Tasting Notes and Ways of Seeing in Brillat-Savarin, Gertrude Stein and Ford Madox Ford

2nd October 2020 

Nanette O’Brien, Independent Scholar

One of the most celebrated French gourmands and scholars of gastronomy, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), provides a surprising foundation for modernist thinking about taste, sensation, and culture. Brillat-Savarin describes the sensations of taste and muses on the cultural and social powers of food in his Physiologie du gout, or in English: The Physiology of Taste (1825). Two writers associated with modernism – Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Stein – both spent periods of their lives living in France and had an interest in Brillat-Savarin and in French cookery. In this short essay, I briefly outline Ford and Stein’s relationships to Brillat-Savarin and how he is connected to their interest in French food and culture and to Ford’s Impressionism and Stein’s abstract style. Though this essay is by no means exhaustive, I argue that in looking backwards to an idealised past inhabited by Brillat-Savarin, Stein and Ford formulated their ideas about modern food and culture.[1]

Brillat-Savarin aimed for a scientific precision in his descriptions of the functions of the taste organs, the senses, and of food’s role in society. Bridging his observations between natural science and what we now understand as anthropological thinking about the origins and history of cookery, Brillat-Savarin developed a kind of grand theory of food’s significance to humanity which can be summed up in his aphorism ‘tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are’.[2] His gastronomic transliteration of the Cartesian subjective view of the world, ‘I think therefore I am’ provides a connection to both Ford and Stein. All three were concerned with paying attention to their sensations and observations of the world, striving to capture them through description in their own way, as this essay will show in its discussion of Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste, Ford’s magazine writing about an ideal dinner, and in Stein’s long poem Stanzas in Meditation.

An example of Brillat-Savarin’s combination of scientific and philosophical inquiry is his ‘Analysis of the Sensation of Tasting’ which is part of the second of thirty ‘meditations’ on subjects ranging from ‘Taste’ to ‘Gastronomical Mythology’. Here, Brillat-Savarin describes how physiological taste evolves in three different stages. The first of these stages is ‘the direct sensation’ ‘produced from the immediate operations of the organs of the mouth’, the second is the ‘complete sensation’: ‘which arises when the food leaves its original position, passes to the back of the mouth, and attacks the whole organ with its taste and aroma’ and finally the ‘reflective sensation’ is one ‘which one’s spirit forms from the impressions which have been transmitted to it by the mouth’.[3] Taking us from the physical, minute experience of the tongue to the grand psychological interpretation of the ‘spirit’, Brillat-Savarin further develops this idea of progression through synesthetic comparisons:

Taste can be double, and even multiple, in succession, so that in a single mouthful a second and sometimes a third sensation can be realised; they fade gradually, and are called aftertaste, perfume, or aroma. It is the same way as, when a basic note is sounded, an attentive ear distinguishes in it one or more series of other consonant tones, whose number has not yet been correctly estimated.[4]

Brillat-Savarin slows us down, drawing our attention to the context of our emotional and aesthetic reactions to eating. Brillat-Savarin’s ‘reflective sensation’ and sequence of multisensory ‘impressions’ lead us directly to Ford’s concept of literary Impressionism. Ford, who casually mentions Brillat-Savarin throughout his work, perhaps mostly directly responds to him in a posthumously-published article in American Vogue, ‘Dinner with Turbot’ (1939). In this essay he cites Brillat-Savarin’s perfect meal as consisting of a small slice of turbot au gratin (an extremely large fish baked with a creamy sauce and breadcrumbs), bread and butter and a glass of sherry.[5] He also echoes Brillat-Savarin’s description of the synaesthesia of tasting:

Real Epicureanism has a quality and a poetry as of fugal music. You eat a tiny portion of each of the seven courses of a dinner, not to arrive at repletion, but to taste certain flavours in sequence and to be moved by the almost infinite trains of association that will arise in your brain as the tongue communicates to it those savours. Those reminiscences may be exceedingly complex and may range half across the globe.[6]

Ford, too, is ‘moved’ emotionally and aesthetically by tasting. Where the food takes him is as important as the tasting itself. This Fordian riff culminates in those ‘infinite trains of associations’, a mirrored effect of reminiscences and reflections, which reaches back to his early essay, ‘On Impressionism’:

Indeed, I suppose that Impressionism exists to render those queer effects of real life that are like so many views seen through bright glass—through glass so bright that whilst you perceive through it a landscape or a backyard, you are aware that, on its surface, it reflects a face of a person back at you. For the whole of life is really like that; we are almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite other.[7]

While Ford’s early essay uses the metaphor of vision to reflect on the depth below the surface, the later variation takes us simultaneously on a precisely described physical journey through the tongue and mouth and a psychological journey through the mind and off to its farthest recesses.

Ford also subscribed to the idea of culinary determinism, as summed up in Brillat-Savarin’s phrase ‘tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are’. They believed that food influenced the person, writer, or even nation that was eating the food. Along with cultural exchange, the idea is that food can modify or mollify the body and mind. Brillat-Savarin theorised that ‘digestion is of all the bodily operations the one which has the greatest influence on the moral state of the individual’. [8] He explains that when the internal organs are ‘badly cared for, starved, or irritated, such a state of degradation exercises an inevitable power over the sensations which are the intermediary and occasional means of intellectual activity’.[9] This concept is developed in many of Ford’s late cultural-travel works like Provence (1935) and The Great Trade Route (1937). The physical and psychological effects of eating spices and their role in digestion in particular interest Ford. In Provence he writes:

The bloodiest wars in the world have been fought for spices. […] The sequence is inevitable. A diet without spices causes indigestion—[…] Indigestion and its ally cause religious and homicidal mania; religious and homicidal manias are at the root of religious warfare. When you have a successful religious war you take possession of all your opponents’ spices. They, being short of condiments, become once more constipated, melancholiac, homicidal and again fit to wage war for their beshadowed creeds.[10]

Whereas here we have a sequence on a larger scale – moving from tiny spices in the digestive tract to the fates of nations, Ford’s theory of the connection between indigestion and ‘religious and homicidal mania’ also echoes Brillat-Savarin. Ford’s writing about spices, indigestion and bellicosity in the 1930s would also appear in several newspaper and magazine articles arguing for the importance of cultural exchange and culminate in his theory in The Great Trade Route that eating ‘foreign’ foods can lead to an understanding of other cultures, contributing to his anti-fascist arguments during the rise of the Nazis.

Brillat-Savarin’s connections to Gertrude Stein are both culinary and philosophical in nature. Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s fondness for good French food led them to extend a vacation into buying a summer house in Belley, a small town in southeastern France where Brillat-Savarin was born and was later the mayor. On Stein and Toklas’s first visit, they were so enchanted that they decided against joining the Picassos at Antibes as originally planned, instead writing to them that ‘We now in Bilignin are enjoying using the furniture from the house of Brillat–Savarin which house belongs to the owner of this house’.[11] It is not clear whether they had the original furniture owned by Brillat–Savarin, or whether it was from its current owner, but its connection to him is apparent to them. In September 1927, when Stein and Toklas were there, the town erected a monument to him and Stein noted this event in a letter to Carl Van Vechten.[12]

Stein’s location in Belley, proximity to Brillat-Savarin’s legacy, and the exceptional French cookery in the region led to her own creative developments in thinking about sensation and describing phenomena. In The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (1933), Stein ventriloquizes the voice of Toklas to note that while spending her summers in Belley, ‘[Stein] began at this time to describe landscape as if anything she saw was a natural phenomenon, a thing existent in itself. […] I am trying to be as commonplace as I can be, she used to say to me’.[13]  Stein’s earlier essay-lecture, Composition as Explanation, delivered in 1926 to Oxford and Cambridge audiences, formulated her evolving ideas on description, her conception of time in her writing as ‘the continuous present’, and her theory of how ideas are passed through generations of writers. Stein includes the following sentence twice in the essay – once on the first page and once near the end:

The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.[14]

Stein’s emphasis on ‘what is seen’ in her work comes to link her to Brillat-Savarin in that they both aimed at recording experience and phenomena precisely, though with different methods.

Stein began writing Stanzas in Meditation during the summer of 1932, after several summers living in Belley. This comprises the summation of her work on ‘commonplace’ observing sensation and phenomena, and Toklas’s voice notes that it was this work ‘which she [Stein] considers her real achievement of the commonplace’.[15] Essentially Stanzas in Meditation embraces what we can now see as a kind of abstract phenomenology, a philosophy of attempting to capture experience in words while bracketing out emotions and other associations. Stein’s work is not descriptive in the same way that Brillat-Savarin’s is, nevertheless Stein is practicing her own method of recording ‘what is seen’ in her experience. Her perception is unique to her interpretation of the world. Her subjects are not named but they act in the world in intricate exchanges. In Stanza XV, she writes:

Should they may be they might if they delight

In why they must see it be there not only necessarily

But which they might in which they might

For which they might delight if they look there

And they see there that they look there

To see it be there which it is if it is

Which may be where where it is

If they do not occasion it to be different

From what it is.[16]

Here Stein evolves a rhyming meditation on the possibilities of looking and mirroring. The repetition of ‘where’ and the rhymes ‘might’ and ‘delight’, and insisting repetition of ‘there’ and ‘is’ at the end of lines show us multiple facets of perspective, looping the poem back on itself.  Stein’s summers composing this work were spent both eating the exceptional food of the region and living her life among the furniture of the father of modern gastronomy.

Stein was also deeply invested in what was passed down from previous generations of writers and artists—how each must invent something new within the context of what came before it. And though she moved away from the Belley house in 1939, Stein’s interest in French cookery and her own writing continued to reach back to the French past and the period of Brillat-Savarin.  During the war, Stein gave Toklas long cookbooks for Christmas, with which Toklas distracted herself from the food restrictions of the Occupation.[17] Their cook mentioned to Toklas that she (the cook) possessed a manuscript cookbook by Lucien Tendret, Brillat-Savarin’s nephew, and the author of La Table au Pays de Brillat-Savarin (1882). When Toklas describes this incident in her Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954), it is unclear whether the cook actually did let Toklas see the manuscript (she wrote that the cook ‘proposed to allow me to read it’).[18] But Stein owned a copy of La Table au Pays de Brillat-Savarin  about which Toklas writes that ‘the recipes are exciting to read but are not useful even today’ and as a translated example she provides ‘Lobster, Breast of Chicken and Black Truffle Salad’.[19] Thus French cookery would have remained in Stein’s mind as a symbol for French tradition and its steadfastness. She wrote in Paris France (1940) that ‘French cooking is traditional, they give up the past with difficulty in fact they never do give it up […]’.[20]

Stein’s interest in food was not as all-encompassing as Brillat-Savarin’s but she did resemble him in sharing the goal of rendering the nature of objects described and she valued the French past that he represented. Ford, too, valued the expertise and aesthetic depth of French cookery and culture, and his writing about food describes a yearning to be in more than one place at once, a way of seeing and tasting ‘doubly’. And where Brillat-Savarin’s expressive style more closely prefigures Fordian Impressionism over Stein’s abstraction, kismet seems to mark her focus on seeing and representation while living among his furniture. Reflecting on their connection to Brillat-Savarin lends a depth to understanding both the context and content of Ford and Stein’s work on literary style, the complexity of perception, culture and food.


[1] My discussion here of the connections between Brillat-Savarin, Ford and Stein developed from a short section of my completed doctoral dissertation: Nanette O’Brien, Culinary Civilization: The Representation of Food Culture in Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Oxford, submitted December 2017), pp. 23-26.

[2] Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste: or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, trans. and ed. M. F. K. Fisher (New York: Knopf, 2009), p. 15.

[3] Brillat-Savarin, p. 50.

[4] Brillat-Savarin, p. 51-2.

[5] Ford also cites this same perfect meal in his memoir of his life before the First World War, Return to Yesterday (1931) and Brillat-Savarin offers an anecdote about arriving at a dinner party where the host could find no pot big enough for their turbot. Brillat-Savarin successfully contrives steaming it in a clothes hamper over a ‘washboiler’ or bathtub with another washtub on top to trap the steam. Brillat-Savarin, p. 371.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Dinner with Turbot’ Vogue 94.6 (NY) (September 15, 1939), p. 104.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, ‘On Impressionism’ in The Good Soldier, ed. Max Saunders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 203.

[8] Brillat-Savarin, p. 212.

[9] Brillat-Savarin, p. 212.

[10] Ford Madox Ford, Provence: From Minstrels to the Machine (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009), p. 163.

[11] Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (London: Penguin, 2001), 241.

[12] Gertrude Stein to Carl Van Vechten, 11 August 1927, The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten 1913-1946, ed. Edward Burns (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 152. Burns notes that the bust was put up on 11 September 1927, note 1, 153.

[13] The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, p. 243.

[14] Gertrude Stein, ‘Composition as Explanation’, Selected Writing of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl Van Vechten (New York: Vintage, 1990) pp. 510-523, 513, 520.

[15] Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, p. 243.

[16] Gertrude Stein, Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition, ed. Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p. 76.

[17] Alice B. Toklas, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (London: Brilliance Books, 1983), p. 215-16.

[18] Toklas, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, p. 214.

[19] Toklas, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, p. 216.

[20] Gertrude Stein, Paris France (London, B. T. Batsford, Ltd. 1940), p. 46.

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