B rillat-Savarin's 1825 account of food and its pleasures, The Physiology of Taste or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, was also a study of fat and its dan gers and stressed the physiognomy of obesity. The appearance of obesity was a clue to its dangers. A lawyer by trade, Brillat-Savarin had been elected a deputy to the National Assembly in 1789, where he argued for the death penalty. During the Reign of Terror, he was forced to flee France, eventually settling in the U.S.A. He returned to France in i797, where he became a judge in the Court of Cassation. In 1825, shortly before his death, he wrote his epicurean account of the pleasures (and dangers) of food. He wrote in an autobiographical mode about his sense of his own obese body:
There is one kind of obesity which centers around the belly; I have never noticed it in women: since they are generally made up of softer tissues, no part of their bodies are spared when obesity attacks them. I call this type of fatness Gastrophoria and its victims Gastrophores. I myself am in their company; but although I carry around with me a fairly prominent stomach, I still have well-formed lower legs, and calves as sinewy as the muscles of an Arabian steed. Nevertheless I have always looked on my paunch as a redoubtable enemy; I have conquered it and limited its outlines to the purely majestic; but in order to win the fight, I have fought hard indeed: whatever is good about the results and my present observations I owe to a thirty-year battle.
(Brillat-Savarin 1999: 186)
Brillat-Savarin was commenting on his struggle with a disease of the will in the form of his own obesity. Yet when he looks to the world of women, he bemoans their thinness as "a terrible misfortune." "Every thin woman wishes to put on weight. This is an ambition that has been confided to us a thousand times" (Brillat-Savarin i999: i86). For them, he suggests a diet to help them gain weight.
The key was looking and being looked at as too fat or too thin. For men, the potbelly became a major indicator of the potential for illness for the observers of masculine obesity in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, of the 163,567 overweight men in the U.S.A. and Canada identified between 1870 and 1899 (for insurance purposes), abdominal obesity (the waist being of greater circumference than the chest) was present in about i3 percent (Kahn and Williamson 1994). This was taken as an absolute sign of increased morbidity and mortality. The projected deaths of these individuals were almost one-third less than their actual death rate. "Omental fat" in the disease of Gastrophoria (potbelliedness) comes to represent the bloated and unmasculine over time.
In his chapters on obesity and dieting, Brillat-Savarin positions himself as a "lay expert." For him, obesity is a disease that makes the beautiful ugly, the strong weak, the intelligent dumb. It produces a distaste for dance, that most civilized of social interactions, creates the context for diseases such as apoplexy, dropsy, ulcers in the legs, and makes all diseases difficult to cure. Thus, no obesity is found among that class of persons who eat to live, instead of living to eat. But, "it takes real courage either to lose weight or to keep from gaining it" (Brillat-Savarin 1999: 195). His approach is to avoid excess and the need to balance all qualities of food. "Discretion in eating, moderation in sleeping, and exercise on foot or horseback," is his dieting course (Brillat-Savarin 1999: 195). Yet, he recognizes that such a simple prescription is almost always met with objections by those who need to undertake it. "Diet is the most important, for it acts without cease day and night" (Brillat-Savarin 1999: 196). For him, the reduction of "grains and starches" must be at the center of any weight-loss diet (Brillat-Savarin 1999: 196). The fat man objects: "Here in a single word he forbids us everything we most love, those little white rolls from Limet, and Archard's cakes, and those cookies from. ..." Yet, Brillat-Savarin is adamant: "Shun anything made with flour . . ., you still have the roast, the salad, the leafy vegetables" (1999: 197). Avoid fad diets, such as the craze for drinking daily a glass of vinegar, which was sweeping the young women at the time and led to dangerous results, including death. The "vinegar cure" has a very long pedigree, going back to humoral medicine. Today, the "Apple Cider Vinegar Diet" has again become a means for weight loss, now as part of a "natural" approach, which also advocates portion control.
Brillat-Savarin, however, also hoped for a quick cure in advocating that a dose of quinine, recently imported, might well be beneficial to weight loss (1999: 199-200). For him, dieting was a neverending challenge, one confronted each day when he sat down to eat. It is to him that we owe our modern fascination with "taste" and the culture of food; but it is to obesity and dieting that he owed his own obsession with both.
See also Byron; Ibn Sina; Medieval Diets
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