Gastronomic Dreams: From Brillat-Savarin to Jorge Luis Borges With A Number Of Stops Along The Way.

A dog barks, the Lute Suites of Sylvius Leopold Weiss drift through an open window,

and I pour a Stone Brewery Russian Imperial Stout and light an Alec Bradley American Sun Grown cigar.

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I’m sitting on my back patio in the evening, contemplating the life of the gastronome.  Actually, this could also be the opening for a modern version of Edgar Allan Poe’s bourgeois detective Dupin meditating on smoke and crime; however, the police have not come to my door with an unsolved crime (or with handcuffs), and what deductive and inductive skills I possess have been devoted to art, food, literature and prog rock.  Let me first say something about Stone Imperial Russian Stout, and I love Russian Imperial Stouts, and this is one of my favorites.  Dark as pitch-black night with a brownish creamy head; on the nose notes of buttered toast, graham crackers, dark chocolate, espresso; and then on the tongue, molasses, ginger, vanilla, blackberries, hot chocolate with a dry, barley finish.  Yum. What about the cigar?  An intake and swirl–earth, chocolate cake, slight spice and orange peel.  Nice pairing.  Where was I?  Oh yes, the life of the gastronome.  To write about the gastronomic tradition in Europe since the eighteenth century, one begins with Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière and his eight volume Almanach des Gourmands published between 1803 and 1812.

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Celebrated for his dinners, circle of gourmands, published annual reviews, and extravagances of dining, his last great public meal featured his funeral and resurrection in the dining room. Grimod de la Reynière wrote of cuisine as the great culmination and synthetic of the arts and sciences.

It is widely held to be true that all of the arts are interconnected, that they overlap, and that they are mutually beneficial; it is a less generally held opinion, but just as true, that cuisine is linked to nearly all branches of human knowledge, by which we mean all the physical sciences, as well as the applied arts, and even those offering only pure enjoyment.  Chemistry, painting, sculpture, architecture, geometry, physics, pyrotechnics, all are more or less closely allied with the great art of fine dining; and the artist who, in addition to a profound knowledge of culinary art, possesses a fair smattering of all these sciences, should reap great benefits indeed.  (Translated by Michael Garval.)

In the market, at the stove, sitting at the dinner table, one can marshall all the arts and sciences to reveal truth.  The dream of an all-embracing art appears throughout human culture.  The Shield of Achilles, Plato’s Cave, Vermeer’s light, a late Beethoven Quartet, Yes’ The Gates of Delirium. Grimod de la Reynière’s words remind me how Goethe’s Faust attempts to embrace the universe, real and imagined.  Desire for knowledge and power feeds Faust as he reads Nostradamus and looks on the sign of the Macrocosm.  Rembrandt affords us a view of Faust in his study (1650-1654).

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Ah-what enchantment at the sight of this

Suffuses every sense, what lovely verve!

I feel new-burgeoning life, with sacred bliss

Reincandescent, course through vein and nerve.

Was it a god that fashioned this design

Which calms the tumult in my breast,

Floods my poor heart with happiness,

And with a secret thrust divine

makes Nature’s powers about me manifest?

Am I a god?  (430-439)  (Translated by Walter Arndt)

To be able to read the secrets of Nature is a desire that possesses a number of heroes and anti-heroes: Heraclitus, Batman, Marsilo Ficino, Loki, Zarathustra, Victor Frankenstein.  Move forward a decade or two in the nineteenth century and we find Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in his Physiologie du Goût (1836) working Grimod de la Reynière’s concept into more classified language.

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Gastronomy is a scientific definition of all that relates to man as a feeding animal.
Its object is to watch over the preservation of man by means of the best possible food.
It does so by directing, according to certain principles, all those who procure, search for, or prepare things which may be converted into food.
To tell the truth this is what moves cultivators, vine-dressers, fishermen, huntsmen, and the immense family of cooks, whatever title or qualification they bear, to the preparation of food.
Gastronomy is a chapter of natural history, for the fact that it makes a classification of alimentary substances.
Of physics, for it examines their properties and qualities.
Of chemistry, from the various analysis and decomposition to which it subjects them.
Of cookery, from the fact that it prepares food and makes it agreeable.
Of commerce, from the fact that it purchases at as low a rate as possible what it consumes, and displays to the greatest advantage what it offers for sale.
Lastly it is a chapter of political economy, from the resources it furnishes the taxing power, and the means of exchange it substitutes between nations.
Gastronomy rules all life, for the tears of the infant cry for the bosom of the nurse; the dying man receives with some degree of pleasure the last cooling drink, which, alas! he is unable to digest.
It has to do with all classes of society, for if it presides over the banquets of assembled kings, it calculates the number of minutes of ebullition which an egg requires.
The material of gastronomy is all that may be eaten; its object is direct, the preservation of individuals. Its means of execution are cultivation, which produces; commerce, which exchanges; industry, which prepares; and experience, which teaches us to put them to the best use.  (Translated by Fayette Robinson)

As we’ve read in previous blogs, this is the search for the all in one, the prize of alchemy.  The Emerald Table.  Philosopher’s Stone.  Gastronomy functions as deductive and inductive logic, allowing codes and underlying structures of culture and nature to reveal themselves to the one who knows how to look.  Not only Dupin, but Sherlock Holmes.

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[Illustration by Rick Fairlamb.]

We may consider Brillat-Savarin’s gastronomy (another literary reference) like Jorge Luis Borges’ aleph from the short story of the same name.

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On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realised that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; I saw a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree; I saw a summer house in Adrogué and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny — Philemon Holland’s — and all at the same time saw each letter on each page (as a boy, I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight); I saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal; I saw my empty bedroom; I saw in a closet in Alkmaar a terrestrial globe between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly; I saw horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea at dawn; I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe.   (Translation by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni in collaboration with the author.)

Gastronomy distills and orders all knowledge through our taste; the vehicle of our mouth connects to our olfactory senses, which turns the cave of saliva, teeth and tongue into a glowing orb revealing “the unimaginable universe.” Consider the scientific-minded writings of food philosopher Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking (2004).

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The overall flavor of a fruit or vegetable is a composite of several different sensations.  From the taste buds on our tongues, we register salts, sweet sugars, sour acids, savory amino acids, and bitter alkaloids.  From the cells in our mouth sensitive to touch, we notice the presence of astringent, pucker tannins.  A variety of cells in and near the mouth are irritated by the pungent compounds in peppers, mustard, and members of the onion family.  Finally, the olfactory receptors in our nasal passages can detect many hundreds of volatile molecules that are small and chemically repelled by water, and therefore fly out of the food and into the air in our mouth.  The sensations from our mouth give us an idea of a food’s basic composition and qualities, while our sense of smell allows us to make much finer discriminations.  (270)

Our mouth is the Macrocosm, the glowing orb, the secret name of God, the Necronomicon.  Now fast-forward from Brillat-Savarin in 1836 to Carlo Petrini in Slow Food Nation (2005).

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(Photograph by Barry Lewis.)

New Gastronomy: A Definition

Gastronomy is the reasoned knowledge of everything that concerns man as he eats; it facilitates choice, because it helps us to understand what quality is.

Gastronomy enables us to experience educated pleasure and to learn pleasurably.  Man as he eats is culture; thus gastronomy is culture, both material and immaterial.

Choice is a human right; gastronomy is freedom of choice.  Pleasure is also everybody’s right and as such must be as responsible as possible; gastronomy is a creative matter, not a destructive one.  Knowledge is everybody’s right as well, but also a duty, and gastronomy is education.

Gastronomy is part of the following fields:

  • botany, genetics, and the other natural sciences, in its classification of the various kinds of food, thus making possible their conservation;
  • physics and chemistry, in its selection of the best products and its study of how they are processed;
  • agriculture, zootechnics, and agronomy, in its concern with the production of good and varied raw materials;
  • ecology, because man, in producing, distributing, and consuming food, interferes with nature and transforms it to his advantage;
  • anthropology, because it contributes to the study of the history of man and his cultural identities;
  • sociology, from which it takes its methods of analyzing human social behavior;
  • geopolitics, because peoples form alliances and come into conflict partly, indeed chiefly, over the right to exploit the earth’s resources;
  • political economics, because of the resources it provides, and because of the methods of exchange that it establishes between nations;
  • trade, because of its search for the means of buying at the best possible price that which it consumes and of selling at the highest possible profit that which it puts on sale;
  • technology, industry and the know-how of people, in its search for new methods of processing and preserving food inexpensively;
  • cooking, in its concern with the art of preparing food and making it pleasing to the taste;
  • physiology, in its ability to develop the sensorial capacities that enable us to recognize what is good;
  • medicine, in its study of the healthiest way of eating;
  • epistemology, because, through a necessary reconsideration of the scientific method and of the criteria of knowledge that enable us to analyze the path food travels form the field to the table, and vice versa, it helps us to interpret the reality of our complex, globalized world; it helps us to choose.  (Translated by Clara Furlan and Jonathan Hunt.)

Petrini has out-classified and out-divided Brillat-Savarin, and added “human rights,” the ethical addition beyond the etiquette of the table.  “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” states Brillat-Savarin. Petrini has analyzed eating and food into all the disciplines that attempt to explain our world.  In doing this, “know thyself” becomes possible by knowing all that exists to be known in a mouthful of food.  The Socratic Method flexes its muscles when the gastronome enters into conversation with barley, salmon, caramelization, pigs, a pinot noir; begins to talk to his or her mouth and listens.  Here Petrini joins Wendell Berry, Dan Barber, Michael Pollan, Carl Safina, Sir Albert Howard, Rudolf Steiner, Alice Waters and many others in pursuing the secrets of food, the secrets of who they are.  Much here to ponder, and as is fit, I’ve finished my beer and cigar. Any dangers to this life of the gastronome? Could I become a tyrant, a monster?  Well, maybe.

 

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