calls "le mouvement digestif" of "les grands mangeurs" (299)--what better way to conceive of the "science" of la flanerie than in terms of the discriminating discourse of gastronomy?

Balzac's thinking about eating and the rise of gastronomy is of course not limited to the problem of la flanerie. The notion of gastronomy as science is most directly addressed in his work in an article for the Biographie universelle on Brillat-Savarin, whose 1825 Physiologie du gout is perhaps the most important founding text of modern gastronomy. In his description of Brillat's work, Balzac praises what he calls "la saveur du style" ("Brillat-Savarin" 261), but emphasizes in particular Brillat's insistence on "knowledgeable" eating and his condemnation of excessive consumption. "On serait loin de la verite si l'on imaginait que la sincerite gastronomique de Brillat-Savarin degenerat en intemperance," writes Balzac, "il declare, au contraire, formellement que ceux qui s'indigerent ou qui s'enivrent, ne savent pas manger" (264, emph. Balzac's). Likewise, Balzac notes the lighthearted irony of Brillat's text--"il plaisante tout en confabulant avec son lecteur" (261, emph. …

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