The French lawyer and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published his reflections on eating and drinking, “The Physiology of Taste,” just two months before he died in 1826. His most famous aphorism from the book is “Tell me what you eat. I shall tell you what you are.”
English speakers have boiled down the aphorism even further to state “You are what you eat,” as it turns out, the title of various Canadian and British television shows, documentaries and articles about healthy eating and dieting. Their idea was, “If you eat healthy food, you will be healthy and fit.”
But that’s just part of what Brillat-Savarin had in mind. The aphorism’s original French helps: “Dis-moi ce que tu manges. Je te dirai ce que tu es.” Note the big difference that merely one vowel makes. It’s not “qui tu es”; it’s “que tu es.” Translated, “that which [or what]” you are, not “who” (or even “how”) you are.
His meaning is surrounded by — and best interpreted in the context of — the other writing in “Physiology of Taste,” sentiments such as “Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating” and “The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star.”
Brillat-Savarin means to say that eating well-prepared, good-quality food (mindfully, with other companionable souls, at the table) makes for a good person, even in a moral sense. He makes a claim about the substance of a person, over and above saying that just digesting minerals, carbohydrates and the like constructs a corpus. In Brillat-Savarin’s thinking, what we eat marks us as a certain sort of person.
I play with his aphorism to think again about eating and us, to find out more about who we are.
“Tell me when you eat. I shall tell you who you are.”: This is about the timing of eating (and of fasting, those times when we choose not to eat) and how they mark or define us. I speak about our many and different feasts or celebrations and their attendant meals, from Italian-Americans’ Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve to Jewish families’ weekly Shabbat dinners. Many dozens of meals mark us to be certain sorts of people, distinct from others and a member of our communities.
As does not eating, such as Catholics’ abstention from meat during Lent, how Muslims fast during Ramadan’s daytimes, Jews on Yom Kippur, or how Ethiopian Orthodox Christian nuns and priests abstain from animal products, oil and wine for 250 days a year.
The recipe here is for cholent, a make-ahead one-pot meal that thousands of Jewish cooks assemble on Fridays, to cook overnight and into Saturday, so that they will not flout Sabbath rules against working on Shabbat.
“Tell me with whom you eat. I shall tell you who you are.”: Likewise, when we gather with certain eaters, as apart from others, we define who we are, whether it be a Rotary luncheon, or a Friday evening after-work pizza party with co-workers, or any number of possible meals for which we say to ourselves “I dine with them, at this table and for this occasion, because they mean something to me, in especially this moment, that others do not.”
“Tell me how you eat. I shall tell you who you are.”: In his “Comedy of Errors,” Shakespeare wrote that “Unquiet meals make ill digestion.” Fast food, processed food, a bag of Doritos for dinner, eaten mindlessly on the couch in front of a screen–these aren’t eating well. They are mere maintenance and poor upkeep at that.
Further, our world comes around now to stating something like “We eat who we are” or who we have become, sadly. We maltreat farm animals such as chickens and pigs before we consume them; we eat plants raised on overly tilled, depleted soils from massive monoculture farms; we bandy about terms such as “sustainability” and “diversity,” but do not act on them.
What we eat now is us, but not in a healthy way.
Adapted from recipes at food.com, cooking.nytimes.com, chabad.org, toriavey.com and in “The 100 Most Jewish Foods,” Alana Newhouse, editor (2019). Serves 6-8.
- 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and thick-sliced
- 4 medium yellow or white potatoes, washed but unpeeled, cut into large chunks
- 1 pound bone-in beef short ribs
- 1 pound beef shank with marrow bone
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
- 1 heaping cup dried garbanzo (or Great Northern or cannellini) beans
- 3/4 cup pearl barley
- 1 tablespoon sweet paprika powder (or more, to taste, or a 50/50 mix of sweet and hot paprika powders)
- 1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt
- 1 heaping teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon honey (or more, to taste)
- Optional: 1 teaspoon each powdered turmeric and cumin
- 3-4 cups, or more, chicken, beef or vegetable broth
In the bottom of a slow cooker, arrange snugly the onions and potatoes. Top with the beef pieces and the garlic cloves, evenly distributed. (If in search of additional flavors, you may brown the onions and meat pieces ahead of time in 2 tablespoons cooking oil, atop the stove in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven.) Scatter about the beans and barley and all the remaining spices and seasonings.
Pour enough liquid into the pot to just cover all the ingredients. Cover and cook on Low for 12 or more hours, stirring occasionally (except not stirring at all if observant and preparing during Shabbat). If the cholent dries out, add more water as necessary.
Vegetarian and gluten-free version: Omit the meat and barley. Use water or vegetable broth as the liquid. Add 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into chunks and 3 stalks celery, sliced into chunks along the bias. Increase the beans to 1 1/2 cups.
To cook in an oven: Layer the ingredients in a large Dutch oven as stipulated, assuring that you use enough covering liquid. Cover and cook at 200 degrees for 12 or more hours.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected].
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