Pasts and repasts

Henri meditates on food, companionship and the meaning of dinner parties

Illustration By Tina Flynn

The preparation and distribution of food necessarily brought the whole family together, the fathers apportioning to their children the results of the hunt, and the grown children then doing the same to their aged parents. These gatherings … were little by little extended to include neighbors and friends. Later, when the human race had spread out, the tired traveler came to join in such feasts, and to recount what went on in the far countries of the world. Thus was born hospitality, with its rights sacred to all peoples, for one of the strongest laws is that which commands respect for the life of any man with whom one has shared bread and salt.
--Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Bread and salt. Two ancient commodities and two words that take us from the dining table into our distant past. Salt, from the Latin salarium, a Roman soldier’s “salt allowance,” or “salary.” And bread … which too will take us back to Rome, and to our words “companion” and “company": In Roman times, a companio was one with whom you broke bread—or pan.

Henri’s been thinking about company lately. While on one hand it’s time for scarves, great coats and long, ruminative afternoon walks along windswept avenues, it’s also time to start thinking about the holidays. Stews simmering on stoves and turkeys and prime ribs roasting in ovens. Champagne chilling in refrigerators. Dinner parties, feasts, merriment. Tables set for eight, 10, even 12. And, of course, good drink.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the father of food writing, was a French lawyer interested in archaeology, astronomy, chemistry and gastronomy. He published his classic book, Physiology of Taste, or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, in December of 1825, two months before he died. The book has never been out of print. In 1949, it was translated into English by America’s greatest food writer, M. F. K. Fisher (more on Mrs. Fisher in a later column). Anyone interested in philosophy, history, poetry, dreams, aging, Jesuits, eels, marriage, fasting, drinking, Latin, gluttony, music, oysters, fondue or the “erotic properties of truffles” would be well advised to pick up a copy.

Aphoristic in nature—in fact, the first chapter is titled “Aphorisms of the Professor"—Brillat-Savarin’s book manages to argue both that we take the subject of food far too seriously and at the same don’t take the subject seriously enough. The book is wildly funny—at a New York restaurant Brillat-Savarin, visiting from France, drinks with two Englishmen, one of whom, passed out at the table, comes around long enough to attempt to belt out “Rule Britannia” before passing out again and then being taken to the door, along with his equally inebriated companion, “feet foremost.”

Yet the book also reminds us how difficult it is to distinguish among the different kinds of nourishment we need to carry on the intricately complex relationships we have with each other, with eating and food, and with ourselves. Food, love, sex. Who hasn’t substituted one for the other? As Brillat-Savarin writes, “Taste is the sense which puts us in contact with savorous or sapid bodies, by means of the sensation which they cause in the organ destined to appreciate them. … [I]n eating, we experience a certain special and indefinable well-being, which arises from our realization that by the very act we perform we are repairing our bodily losses and prolonging our lives.”

Dinner parties—with friends, companions, parties that continue with drink and conversation long into the night—give us the opportunity to confirm our connections, however tenuous, to each other and to better understand our places among the earth’s other creatures—animal and vegetable—that, Brillat-Savarin reminds us, supply the bounty of our tables.

Last Sunday I set two extra places at my own table—one for Miss Marilyn and one for L. Napkins in napkin rings, place tags, dinner and salad plates, silverware, water tumblers, wine glasses. When I sat down, alone, I raised my glass in toast: to L., so far away and still so close, and to my many companions, in the far countries of the world and from the strange course my life has taken. Then I took a long drink of Bordeaux and broke a baguette in thirds.

“The pleasures of the table are for every man," Brillat-Savarin wrote nearly two centuries ago. "[T]hey can be a part of all our other pleasures and they last the longest, to console us when we have outlived the rest."