Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Pleasures of the Table

In my never-ending study of food and cooking, I’ve been dipping into the writings of the 19th century French essayist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in particular, his Physiology of Taste (a delightful translation by M.F.K. Fisher).

Now, I love to throw dinner parties, so I was particularly interested in the chapter in his treatise dedicated to “the Pleasures of the Table.” “This pleasure,” Brillat-Savarin says, “can be savored almost to the full whenever the four following conditions are met with: food at least passable, good wine, agreeable companions, and enough time.”

“The Professor” (as M.F.K. Fisher refers to him) then goes on to query, “[b] can one possibly assemble, in this year of grace 1825, a meal which will meet all the conditions necessary to attain the ultimate in the pleasures of the table?” In response to this question, he provides us with a list of rules:

I am about to answer that question. Draw near, Reader, and pay heed: it is Gasterea, the loveliest of the muses, who inspires me; I shall speak more clearly than an oracle, and my precepts will live throughout the centuries.

“Let the number of guests be no more than twelve, so that conversation may always remain general;

“Let them be so chosen that their professions will be varied, their tastes analogous, and that there such points of contact that the odious formality of introductions will not be needed;

“Let the dining room be more than amply lighted, the linen of dazzling cleanliness, and the temperature maintained at from sixty to sixty-eight degrees Farenheit;

“Let the gentlemen be witty without pretension, and the ladies charming without too much coquetry;

“Let the dishes be of exquisite quality, but limited in their number, and the wines of the first rank also, each according to its degree;

“Let the progression of the former be from the most substantial to the lightest, and of the latter from the simplest wines to the headiest;

“Let the tempo of eating be moderate, the dinner being the last affair of the day: the guests should behave like travelers who must arrive together at the same destination;

“Let the coffee be piping hot, and the liqueurs of the host’s especial choice;

“Let the drawing room which awaits the diners be large enough to hold a card table for those who cannot do without it, with enough space left for after-dinner conversations;

“Let the guests be disciplined by the restraints of polite society and animated by the hope that the evening will not pass without its rewarding pleasures;

“Let the tea be not too strong, the toast artfully buttered, and the punch made with care;

“Let the leavetakings not begin before eleven o’clock, but by midnight let every guest be home and abed.”

If anyone has attended a party combining all these virtues, he can boast that he has known perfection, and for each one of them which has been forgotten or ignored he will have experienced the less delight.

Although nearly two centuries have now passed since the Professor’s time, I believe that he is right: Most of his precepts do indeed still live on—and hold true perhaps even more so now, in this era of instantaneous satisfaction of ones desires (think cell phones, laptops, fast food), than they did in the 19th century.

We could all stand to learn from the Professor, and take more time to sit down with friends at the table and pass a leisurely evening in animated conversation whilst savoring a homemade meal (not to mention that buttered toast and punch which follow!).

On another topic, I have just revamped my author website, so feel free to check it out!