In recent years, the expression “you are what you eat” has been everywhere; it has graced book titles, magazine articles, television series, radio programs, and electronic media outlets. Most of these popular contemporary references address issues related to diet, nutrition, and healthy lifestyles. For these disparate sources, the sound bite encapsulates the notion that our health, happiness, and well-being are inseparably interconnected with what we eat.
The adage is not new; however, its roots trace back to one of the earliest and most influential commentators on food: Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who was, perhaps not surprisingly, French. In 1825, the Parisian politician, judge, and all-around bon vivant published a book entitled Physiologie du goût : Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante, translated into English as the Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. Despite its unwieldy title, the book was hugely successful, and represents the first real attempt to reflect on food in a serious and systematic fashion. Among many memorable bons mots, the most famous is Brillat-Savarin’s statement, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” or “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” from which derives our modern abridgment “you are what you eat.”
In making this assertion, Brillat-Savarin was not issuing a manifesto about healthy eating or trying to market a new diet. Indeed, given his intense appreciation of food, he would likely have been quite surprised to see the ways in which contemporary culture has appropriated his aphorism. What Brillat-Savarin was suggesting was something much more profound, namely the tight link in human cultures between food and identity.