Gigante, "Introduction"

Romantic Gastronomies

Romantic Gastronomy: An Introduction

Denise Gigante, Stanford University

. . . we are, literally speaking, a small party of friends, who meet once a week at a Round Table to discuss the merits of a leg of mutton and of the subjects upon which we are to write. This we do without any sort of formality, letting the stream of conversation wander through any grounds it pleases. . . . After dinner, if the weather requires it, we draw round the fire with a biscuit or two, and the remainder of a philosophic bottle of wine . . .

—Leigh Hunt, The Examiner; January 1, 1815

  1. Romanticism may be associated with gusto, but it has hardly been recognized—at least within literary circles—as the period that saw the invention of the restaurant and a unique, comic-philosophical genre of writing about food. But in fact Romanticism was coterminous with, and in many ways emblematic of, the culture of sophistication and social positioning we associate with modern gastronomy. On the heels of the French Revolution, gastronomy developed as a self-conscious aesthetic, modeled on the eighteenth-century discourse of taste.1 The gastronomer around the turn of the nineteenth century began to make a fine art of food just as his better-known peer, the dandy, would do of fashion. Both were French-influenced phenomena, figures who crusaded for the value of the aesthetic in an age of increasing consumerism. The dandy famously flouted bourgeois ideals of common-sensical economy, insisting on pleasure as a path out of the everyday into the more elevated pleasures of the imagination. So too did the Romantic gastronomer, a strangely forgotten figure, help prepare the way for today's haute couture.

  2. The current shift in attention across academic disciplines from the high to the low, from "The Sublime to the stomach" as Harold Bloom remarks (xiv), prepares us to consider the fate of the aesthetic connoisseur—the prototype, after all, for today's critic—as he navigates the shift from a rarefied, abstracted appreciation for the fine arts to the more full-bodied experience of gusto. William Hazlitt remains our spokesman for this distinctively Romantic aesthetic, first outlined in his 1816 essay "On Gusto." Originally published in The Examiner as part of "The Round Table" series, Hazlitt's essay defines gusto as "power or passion defining any object" (4:77). The work in the Round Table was explicitly modeled on the early periodical essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, and Hazlitt is remembering the analogy Addison makes in Spectator #409 between a "mental" taste for fine writing and a "sensitive" taste for things perceived physically through the palate (450). Addison had compared the art connoisseur to a consumer of tea with a superbly refined palate, able to discern among several different blends, but Hazlitt takes the analogy further. Far from the disinterested attitude of the Enlightenment critic, who would strive to discern particular "beauties" or "defects" in the aesthetic object of contemplation in order to pronounce definitive taste judgments, the Romantic "Man of Taste" calls the full range of his faculties and senses into play. In the experience of gusto, "the impression made on one sense excites by affinity those of another" (4:78).

  3. With the Romantic revision of taste as gusto, the sense of sight is dragged down from its lofty eminence at the top of the hierarchy of the senses to a thoroughly physiological position in which the eye itself, in Hazlitt's words, may "acquire a taste or appetite for what it sees" (4:78). Such appetite is precisely what eighteenth-century taste theory had sought to exclude from aesthetic experience. Sight had always been privileged among the senses for the cognitive distance it was thought to maintain from the object, and the space it therefore allowed for the mediating work of representation. In his opening paper on "The Pleasures of the Imagination," Addison could thus confidently assert: "Our Sight is the most perfect and most delightful of all our Senses . . . and may be considered as a more delicate and diffusive Kind of Touch, that spreads its self over an infinite Multitude of Bodies, comprehends the largest Figures, and brings into our reach some of the most remote Parts of the Universe" (460). Despite the prevalent view that aesthetic perception of the Romantic period is also marked by this "diffusive" touch—as in Wordsworth's disembodied portrayal of the mind that  "feeds upon infinity" in The Prelude and "draws its nourishment imperceptibly" from nature in The Excursion—the Romantic writers for the most part sought a more proximate taste experience.

  4. Hazlitt admires Milton for his "double relish" of the objects his imagination calls into account, and in his essay "On Reading Old Books" insists on the necessary ingredients of "the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish" (5:221). Relish (a food in its own right) refers specifically to the physical act of degustation and signifies the distinctive taste or flavor of an object. In the act of re-reading (seeking that double relish from the printed text), Hazlitt's seasoned eye works to "retrace the story and devour the page," often discovering thereby a "different relish" from the previous occasion (5:222). Hazlitt's ideal reader does not merely consume a text; he registers its flavors, an effort that requires (as the food or wine connoisseur will explain) both olfactory sensation and oral degustation. Smell registers flavor, and Hazlitt involves the two most subjective sensations (considered chemical rather than mechanical in contemporary physiology) in the act of mental taste when he suggests that in an inferior reading experience, the "sharp luscious flavour, the fine aroma is fled, and nothing but the stalk, the bran, the husk of literature is left" (5:225). The harvest is done and the squirrel's granary is full, but we must feel as sick as the knight in Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" if we cannot relish the pleasures of the imagination with all our five senses. 

  5. A book, like fine wine, requires time to age in order for its fullest flavor to emerge, and the quintessential Romantic critic finds it difficult to confront the dizzying array of print culture ready for immediate consumption. "There is a want of confidence and security to second appetite," Hazlitt complains. "New-fangled books are also like made-dishes in this respect, that they are generally little else than hashes and rifaccimentos of what has been served up entire and in a more natural state at other times" (5:221). Hazlitt is at once having fun with the metaphor of taste and working hard to make the case for gusto, a term that had been in use on the continent before British taste philosophy stripped it of its lustier pleasures and abstracted it into aesthetic disinterestedness. In this, Hazlitt, like his fellow knights of the Round Table, was in tune with the post-revolutionary, gastronomical Spirit of the Age.

  6. In his introductory paper to The Round Table, Leigh Hunt reconstructs the Arthurian locus classicus as a gathering place for Romantic knights errant, crusading for the value of aesthetic pleasure in an age of consumer materialism. Yet the idealism implicit in his project, which, I have suggested, runs parallel to dandyism, is complicated by the awareness that the Round Table is also a dinner table. Hunt promises to keep the "long train of romantic associations and inspired works connected with it" fresh in his periodical, just as he "shall keep the more familiar idea of the dining Table before us" (2:9).  When he proposes to meet weekly with other members of the Round Table "to discuss the merits of a leg of mutton" as well as other subjects worthy of critical reflection over "a philosophic bottle of wine" (as in the epigraph), he captures the flavor of gastronomical writing from France. Writing "On the Progress of Culinary Art in the Nineteenth-Century" in 1812 (modeled on the more typical essay on the progress of the fine arts, such as that by David Hume), the French father of gastronomical literary tradition, Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière (1758-1837), claims that "The Dining Table has become the linchpin of political, literary, financial, and commercial matters" (40). For him, this is evidence of the great strides the culinary arts had made into the province of the fine arts and belle lettres.

  7. Napoleon, at the height of his empire, was no gastronome, but he too recognized the power of the table as an engine of state and emblem of cultural prestige. Besides the sumptuous table of his arch-chancellor Jean-Jacques Cambacérès, to which he would dismiss emissaries with an appetizing flourish, Napoleon profited from the exquisite taste of his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. Prince Talleyrand held a daily conference with his chief officers of the kitchen, at which the assembled artists of his staff would submit their culinary proposals for the evening's meal. Often this involved exquisite taste tests, with Talleyrand sampling particular ingredients and sauces, conferring on their merits, and pronouncing judgment.  All provinces of France were tributaries to this crowning event of the gourmand's day. An Englishman recollecting his travels through France from 1802-1805 observed that French gastronomy, as treated in Grimod's Almanach des gourmands, "embraces one branch of luxury, but a branch particularly cultivated by the new rich; whose cellars and larders are far better replenished than their libraries. This taste has become so general, that many booksellers have become traiteurs, and find the corporeal food far more profitable than the mental" (Pinkerton 2: 196). By January of 1817, the English Prince Regent (or future George IV), would score his own coup by luring Carême, head of the Romantic school of cookery, to Brighton to prepare hundred-dish dinners for his guests, transforming the royal summer seat into an international resort, and introducing British palates to cutting-edge French cuisine. France had sparked a culinary revolution in Britain, where new institutions, including dining clubs and restaurants, were meeting the lifestyles and tastes of the rising middle classes. By the time Hunt and Hazlitt had sat down to The Round Table, the Parisian high style of dining had swept over London.

  8. While some scholars of late have wanted to downplay the influence of the French Revolution on the rise of the restaurant as a public forum for discretionary dining, there is little doubt that, in its modern instantiation, the restaurant is a result of revolution. The political events of the 1790s released the best French chefs from aristocratic patronage into the open market of Paris, where they set up as restaurateurs in abandoned hotels or in the arcade of the Palais-Royal. With the aristocrats having escaped to other cities in Europe, these talented culinary professionals found themselves catering to a new bourgeois clientele, the nouveaux riches. Whereas Addison and Steele had mingled with wits, scribblers, politicians, and other members of the growing bourgeoisie (financiers, bankers, lawyers) over stimulating cups of coffee in the coffeehouses that spread from Paris in the 1680s, the birth of the restaurant following the French revolution was a phenomenon distinct from the coffeehouse culture that helped shape intellectual life of Enlightenment Europe. The key difference between the coffeehouse, where information and conversation were exchanged (contributing to the formation of the so-called public sphere), and the restaurant of the Romantic period, was that the former did not feature food as its primary concern. While refreshments and pastries had been served in cafés, and even more substantial victuals in some of the British coffeehouses, conversation political and cultural, not food, was the focus of attention. This all changed once the restaurant spurred by talented French chefs encouraged the application of aesthetic principles to the culinary arts.

  9. In the culture of gastronomy that soon spread to England, food was taken seriously as an object of appreciation, offering an occasion for aesthetic judgment and the exercise of the higher mental faculties, much like other forms of art. Grimod de la Reynière thus spoke of syrups "considérés philosophiquement," just as his pseudonymous British imitator Launcelot Sturgeon wrote "On Mustard, Philosophically Considered." In explaining the purpose of the Round Table, Hunt takes up the same tradition when he observes that

    the most trifling matters may sometimes be not only the commencement, but the causes, of the gravest discussions. The fall of an apple from a tree suggested the doctrine of attraction; and the same apple, for aught we know, served up in a dumpling, may have assisted the philosopher in his notions of heat; for who has not witnessed similar causes and effects at a dinner table? For my part, a piece of mutton has supplied me with arguments, as well as chops, for a fortnight; I have seen a hare or a cod's-head giving hints to a friend for his next essay; and have known the most solemn reflections rise, with a pair of claws, out of a pigeon pie. (2:11)

    There is a world of difference between the prototypical apple, appealing to Eve from the forbidden tree of knowledge, or knocking Sir Isaac Newton on the head with the theory of gravity and other weighty matters, and that same apple cooked and "served up in a dumpling." From the raw to the cooked is the path civilization is supposed to have taken, and Norbert Elias has left us a helpful road map of that "civilizing process" in Europe. Whereas the biblical apple has produced a world of theological exegesis, as sizable as the scientific commentary on Newton's law of attraction, Hunt finds—and this is not all facetious—that the roasted hare or stewed cod's head can also provoke critical reflection.

  10. Hunt could write philosophically about mutton, hare, or cod's head in much the same manner as his friend, Charles Lamb, who was originally supposed to have taken part in the literary enterprise of the Round Table. Lamb's praise of pig is familiar to lovers of literature, but his delightful discernment of fish, though more obscure, contains the same tenor of self-conscious insight about food as an aesthetic object of judgment. There are numerous distinctions, he suggests, between the golden haddock and a magisterial fish such as the turbot: "it hath not that moist mellow oleaginous gliding smooth descent from the tongue to the palate, thence to the stomach &c. as your Brighton Turbot hath, which I take to be the most friendly and familiar flavor of any that swims" (Letters 3: 253). The turbot may be a fine fish for John Bull, but it lacks the heightened sensibility Lamb associates with cod's head: "nor has it on the other hand that fine falling off flakiness, that obsequious peeling off (as it were like a sea onion) which endears your cods head & shoulders to some appetites, that manly firmness combined with a sort of womanish coming-in-pieces which the same cods head & shoulders hath" (Letters 3: 253). Lamb's fictional Elia was a "true son of Epicurus," a literary pose in which to approach the world as a "judicious epicure" (Works 1:124). While his devotion to crackling, derived from suckling pig, has been memorialized in the gastronomical ejaculations of Elia, Lamb himself was capable of choosing his friends for their gastronomical acumen: "I like you for liking hare. I esteem you for disrelishing minced veal. Liking is too cold a word, I love you for your noble attachment to the fat unctuous juices of deers flesh & the green unspeakable of turtle" (Letters 3: 254). If Hazlitt describes the concept of gusto in relation to the fine arts, Lamb brings it to life in everyday matters with no small dash of culinary expertise.

  11. It may be odd to consider that the British Romantic essayists, along with their literary peers, have yet to be read within the gastronomical genre that flourished in London from the 1820s. It was only one month after his trip to Paris with his sister Mary that Lamb published his best-known essay, "A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig" (1822). In a letter of September of that year to Barron Field, with whom he shared more than one fried eel pie, Lamb recognized the degree to which a trip to France will leave its mark on one's literal and literary palate: "I & sister are just returned from Paris!! We have eaten frogs. It has been such a treat! You know our monotonous general Tenor. Frogs are the nicest little delicate things—rabbity-flavoured. Imagine a Lilliputian rabbit! They fricassee them; but in my mind, drest seethed, plain, with parsley and butter, would have been the decision of Apicius" (Letters 3:253). Lamb admired the work of the Roman chef Apicius, whose sixteenth-century annotator, Gabriel Hummelberger (Humelbergius) staged a comeback in 1829 as "Dick Humelbergius Secundus." Humelbergius's Apician Morsels; or Tales of the Table, Kitchen and Larder has been attributed to the Gothic novelist William Beckford (though I myself suspect the hand of Richard Chenevix, reviewer for the Edinburgh Review), and it announces "a New and Improved Code of Eatics," with "Select Epicurean Precepts," and "Nutritive Maxims, Reflections, Anecdotes . . . illustrating the Veritable Science of the Mouth." In addition to original essays on various aspects of cookery and good-living, Humelbergius takes his "Nutritive Varieties" (without attribution) from Grimod, along with other treatments of meals, invitations, and bonne chère.2 If he were not in fact its author, Lamb owned a copy of Essays, Moral, Philosophical and Stomachical on the Important Science of Good Living (1822) by one "Launcelot Sturgeon," which also plagiarizes Grimod de la Reynière. For these Romantic writers, "The Cook, the Author, and the Bookseller" formed a venerable gastronomical trio.

  12. The preceding paragraphs have tried to suggest some of the myriad ways in which the early nineteenth-century culture of gastronomy influenced artistic production of the Romantic period. At a time when aesthetics reflected the transition from abstracted taste to gusto, the idea of disinterestedness gave way to an imperative to show interest in all matters gastronomical. The French connoisseur Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin could thus claim, in his 1826 Physiologie du Goût, that a lack of interest in food (formerly the poor cousin of the arts) was evidence not of aesthetic disinterestedness but of  "culpable indifference" (198). Lest scholars of Romanticism be accused of such indifference, this special issue of Romantic Circles Praxis assembles original work by authors from different disciplines who have been influential in defining the culture (and cultural limitations) of nineteenth-century gastronomy.

  13. Carolyn Korsmeyer, author of Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy (1999) and The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink (2005), opens the volume with a philosophical consideration of "Tastes and Pleasures." She considers how, "even as gastronomers advance their case for both the aesthetic and artistic standing of cuisine, philosophers continue to exclude taste from the aesthetic senses and cuisine from the arts." She provides a careful analysis of 1) the nature of the sense of taste and its alleged limitations by way of contemporary science and the work of Brillat-Savarin; and 2) the arguments for and against the status of the pleasure received through this sense (and its cousin smell) to qualify as aesthetic pleasure or value. The question driving the essay is whether or not, given the recent emphasis across the disciplines on the body, or somatic part of subjectivity, we have reached a perspective from which we might legitimately obfuscate, even obliterate, the longstanding distinction between gustatory and aesthetic taste pleasures so central to Western philosophical tradition.

  14. In "Economies of Excess in Brillat-Savarin, Balzac, and Baudelaire," Joshua Wilner, author of Feeding on Infinity: Readings in the Romantic Rhetoric of Internalization (2000), examines the legacy of gastronomical writing in the work of Honoré de Balzac and Charles Baudelaire. He shows how these nineteenth-century French authors polemically engaged the Romantic Gourmand, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, on his culpable indifference toward wine, a focal point in food connoisseurship today. Together, Balzac's supplementary commentary on Brillat-Savarin's Physiologie du goût and Baudelaire's 1850 essay "Du Vin et du haschisch compares comme moyens de multpilier l'individualité" comprise a counter-discourse of gastronomy that tips moderation into excess and sobriety into sublimity.

  15. Swerving from theory to praxis, Michael Garval, author of "Grimod de la Reynière's Almanach des gourmands: Exploring the Gastronomic New World of Postrevolutionary France" (2001) and  "Grimod's Gastronomic Vision: The Frontispieces for the Almanach des Gourmands" (2004) as well as translator of Grimod's Almanach des gourmands and Manuel des Amphitryons (2005), introduces us now to "Alexis Soyer and the Rise of the Celebrity Chef." Whereas gastronomers beginning with Grimod and Brillat-Savarin established their reputations as Men of Taste based on the analogy between culinary and textual consumption—the pâté posed in place of the poem, the pen in place of the knife for these Romantic geniuses of the gullet—culinary artists had less experience navigating the divide between the fine and practical arts. Here we see how the French émigré chef, Alexis Soyer, with a penchant for dressing like a dandy, modeling himself on Romantic celebrity figures such as Lord Byron and Napoleon, rose to fame as a high-cultural icon in a series of publications from the mid-nineteenth century. Garval provides an analysis of Soyer's role in Victorian fiction, as well as his own self-representation through text and almost three-dozen images, that reveals the many ways in which this enterprising celebrity-chef challenged the cultural and philosophical prejudices discussed by Korsmeyer from the ground up.

  16. Far from attempting an exhaustive survey of Romantic Gastronomy, this special issue of Romantic Circles Praxis aims to suggest how attention to this topic may help us begin to reevaluate many longstanding assumptions about the nature of pleasure and its relations to the arts and sciences in British and French culture of the early nineteenth century. If it accomplishes little more than revealing the range of and quality of scholarship that has already been devoted to the topic, whetting the appetite of readers for further research, it will contribute toward this broader objective. In the current configuration of Romantic studies, a number of critical concerns meet at the nexus of nineteenth-century gastronomy. These include, but are hardly limited to, the dietary politics of Romantic writers, including the discourse of vegetarianism and colonial food products; questions of gender related to domestic economy, food preparation, and the professionalization of the culinary arts; and the literary-critical principles of gastronomy as a genre on the margins of nineteenth-century prose intersecting with the novel, antiquarian and miscellaneous writings, historical fiction, and the anthology. Above all, Romantic Gastronomy lends itself to praxis, "call it the Romanticism of the restaurant-bookstores, which increasingly surrounds us" (Bloom xiv). It is my belief that an exploration of this unique brand of aesthetics, with a preference for the outré and modes of expression often verging on the pornographic, may offer a promising road not (hitherto) taken for Romantic studies.

Many thanks are due to Emily Allen for her helpful commentary on the essays in this volume.


1 For a fuller explication of this argument see my introduction and final chapter of Taste, and the introduction to Gusto.

2 Robert Cruikshank engraved two illustrations for the volume, one of which, titled "The Roman Senate Debating on the Turbot," is copied from the frontispiece to Joseph Berchoux's 1803 poem, La Gastronomie, from which the word gastronomy itself derives. Also borrowed from Berchoux is a "Prayer of a Half-Starved Hungry Poet."

Works Cited

Addison, Joseph and Richard Steele. Selected Essays from "The Tatler," "The Spectator," and "The Guardian." Ed. Daniel McDonald. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.

Bloom, Harold. "Foreword." Gusto: Essential Writings in Nineteenth-Century Gastronomy. New York: Routledge, 2005. xiii-xvi.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean-Anthelme. Brillat-Savarin's Physiologie du Goût: A Handbook of Gastronomy. New and Complete Translation. New York: J.W. Boulton, 1884.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Vol. 1. New York: Urizen Books, 1978.

Garval, Michael. "Grimod de la Reynière's Almanach des gourmands: Exploring the Gastronomic New World of Postrevolutionary France." French Food: On the Table, on the Page, and in French Culture. Ed. Lawrence R. Schehr and Allen S. Weiss. New York: Routledge, 2001.

---. "Grimod's Gastronomic Vision: The Frontispieces for the Almanach des Gourmands." Consuming Culture:  The Arts of the French Table, ed.  John West-Sooby. Newark, D.E.:  U of Delaware P, 2004.

Gigante, Denise, ed. Gusto: Essential Writings in Nineteenth-Century Gastronomy. New York: Routledge, 2005.

---. Taste: A Literary History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005.

Grimod de la Reynière, Alexandre Balthazar Laurent. The Gourmand's Almanac. Trans. Michael Garval. Gusto: Essential Writings in Nineteenth-Century Gastronomy. Ed. Denise Gigante. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Hazlitt, William. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. Ed. P. P. Howe. 21 Vols. London: J.M. Dent, 1930.

Hunt, Leigh. The Selected Writings of Leigh Hunt. Gen. ed. Michael Eberle-Sinatra, Robert Morrison. 6 Vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy. Cornell UP, 1999.

---, ed. The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2005.

Lamb, Charles and Mary. The Letters of Charles and Mary Anne Lamb. Ed. Edwin W. Marrs, Jr. 3 Vols. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975.

---. The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb. Ed. E. V. Lucas. 8 Vols. London: Methuen, 1903.

Pinkerton, J. Recollections of Paris, in the Years 1802-3-4-5. 2 Vols. London: Longman Hurst Rees and Orme, 1806.

Wilner, Joshua. Feeding on Infinity: Readings in the Romantic Rhetoric of Internalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000.