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. 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. The current shift in attention across academic disciplines from the high to the low, from "The Sublime to the stomach" as Harold Bloom remarks, 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.
While largely forgotten today, the French-born British chef Alexis Soyer (1809-1858), whose ideas and initiatives anticipated much of our culinary and gastronomic modernity, played a key role in the evolution of the chef as a public figure. Like other early celebrity chefs, he first styled himself as a great man of letters, filtering his fame through the lens of literary renown. But much set him apart, particularly his dandyism, theatrics, and tireless self-promotion; above all, his widely-read books—a paradoxical enterprise for a semi-literate culinarian—propelled his renown, showcasing both his literary pretensions and popularizing bent. Soyer also intuited much about the importance of images within the period's burgeoning fame culture, cultivating his public persona through the frontispieces and illustrations to his works, and emulating the grandeur of great Romantic figures, especially Byron. He fashioned himself a figure at once endearing and ridiculous, avant-garde and retrograde, a dandified faux-revolutionary, a champion of the common people cloaked in uncommon frippery, his extraordinary singularity served up in frenzied pursuit of mass-market ubiquity. In particular, Soyer's humanitarian efforts in the Crimean War, and account thereof in his Culinary Campaign (1857), offered him an unprecedented forum for self-fashioning and promotion, turning himself into the bold hero of his own flatteringly-illustrated narrative. Thrusting the obscure realm of the chef or logistician into the limelight, he established that chefs need not pretend to be great writers, to be seen as noteworthy personages. This shift in the vision of chefs as public figures underpins their later emergence as broadcast stars—the first of whom, Xavier Marcel Boulestin (1878-1943), was in many ways Soyer's spiritual heir.
Both the modern field of aesthetics and nineteenth-century gastronomy share an interest in analyzing taste, a shared endeavor that the latter hoped would elevate the pleasures of the table to aesthetic standing. Philosophy, however, continues to exclude literal taste and its sensuous pleasures from genuinely aesthetic experience. This essay examines the concept of pleasure, the subjectivity of taste, and the case for the aesthetic status of this sense. Brillat-Savarin's Physiology of Taste is the central gastronomic text employed in the course of sorting through philosophical opinions about literal, gustatory taste. The essay concludes that the concept of pleasure requires greater critical scrutiny before the commonality between literal and gustatory taste can be determined.
Although Baudelaire's attitude towards Brillat-Savarin was dismissive to the point of open contempt, his writing on drugs situates itself from the outset, however ironically, within the rhetorical field of the Physiology of Taste's “Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy.” Focusing on Baudelaire's early essay, "On Wine and Hashish Compared as Means for the Multiplication of Individuality" (precursor to Artificial Paradises, Wilner argues that for both writers, the consumption of substance, rather than subserving the economy of the healthy body, becomes human only insofar as it vehiculates an excess of desire. Wilner also suggests that the progressive transformation of the consuming subject into a figure of human perversity, partially occulted in Brillat-Savarin, spectacularly displayed in Baudelaire, may be correlated with stages in the emergence of consumer capitalism. With close ties both to Brillat-Savarin's text and to Baudelaire's, Balzac "Treatise on Modern Stimulants" exemplifies an intermediate stage in this process.