Paean to the Drink, Welcome to the Nibble

Publication Year: 
1986

During the years of Napoleon and the Restoration, a legal magistrate named Jean-Antheleme Brillat-Savarin rose high in his profession while in every spare minute he worked passionately at his avocation ---the writing of witty theorizings, anecdotes, historical vignettes, and culinary opinions, which he called his "gastronomic meditations." In 1925 he published them as a book,The Physiology of Taste, a masterpiece in the literature of food. It included a chapter on chocolate, which was still only drinking chocolate. He wrote:

Time and experience, those two great teachers,have conclusively proved that chocolate, when carefully prepared, is a wholesome and agreeable form of food; that it is nourishing and easily disgestible... that it is very suitable for persons faced with great mental exertion, preachers, lawyers, and above all travelers; and finally that it agrees with the feeblest stomachs, has proved beneficial in cases of chronic illness, and remains the last resource in diseases of the pylorus [the opening between stomach and intestine]....

When you have breakfasted well and copiously [on a small meat pie, a cutlet, or a broiled kidney], if you swallow a generous cup of good chocolate at the end of the meal, you will have digested everything perfectly three hours later, and you will be able to dine in comfort.... Out of a zeal for sceince, and by dint of eloquence, I have persuaded a good many ladies to try this experiment, although they protested that it would kill them; in every case they were delighted with the result...

Brillat-Savarin grew eloquent when he came to the subject of "ambered" chocolate. He was not speaking of amber, the semiprecious gemstone, but of something perhaps still odder as a flavouring; ambergris, a wax-like substance taken from the intestine of the sperm whale. It is dotted with yellow and black spots, according to France's culinary encyclopaedia, Larousse Gastronomique and has "a strong and pleasant smell" (it is blended into many modern perfumes). Ambergris had long been used in European drinking chocolate, and even longer as an antispasmodic remedy. It was also much esteemed as an aphrodisiac, which made its relationship to chocolate like that of coals to Newcastle, considering chocolate's age-old liaison with the erotic, from Montezuma to Pompadour, That lady had, in fact, laced her self-encouraging chocolate with ambergris. But Brillat-Savarin -- who, after all, was seventy when he published his book-- was thinking of ambergris's other reputation, as a tonic:

When I get one of those days when the weight of age makes itself felt, or when one's mind is sluggish, I add a knob of ambergris the size of a bean, pounded with sugar, to a strong cup of chocolate, and I always find my condition improves marvellously. The burden of life becomes lighter, thoughts flow with ease, and I do not suffer from insomnia...
Let any man who has drunk too deeply of the cup of pleasure, or given to work a notable portion of the time which should belong to sleep; who finds his wit temporarily losing its edge, the atmosphere humid, time dragging, and the air hard to braethe, or who is tortured by a fixed idea which robs him of all freedom of thought; let such a man, we say, administer to himself a food pint of ambered chocolate, allowing between sixty and seventy-two grains of amber to a pound, and he will see wonders. In my own peculiar way of specifying things, I call ambered chocolate "the chocolate of the afflicted."...

In our peculiar way, we might call it a tranquillizer.
"Being ourselves very fond of chocolate," as Brillat-Savarin confessed, he recommended it equally for the unafflicted. It was excellent, presumable without ambergris, "for our morning breakfasts, delights us at dinner with our creams, and enchants us yet again at the end of the evening with our ices and sweets and other drawing-room dainties..."

An early advocate of dieting for health and beauty, the magistrate promoted chocolate for both losing and gaining weight. He told the chubby, "If you must have something sweet after dinner, choose a chocolate custard.... for breakfast, the inevitable rye bread, and chocolate rather than coffee.' Yet he noted even-handedly, "Every thin woman wants to put on flesh." She should, therefore, "Before eight o'clock in the morning, and in bed if necessary, drink a bowl of soup thickened with bread or noodles.... or, if preferred, a cup of good chocolate."

This accommodating manysidedness of chocolate had been remarked by Brillat-Savarin's countrywoman of a century and a half before, the celebrated Madame de Sévigné, who won everlasting literary fame because she wrote such engrossing letters. In one of them she related, "I took chocolate night before last to digest my dinner in order to have a good supper, I took some yesterday for sustenance to that I might fast until evening. It had all the effects on me that i wanted; that is why I find chocolate agreeable, because it acts according to one's wishes."

Text: pp 43-47, Chocolate An Illustrated History, Marcia and Frederic Morton, 1986
Image: http://www.villageantiques.ch/prints/French18th/La%20Crainte.html

Fear, Noel le Mire, eighteenth-century, French, engraving
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