Sing for your supper

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) loved music, but he thought the joys of harmony paled next to the pleasures of the table. The famed author of Physiologie du Goût (The Physiology of Taste) and the honoree of Brillat-Savarin cheese (a triple-crême, 75% butterfat masterpiece), was a lawyer by trade, but also a musician—during a brief exile to the Untied States during the Reign of Terror, he taught violin and was good enough himself to play first violin in a New York theater orchestra. In his book, Brillat-Savarin regarded hearing a more subtle mechanism than taste:

Taste is not so richly endowed as hearing; the latter can appreciate and compare many sounds at the same time; but taste, on the other hand, is actually simple—that is to say, that two flavours at one are equally inappreciable.

But it may be doubled and multipled in succession—that is to say, that in one act of deglutition we may experience successively a second and even a third sensation, each of which gradually becomes more weak, and which are described by the words after-taste, bouquet, or fragrance. So, when a chord is struck, a skilful ear may distinguish one or many series of consonances, of which the number is as yet imperfectly known.

But the complete satisfaction of the gourmand is superior, and has superior side-benefits.

A married pair of gourmands have at least once a day a pleasant opportunity of meeting, for even those who have separate bedrooms—and in France there are a great number who have—eat at least at the same table, and have a subject of conversation which is always new; they speak not only of what they eat, but also of what they have eaten, what they will eat, what they have seen elsewhere, of fashionable dishes, new inventions, and so forth. Everyone knows that such a familiar chit-chat is delightful.

Music, no doubt, has powerful attractions for those who love it; but one must set about it:—it is an exertion.

Besides, sometimes one has a cold, our music is mislaid, the instruments are out of tune, we may have a headache:—there is a strike.

On the other hand, a common want brings the couple to table; the same inclination retains them there; they naturally show each other those trifling attentions which denote a wish to oblige, and their behavior at meal-time has a great share in the happiness of their lives.

Still, it was music that saved his life. Brillat-Savarin had to travel to see one citoyen Prôt, in order to obtain a passport, “which, probably, might save me from prison or the scaffold.”

I am not one of those persons who are rendered cruel from fear, and I think that M. Prôt was not exactly a bad man; but he was not very intelligent, and he did not know how to employ the formidable power put in his hands; he was like a child armed with the club of Hercules.

I was a little better received by Madame Prôt, to whom I went to pay my repects; for the circumstances under which I presented myself interested at least her feelings of curiosity.

The first words she said were to ask me if I loved music. What an unexpected happiness! She was passionately fond of it, and as I am myself a very fair musician, out hearts beat in unison from that very moment.

After supper, she sent for some of her music-books. She sang, I sang, we sang. I never used my voice to greater advantage, and I never enjoyed it more. M. Prôt had already several times said he was going, but she took no notice of it, and we were giving in grand style the duet from [Grétry’s] opera la Fausse Magie,

“Vous souvient-il de cette fête?”

when he told her he really must insist upon her leaving.

We had to finish; but at the moment of parting, Madame Prôt sait to me, “Citizen, a man who cultivates the fine arts as you have done, does not betray his country. I know you have asked some favor from my husband; it shall be granted; it is I who promise you.”

Thus the object of my journey was accomplished. I returned home with my head erect; and, thanks to Harmony, charming daughter of Heaven, my ascension was for a good many years postponed.

Having saved his neck in a most quintessentially French manner, Brillat-Savarin survived the Terror, returned to France, and wrote the book for which he became justly famous. In addition to that delectable cheese, he also lent his name to a cake: a savarin nowadays refers to any liqueur-soaked yeast cake without raisins (which would turn it into a baba au rhum). Eat well.

One comment

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