Pondering Brillat-Savarin’s Portait of a Pretty Gourmande


Those of us, who may have over-indulged on Mother’s Day Brunch, may find consolation in transcendental gastronomy. Very roughly summarized and perhaps twisted: women who eat are pretty and wrinkle free (although I don’t think 18th Century French secret food writer Brillat-Savarin would approve of either a buffet or the indulgence it fosters).  Nevertheless, I think he offers something to think about against the contemporary valorization of thin.

Brillat-Savarin’s meditations  The Physiology of Taste  (first published 1826) is full of fascinating observations about food in its fullest sense. The encyclopedic account of all things related to eating covers definitions (or rather meditations) of senses, taste, gastronomic sciences, appetite, specific food items like chocolate, sugar, truffles and fish (and their associated erotic properties), methods of cooking such as frying, thirst and drinks, obesity, cooking, illness ….and so on.

Meditation 11: On Gourmandism describes the pretty gourmande as follows:

Nothing is more agreeable to look at than a pretty gourmande in full battle dress: her napkin is tucked in most sensibly; one of her hands lies on the table; the other carries elegantly carved little morsels to her mouth, or perhaps a partridge wing on which she nibbles; her eyes shine, her lips are soft and moist, her conversation is pleasant, and all her gestures are full of grace; she does not hide that vein of coquetry women show in everything they do. With so much in her favor, she is utterly irresistible, and Cato the Censor himself would be moved by her.

…..ladies who know how to eat are comparatively ten years younger than those to whom this science is a stranger.

Brillat-Savarin continues his description of sensuality as both physical and gastronomic in his account of “Sensual Predestination”:

People predestined to gourmandism are in general of medium height; they have round or square faces, bright eyes, small foreheads, short noses, full lips and rounded chins. The women so predisposed are plump, more likely to be pretty than beautiful, and have a tendency toward corpulence. The ones who are most fond of tidbits and delicacies are finer featured, with a daintier air; they are more attractive and above all are distinguished by a way of speaking which is all their own.

It is by these outer traits that the most agreeable dinner companions must be judged and chosen: they accept everything that is served them, eat slowly, and enjoy reflectively what they have swallowed.

I doubt if Savarin’s physiological theory that people with “a general air of elongation” do not enjoy food.  Even so,  his coupling of the visual and the gastronomic could offer a clue to our current fascination with thin. Does minimalist modern design feed into the aesthetic and gastronomic sensibility of “thin”? Can we study design eras in relation to celebrated body types? I digress……

Happy Belated Mother’s Day to all those agreeable, pleasant, plump and pretty gourmandes everywhere. Hope you enjoyed your brunch buffet!




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