DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Aug 25 2010

We Are What We’ve Eaten

by Dea Anne M

The title of this post is an adaptation of the now famous quote from Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s monumental work of gastronomy, Physiologie du Gout or, in translation, The Physiology of Taste. What Brillat-Savarin actually wrote was “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are,” which has, of course, been commonly paraphrased as “You are what you eat.”  Now, anyone who knows me, knows also that I am interested (obsessed?) with culinary matters. I like reading about, and pondering, what we choose to eat and what it tells us about ourselves. Why eat yogurt, and how is it made? Who figured out that an artichoke ( a thistle, for Pete’s sake!) might be edible? There may be no definitive answer to these questions, but I find them fascinating to contemplate.  Other aspects of our culinary heritage are very well documented and I find these no less fascinating.

Some libraries have special collections devoted to gastronomy such as the Peacock-Harper Collection at Virginia Tech or the Food, Wine, and Culinary History Collection at Cornell University. Then, of course, there is that revered institution, the New York Public Library. The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street houses a world-class collection of cookbooks, menus, and other culinary related materials.  Check out the blog Cooked Books run by librarian Rebecca Federman for a glimpse of the culinary wonders at NYPL. One of my favorite regular features is “Desert Island Cookbook.” In each post, Federman interviews a different New York personality about the cookbook that she or he would bring to a desert island.

Does this pique your interest in doing a little culinary research of your own? Check out some of DCPL’s resources.

For a classic culinary encyclopedia:

Larousse Gastronomique

(This is part of the non-circulating reference but well worth your time to page through.)

Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950’s America by Laura Shapiro.

(A fascinating overview of an era full of contradictions and promise.)

On DVD there is…

The Meaning of Food.

Don’t miss…

The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks.

(This is seriously hilarious!)

Published in 1825, The Physiology of Taste is an enduring classic (it has never gone out of print). Brillat-Savarin was a lawyer by profession with a lively interest in science, music and languages and, of course, food.  He wrote, “The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.” You might agree with that statement, or you might not,  but you can read more of Brillat Savarin’s writing in:

Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History edited by Mark Kurlansky.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ardene August 25, 2010 at 11:25 AM

I’d also recommend Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire (in book format or on DVD). A plant’s-eye view of evolution, where the apple, tulip, potato, and marijuana persuade humans to provide excellent environments for them to flourish.

Nancy B. August 27, 2010 at 8:32 AM

I’ve always wondered who “discovered” marshmallows, and what were they really trying to make.

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