Gastronomy is the diner’s sense of the world. That’s my description, while remaining true, I believe, to Brillat-Savarin, in his book dated 1826 and still the major contribution to the field.
In France, Italy and elsewhere, “gastronomy” might have come to suggest the appreciation or promotion of good food, but Brillat-Savarin had something more intellectually ambitious in mind. He defined gastronomy as the “rational knowledge of everything that relates to human-beings insofar as they nourish themselves”. Note the word “everything”. He expected a science encompassing just about every other in his day, and he specified natural history, physics, chemistry, cookery, commerce and political economy.
I then emphasise something that Brillat-Savarin left implicit, namely, that Physiology of Taste was a diner’s take on these. His work was the diner’s sense in intent, method, form and content. He analysed bodily sensations and needs, described his and others’ experiences at the table, looked into the cultural manipulation bringing the raw materials there, and set eating and drinking in their larger context, especially economic (his book should have been Economics of Taste). He then reported in a deliberately pleasurable, conversational way.
Since setting out to write a gastronomic history of Australia while living in Tuscany from 1977 until 1979 (One Continuous Picnic, 1982 & 2007), I have only become more convinced that gastronomy makes more sense than most, if not all, other disciplines. Nothing could be more basic than sustenance – physically and culturally – although such a claim would have seemed outrageous through much of the twentieth century, dominated, as it was, by capital’s ascetic rationalisation.
Having made sense of my country – enough to get by with, at any rate – I then set out to make pretty good sense of civilisation through a study of cooking. Being the immediate preparation of meals, cooking is at the very focus of human endeavour (I choose “focus” carefully, since it is the Latin for “hearth”). With the working title, Cooks Made Us, this book was called The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks in Australia, and renamed A History of Cooks and Cooking by U.S. and U.K. publishers.
When I started out, back in the late 1970s, academics studied the meals of other cultures, but not their own. They studied aspects, such as nutrition or gastroenterology. Building from the late 1990s, the rush of food studies still leaves topics seemingly too “important” for gastronomy. I mention this as an excuse for having published research papers but no books for too many years. I have been tackling some “big” questions, and this takes time.
At long last, here is my gastronomic answer to economics, Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy (Columbia University Press, 2020). After all, mainstream economists stole the topic, initially studying the political economy as a greater version of the domestic household, centred on food. Likewise, even Darwin studied the natural economy, which people later called the ecology. In the nineteenth century, “political economists” dropped the “political”, however, leaving the original economists to re-badge themselves as “home economists”.
Through a gigantic sleight of hand, modern, self-styled “economists” misdirected attention away from meals towards money. “Hey, look,” they said, “you think you have an appetite; no, you are greedy.”
What say we regain a diner’s sense of the world?