Gastronomy, ‘the art and science of delicate eating’ [OED], would have been anathema to the Christian morality of the Middle Ages. The deadly sin of gluttony in its origin encompassed both unbridled consumption and the wider pleasure drawn from food. Today we distinguish clearly between excessive eating and refined eating, but this only came about after the French Revolution. Our understanding of gluttony has changed and much of the disapproval reserved for it is now focused on drunkenness.

Previously I argued that the taboo of gluttony was a response to recurring famine and a dualistic philosophy which separated body from mind. Physical pleasures like eating and sex were considered a necessary evil. For some at the margins of Christendom, such as the Desert Fathers in the first centuries CE and women in the late medieval period, this prompted extreme asceticism. The mainstream approach, however, preached moderation.

The mortal sin of gluttony was defined by Gregory the Great so as to include, besides excessive consumption, the contemplation and pleasure of eating: the glutton eats before he is hungry and continues to eat when he is no longer hungry; he craves costly and gratuitously sophisticated dishes; he eats too much and with excessive eagerness; he seeks not sustenance, but pleasure; he becomes the slave of his stomach and his palate. Later, Thomas Aquinas acknowledged that pleasure is derived from all eating but asserted that it was only permitted to the point of sustenance.

Nonetheless the breaking of a taboo tends to exert a fascination. While gluttony was considered the ‘mother of all sins’, the nobility were known to revel in excess, enjoying stupendous, Bacchanalian banquets. Folk repudiation of orthodox theology is revealed in the popularity of a fictional land of fantastical abundance: ‘the land of Cockaigne’. Herman Pleij tells us: ‘Everyone living at the end of the Middle Ages had heard of Cockaigne at one time or another. It was a country, tucked away in some remote corner of the globe, where ideal living conditions prevailed … food and drink appeared spontaneously in the form of grilled fish, roast geese and rivers of wine … One could even reside in meat, fish, game, fowl, or pastry, for another feature of Cockaigne was its edible architecture.’ The popularity of this myth attests to the yearning for a sensuality which the prevailing philosophical schema proscribed.

Early Modern Change

The Renaissance drew the conception of body and soul closer. This new sensuality is evident in the writing of Michel de Montaigne (d.1592): Those who wish to take our two principal pieces apart and to sequester one from the other are wrong. We must on the contrary couple and join them closely together. We must command the soul not to withdraw to its quarters, not to entertain itself apart, not to despise and abandon the body … but to rally to it, take it in its arms and cherish it, help it, look after it, counsel it, and when it strays set it to rights and bring it back home again. Such a view permits more trust in the value of embodied experience, including taste for food.

Moreover, the Reformation eroded the coherence and authority of organised religion, culminating in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) which exhausted the forces of sectarian politics in continental Europe. The Peace of Westphalia 1648 marks the demise of a singular Christendom, enshrining the principle of cuius regio, eius religio, ‘whose realm, his religion’. The medieval worldview which saw man cowering before an omniscient God mediated by ecclesiastical authority was replaced by the optimism and individuality of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

Furthermore the invention, in Europe, of the printing press around 1440 facilitated the publication of a raft of recipe books, stimulating interest in the culinary arts, and allowing techniques to be easily disseminated across time and space. Thus an ancestor of mayonnaise, Beurre de Provence, is first recorded in a recipe book of 1742. Soon this method of emulsification leads to the invention of mayonnaise which reaches England by the early nineteenth century. Such a technique, which serves no utilitarian function, is unlikely to have spread in a predominantly oral culture with few books

and low rates of literacy: the calorific value of the main ingredients, oil and egg yolk, remains constant, and the unpasteurised yolk spoils quickly. The printing press afforded space for this apparent frivolity that for many of us is now a crucial component of a good sandwich! Finally, the abandonment of Galenic medicinal ideas freed cooks from certain stultifying constraints: no longer was it necessary to balance hot with cold constituents. A few contemporary dishes such as prosciutto e melone (‘hot’ Parma ham and ‘cold’ melon) are a relic of the previous inhibitions.

By the late eighteenth century, the supply of food had increased significantly across Europe. A complex transportation infrastructure and bureaucratic organisation meant areas experiencing shortage could be supplied with surpluses from elsewhere, while high-yielding crops such as potato and maize were introduced from the Americas. The productivity of farming itself doubled in the wake of an agricultural revolution that brought improvements in crop rotation, selective breeding, inventions and larger farms.

It has been said that the decline of hunger was associated with the rise of the nation-state after the French and American Revolutions. Within this new type of polity governments were expected to provide food for their citizens. In this period, famine only occurred in Europe as a legacy of warfare, or in affected regions where the main ethnic group lacked representative government: such was the case, for example, in 1840s Ireland. Nonetheless, in the absence of outright famine, and even where plenty prevailed, a new phenomenon of malnourishment emerged, principally among the industrial proletariat, as convenience foods like sugar and refined white flour encroached on traditional diets.

Less is More

By the late-eighteenth century, for the nobility to consume any more quantitatively would have been physically impossible, especially in France. What is more, a rising bourgeoisie was beginning to enjoy the privilege of plenty. Previously, social superiority was expressed in gargantuan banquets. But for that style of eating to impress, the presence of hungry onlookers is required. How could wealth in the manner of consumption now be expressed?

The answer lay in the preparation of increasingly complex dishes; a process accelerated, as we have seen, by the accumulation of culinary knowledge in the recipe books. The emphasis turned to quality rather than quantity. The introduction to a French recipe book from 1674 signals this change in fashion: Nowadays it is not the prodigious overflowing of dishes, the abundance of ragoûts and gallimaufries, the extraordinary piles of meat … in which it seems that nature and artifice have been entirely exhausted in the satisfaction of the senses, which is the most palpable object of our delicacy of taste. It is rather the exquisite choice of meats, the finesse with which they are seasoned, the courtesy and neatness with which they are served, their proportionate relationship to the number of people, and finally the general order of things which essentially contribute to the goodness and elegance of a meal.

The trend for more varied and delicate ragoûts began to spread from courtly circles to the bourgeoisie in France. By ending the private banqueting of the ancien régime, the Revolution established the public restaurant as the location for fine dining par excellence. Indeed, the present conjunction of the word ‘fine’ with ‘dining’ still suggests the idea of consuming small portions. According to Stephen Mennell this newly-discovered sense of delicacy implies ‘a degree of restraint too, in so far as it involves discrimination and selection, the rejection as well as the acceptance of certain foods or combinations of foods, guided at least as much by social proprieties as by individual fancies’.

Gastronomic Justification

The word ‘gastronomy’ seems to have been invented by Joseph Berchoux in 1801, when he used it as the title of a poem. It was rapidly adopted in both France and Britain to designate ‘the art and science of delicate eating’. The meaning of ‘gastronome’ partly overlaps with the older words ‘epicure’, and ‘gourmand’, as well as the newer one ‘gourmet’. Both ‘epicure’ and ‘gourmand’ had formerly pejorative meanings close to ‘glutton’ – that is, they were applied to people who ate greedily and to excess. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, ‘epicure’ had acquired a more positive meaning in English, as: ‘one who cultivates a refined taste for the pleasure of the table; one who is choice and dainty in eating and drinking.’

In France, the word ‘gourmand’ acquired the same favourable sense and was used by Grimod de la Reynière as the title of his series of restaurant reviews: Almanachs des Gourmands [1803-12], the first of its kind. English writers today commonly draw a distinction between a ‘gourmand’, which has the same pejorative sense as glutton, and a ‘gourmet’ who is considered a person with a refined palate. But as Mennell notes, ‘gastronome’ differs from all the other terms in one key respect: a gastronome is generally understood to be a person who not only cultivates his own ‘refined tastes for the pleasure of the table’ but also, by writing about it, ‘helps to cultivate other people’s too’. The gastronome is not just a gourmet – he is also a theorist and, less appealingly, a propagandist of culinary taste.

M. de la Reynière was sensitive to the charge of gluttony that could be laid against him as he pioneered the celebration of the cuisine of his era. He asserts: Let it be said that of all the Deadly Sins that mankind may commit the fifth appears to be the one that least troubles his conscience and causes him the least remorse. He also grapples with the challenge of altering the understanding of the term itself: If the Dictionary of the Academy is to be believed, gourmand is a synonym for glutton or greedy, as gourmandise is for gluttony. In our opinion this definition is inexact; the words gluttony and greed should be reserved for the characterisation of intemperance and insatiability, while the word gourmand has, in polite society, a much more favourable interpretation, one might say a nobler one altogether.

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (d.1826), still the pre-eminent gastronome (he of tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are), most clearly distinguishes gastronomy from the medieval idea of gluttony, thereby changing our understanding of the term. In the opinion of Balzac, Brillat- Savarin’s La Physiologie du goût [1826] was a work of literature beside which De la Reynière’s was too much of a pot-pourri. Even De la Reynière, upon reading his contemporary’s work, magnanimously observed: Beside him I am no more than a kitchen skivvy.

Brillat-Savarin’s Gourmandism was an impassioned, reasoned and habitual preference for everything which gratifies the organs of taste. Importantly, he distinguished this from excessive eating and drinking, arguing that it was the enemy of excess; indigestion and drunkenness are offences which render the offender liable to be struck off the rolls. He says: nowadays everyone understands the difference between gourmandism and gluttony. ‘Gourmandism’ embraces the pleasure of food, beyond even sufficiency; he argues it is one of the privileges of mankind to eat without being hungry and drink without being thirsty. This amounted to a pointed refutation of Gregory’s definition of the mortal sin where the glutton eats before he is hungry and continues to eat when he is no longer hungry, and is quite contrary to Gregory’s conviction that the gluttonous sinner seeks sustenance, not pleasure.

Interestingly, the leading philosopher of the Enlightenment, René Descartes tended, like medieval (and late-Classical) philosophers, not to trust in his senses, including hunger. He held that there was absolutely no connection (at least that I can understand) between that curious tugging in the stomach which I call hunger and the desire to eat. For Descartes, mind should still rule over the recalcitrant matter of the body while Brillat- Savarin is more the Romantic, trusting in his feelings. The latter reasons that it shows implicit obedience to the commands of the Creator, who, when He ordered us to eat in order to live, gave us the inducement of appetite, the encouragement of savour, and the reward of pleasure.

New Foods and Substances

La Physiologie du goût contains a lengthy disquisition on the subject of obesity, foreshadowing the prescriptions of Dr. Atkins by a hundred and fifty years. Brillat-Savarin revealed an awareness of the danger posed by gorging on refined industrial foodstuffs, regarding the chief cause of corpulence as a diet with starchy and farinaceous elements. He does, though, admit that he may not have always adhered to his own prescriptions, admitting: I have always regarded my paunch as a redoubtable enemy!

Since the emergence of agriculture, cereals and fruits have been fermented for enjoyment, nutrition and as a means of safely drinking water in the absence of sanitation. At the height of the Roman Empire, people drank, on average, half-a-litre of wine per day, albeit mixed with water. Medieval Europeans drank beer prodigiously, conflating the consumption of alcohol and food. However, alcohol is simultaneously nourishing and intoxicating. Two developments in the Early Modern period resulted in alcohol being seen increasingly as a mind-altering substance. The first was the saturation of the European market with cheap tea and coffee. These new drinks came to replace beer as a safe way of imbibing water, providing calories (in combination with sugar that simultaneously arrived in great quantities), and an occasion for social ritual. The second was the increased utilisation of Arabic distillation techniques in Europe making alcohol (al-khulul – ‘the finest’) a much more potent force. As a result, invective formerly reserved for all kinds of gluttonous behaviour was increasingly focused on the scourge of drunkenness. As gin alleys thrived in a Puritanical culture, alcoholic excess rather than gluttony became the new taboo.

But Brillat-Savarin and other French gastronomes ensured that, in France at least, the rupture between food and alcohol was not so stark: alcohol, especially wine, remained an intrinsic part of the meal. Thus, for Brillat- Savarin alcohol was the prince of the liquids, and carries the palate to its highest pitch of exaltation. While De la Reynière asserted: the best meal without wine is like a ball without an orchestra. By maintaining alcohol’s connection to the sensual pleasure of food, it could be enjoyed in a balanced manner precluding inebriation. The gastronome, we will recall, prioritises quality over quantity, and abjures intoxication which dulls the palate and detracts from the pleasure of the meal.

Today French children are inducted into a culture of eating that prizes the compliment of alcohol, in particular wine, which is not treated as a substance to be feared. This is quite unlike Britain where an enduring culture of ‘thou shalt not’ has tended to encourage underage binge- drinking. In much the same way, medieval pronouncements against gluttony only served to make the appeal of excess so exhilarating.

The Fork-Tongued Critic

Brillat-Savarin’s major work has been in print every year since publication in 1826 and his laconic wit is constantly recalled. He can be credited with altering our understanding of gluttony and liberating a sensual appreciation of food from the grip of a dualistic philosophy. He reconciles body and mind at the table. The admirable French devotion to the quality of their produce and cooking can in part be attributed to his influence. So dear is cuisine to Gallic hearts that Pascal Ory wonders whether it will be ‘all that remains when everything else has been forgotten?’

Yet haute cuisine, the most elevated form of French food, with the restaurant the expression par excellence of this foodway, often offers a stultifying and elitist experience. An atmosphere of extreme formality and even tension generally prevails, with the emphasis on an egotistical chef- artiste who, behind closed doors, shouts and screams to achieve his art in a manner reminiscent of a diva. Outside, grim-faced, the fork-tongued critic awaits. In part, this culture can be traced to that other archetypal gastronome, De la Reynière. If Brillat-Savarin was the amiable theorist, De la Reynière was the slightly insidious propagandist. According to Mennell, he issued his pronouncements in the name of tradition as a member of the departed ancien régime. The son of a rich farmer-general, in his early life he displayed liberal tendencies but became disillusioned with the new order, condemning everything that is despicable and vile; there in two words you have the Revolution. He asserted: I will never be the friend of a democrat. It is atrocious that men of letters should think as the majority do today. According to MacDonagh, he was prompted to write about food after being told to write about something harmless or give up altogether. In this medium he ‘masked his vicious attacks behind harmless idioms’. Gastronomy became a vehicle for his reactionary views. An awareness of ‘good’ food revealed the true aristocrat. Thus a foodstuff like garlic was considered quite inappropriate for the gentilhomme. After the Revolution he founded what he referred to as a Jury des Degustateurs, and between 1803 and 1812 set about writing his Almanach des Gourmands. The social display of pre-Revolutionary France could re-emerge through conspicuous consumption in the new forum of the restaurant.

In time, this manner of plutocratic musing became a feature of a particular brand of French chauvinism. The hauteur of the ancien régime became characteristic of a wider national identity fostered by the ascendant haute

bourgeoisie who, Pierre Bourdieu argues, ‘has no counterpart elsewhere, at least for the arrogance of its cultural judgements’. A convenient syllogism developed positing cuisine as the greatest expression of civilisation, and France its greatest exponent, a tendency that became more marked as France’s political and military power faded in the nineteenth century. Thus the novelist Marcel Rouff in 1918 adapted Brillat-Savarin’s observation that man eats while other animals feed: Everywhere else people feed themselves; only in France do they eat. Here he conveniently ignores the universality of Brillat-Savarin’s dictum that gourmandise is the common bond which unites the nations of the world, in reciprocal exchange of objects serving for daily consumption. Public eating in France is still marked by this tension between an inclusive hospitality and a stiff exclusivity.

Under De la Reynière and his heirs gastronomy is often rarefied, abstract and nationalistic, a characteristic that endures – and not only in France. Just as membership of the ancien régime was limited to those of noble pedigree, so haute cuisine was confined to the few. The message of universality espoused by Brillat-Savarin in his gastronomy is now often buried in a welter of metropolitan snobbery. Gastronomy ceased to articulate a communal experience, instead becoming a discourse celebrating the display of compartmentalised luxury. This is best represented by the Guide Michelin, natural heir to De la Reynière’s Almanachs.


In this era of globalisation national cuisines are indistinct. Similarly gastronomy cuts across borders. Ideas about ‘refined’ food exhibit even more of an aristocratic bias here than those found across the Channel. The English gastronome aspires to eat the most delicate dishes, fold his napkin, and judge it with withering disdain often applying whimsical standards. That at least is the demeanour of most food critics – the Sunday Times’ Michael Winner is a prime example – who at least give the impression of pursuing a lifestyle remote from that of the vast bulk of the population.

The medieval approach to food made excess a taboo – which only served to encourage it. Suppressing the experience of the palate denies a worthwhile aesthetic, and can lead to pathological under-eating. Furthermore, with so many diets monopolised by unhealthy, industrial foodstuffs the need for wide-ranging discussion on the finer points of food is quite apparent. Gastronomy should aspire to universality, or withdraw into a dissolute retirement. In the next article the English relationship with food will be assessed further.

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