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"I was made to eat": food and Brillat-Savarin's Genesiac sense in A Farewell to Arms.

This essay uses a seminal treatise, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's Physiology of Taste (1825), as a touchstone for reading the gastronomical subtext in A Farewell to Arms. Applying some of Brillat-Savarin's principles to the novel, it posits that Frederic's relationship with the priest is inextricably connected to Frederic's manner of consumption, which shifts after his epiphany: "I was made to eat. My God, yes. Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine" Eating subsequently grants more than sustenance; it offers teleology.


In 1927, Ernest Hemingway ordered a copy of The Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy by French politician, lawyer, and epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826). (1) Hemingway's edition of this 1825 French classic was an English translation published by Boni & Liveright in 1926, with a foreword by Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield. Much more than a methodical treatise, The Physiology of Taste is part autobiography, part theory, part axiology. Brillat-Savarin claims to have been spurred by "curiosity" "fear,' and "desire" to compose it, but he cites two clear objectives: the first was to establish "the theoretical basis of Gastronomy" and the second was to "define gourmandise, and to separate ... that social quality from gluttony and intemperance, with which it has been unfortunately confounded" (Brillat-Savarin xlix [Preface], 285). The noun gourmandise possesses moral dimensions, implying not only restraint but also "resignation to the commands of the Creator, who, in ordering man to eat that he may live, invites him to do so by appetite, encourages him by flavor, and rewards him by pleasure" (110).

For Brillat-Savarin the enjoyment of food derives from the senses. After naming the usual five (taste, smell, sight, touch, hearing), he identifies a sixth sense that he terms genesiac, assigning it a paramount place among the others (3). This genesiac sense, or amour physique, is responsible for sexual desire, and along with additional principles of Brillat-Savarin's gastronomy, underlines the importance of eating in A Farewell to Arms (1929). Etymologically, genesiac derives from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, and therefore suggests not only human procreation but God's creation. Catherine's pregnancy, difficult labor, and ultimate death result from the amour physique shared by the couple, but Frederic's love for Catherine remains the most transformative experience in the narrative of his "sentimental education." The significance of food, from procurement to consumption, magnifies crucial aspects of Frederic's journey.

Hemingway ordered a copy of The Physiology of Taste two years before Farewell was published, but he could have read it as early as 1924 when he wrote a dispatch for the Toronto Star titled "Wild Gastronomic Adventures of a Gourmet." The tone of this dispatch, vacillating between irony and sincerity, is similar to Brillat-Savarin's. With autobiographical purpose akin to the Frenchman's, Hemingway opens his sketch with assurances that it "will be a full confession." Consequently, "the author writes under a pseudonym," but stresses that "it is all true. Every word of it is true" (DLT 371). His repeated protest underlines the hyperbole of his "confession" Did he really eat Chinese sea-slugs and one-hundred-year-old eggs in Kansas City? Perhaps. But maybe the romance of far-away places as types of nourishing spaces provided the real fodder for his tale of "gastronomic adventures." Or perhaps, more seriously, he was thinking of "the pleasures of the table," as Brillat-Savarin did, and came to the similar conclusion "that something better than a cookery-book" could be made out of them and that "a great deal might be said about such essential" and continuous things "that have a direct influence on health" and happiness (Brillat-Savarin xlix [Preface]).

Food as an "essential" thing underlines health and happiness in A Farewell to Arms. At the front and in the mess, Frederic Henry and his men eat meals that provide basic sustenance. They are quite different from the meals he shares with Catherine, which generate another type of nourishment. The men typically eat spaghetti and drink wine which is "bad but not dull. It took the enamel off your teeth and left it on the roof of your mouth" (FTA 39). Frederic imbibes in order to forge a sense of camaraderie, feeling that they "were not all brothers unless I drank a little" (38). In Chapter Two, the wine Frederic consumes with a "friend" possesses more noble characteristics, being "clear red, tannic and lovely" and the spaghetti, though not gourmet, is eaten deliberately, even rhythmically, as the men choreograph lifting the pasta "on the fork" with pulling the neck of the "grass-covered flask ... down with the forefinger" to fill their glasses (6-7).

In this scene, eating and drinking are subordinate to the captain's "picking on the priest" (FTA 7-8). Nearly everyone except Frederic baits the priest, who unintentionally serves to provide comic relief for the table. But the priest also provides a subtle index for the ways in which Frederic relates to food and drink throughout the book. The exchange at the table ends with a discussion of where Frederic Henry should go on his leave. The major and others suggest Rome, Naples, Sicily, Amalfi, Capri, and Palermo. The priest, however, believes Frederic should "see the Abruzzi" and visit his family "at Capracotta." The captain insists that Frederic should "have fine girls" instead, and makes shadow pictures on the wall to illustrate what a success Frederic would have in Naples. But the priest repeats his wish for Frederic to "go to Abruzzi" because there "is good hunting" and he "would like the people and though it is cold it is clear and dry." In stark contrast, the captain closes the scene by demanding that they all "go whorehouse before it shuts" (8-9). The juxtaposition of the "whorehouse" with the "cold, clear" Abruzzese country foreshadows the tension Frederic will soon negotiate between this "passion and lust" in the nights, about which he tells the priest, and his longing for Catherine, described by Rinaldi as Frederic's "lovely cool goddess" (66).

Frederic never travels to the cold, clear country, as the priest suggests. He goes instead to "Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples, Villa San Giovanni, Messina, Taormina" (FTA 11). Upon sharing his itinerary at the mess, Frederic discovers the priest was "disappointed and suddenly hurt" by it. Frederic tells him "winefully" how "we never did" the "things we wanted to do." He truly regrets not going to the Abruzzi because he knows that, among all the places he visited, there was none "where it was clear cold and dry" and "the peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting. I had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafes and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop" (13). Here is the same juxtaposition from the first food scene: asceticism and lust, coolness and passion, day and night.

Frederic never visits the priest's country, but Hemingway's details about it are accurate. A mountainous terrain difficult to travel to and cross, half of the Abruzzi "is occupied by a national park protected by the state since 1872" (Kostioukovitch 245). Renowned for its wildlife, it hosts Marsican brown bears. Frederic pictures the "bears on the Gran Sasso D'Italia," the highest peak of the Abruzzi, and he thinks that Aquila, its inland capital, was "a fine town" (73). In short, Frederic knows the unique characteristics of the region. Hemingway may also have known them, for in his 1924 dispatch, he admits to having "frequently eaten" a distinctive specialty of the Abruzzi: "young goat" (DLT 371).

Although goat is served in a few other places in Italy, in the Abruzzi, as Elena Kostioukovitch points out, the cooks are "wizards" at preparing "kid meat: according to Molise custom, it is stewed in red wine with rosemary, sage, bay leaves, and spicy red pepper" (246). The priest's home village of Capracotta lies in the Molise province. Hemingway's dispatch describes the "young goat" as "a delicacy" that he had "stewed," which was "good" (DLT 371).

It seems neither coincidental nor incidental that Hemingway should know one of the foremost culinary specialties of the region, or that the priest whom Frederic liked immensely should hail from there, or that the "special" dinner Frederic and Catherine share before he returns to the front should be reminiscent of the priest's country (FTA 151). Frederic comes as close as he will get to the Abruzzi in the meal he has with Catherine at the Milan hotel across the street from the station where he must board his train. For dinner, they "had a woodcock with souffle potatoes and puree de marron, a salad, and zabaione for dessert" (153). Their repast does not seem representative of Lombardy. Instead, it foreshadows Frederic's last conversation with the priest, an exchange they will have when he convalesces after his injury.

Discussing what he would do if the war were over, the priest tells Frederic he would be "too happy" to return home where he could live and "love God and serve Him" because there it "is understood that a man may love God. It is not a dirty joke" (FTA 71). After the priest leaves, Frederic thinks of him before going to sleep and wonders how he "would be in his own country." From the priest's accounts, he knows that the Abruzzi is a superstitious land, full of folk legend and ritual, where hunters were "always honored;' but what "was lovely;' Frederic ponders, "was the fall to go hunting through the chestnut woods. The birds were all good because they fed on grapes and you never took a lunch because the peasants were always honored if you would eat with them at their houses" (73). Only after imagining this mountain idyll can he fall asleep. Only after eating woodcock (a game bird) and puree de marron (chestnuts), do Frederic and Catherine feel "fine" and "happy" and that the room was like their "own home" (153).

The dinner Frederic and Catherine share in the Milan hotel room prefigures the type of nourished contentment they come to possess after Frederic makes his "separate peace" and runs away with her to Switzerland (FTA 243). In the latter two parts of the novel, completely new ways of referencing food indicate their spiritual satiety. Eating acquires a teleological function for Frederic, signaled explicitly by his declaration that he "was not made to think." In the aftermath of his desertion from the Italian army, he realizes: "I was made to eat. My God, yes. Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine" (233). The affirmation echoes Brillat-Savarin's belief that God made man "to eat in order that he may live" but in this case the syntactical shift suggests eating as an end in itself. The final books of Farewell begin and end with eating.

After his desertion, when Frederic drops off the train in Milan, he takes a mediocre breakfast before looking for Catherine (FTA 237). While looking for Catherine at the hospital, he runs into the porter and his wife, who ask if he has had breakfast (240). Not one page later, Ralph Simmons welcomes Frederic into his apartment and offers to have breakfast with him (242). Once Frederic finds Catherine in Stresa, they have breakfast in bed in their hotel room because she "wanted" it (250). Just upon arriving in Switzerland, Catherine suggests to Frederic that they have a "big breakfast," especially the "wonderful rolls and butter and jam" that she associates with the country (276). In the three pages following their arrival, breakfast is mentioned six times. They finally get it but without the rolls since, as the waitress tells them, they "haven't any" in "war-time" (278). Later, once they have settled in their home above Montreux, they often share breakfast in bed (289). Throughout her pregnancy, Catherine gets "terribly hungry" but why would eating breakfast suddenly be so important (153)?

For two people to share breakfast means waking up with the same desire to break the fast imposed by the night. Having breakfast in bed, in particular, means transgressing the boundary between the things of the night and the things of the day Frederic had kept strictly in place before falling in love with Catherine. It breaches the tension between love and lust established early in the novel against the backdrop of food and drink. Frederic's figurative appetites have changed. Brillat-Savarin also writes of "the alternation of day and night" that is "felt with certain" variations the world over, the one compensating for the other. The natural result of that alternation is a time "for repose" exactly what Frederic and Catherine experience once they are in their Swiss home. Their happiness is predicated on the notion that, as the French epicurean reminds us, "our life would not be the same if we lived without a change of day or night" (FTA 168).

Another signifier of the night/day transgression is Catherine's pregnancy. Nighttime appetites, invigorated by the genesiac sense, have transformed daytime purpose. Because the genesiac sense is responsible for sexual desire, it is intricately tied to procreation. A Farewell to Arms ties Frederic's desire to eat and drink with Catherine with his desire to sleep with her as well (233). According to the Brillat-Savarin, the genesiac sense is a galvanizing impulse, and all that is "most delicate and ingenious" results from "the desire, the hope, or the gratitude which is due to the union of the sexes" (5). This fusion may have faint echoes in Catherine and Frederic's reciprocal pleas to be only what the other wants, to abnegate personal identity. She exclaims, "I want you so much I want to be you too" and Frederic responds, "I'm no good when you're not there. I haven't any life at all any more" (FTA 299-300). Indeed, Frederic remembers that they "had a fine life" together, a happiness evident in their enthusiasm for eating (306). Anticipating a walk in the snow, Catherine and Frederic plan to go before lunch so the exercise will provide them with a "good appetite" even though they are "always hungry" (296). Gourmandise, as Brillat-Savarin emphasizes, has "the most marked influence" on conjugal happiness when shared (116).

But the happiness Frederic and Catherine share seems so tenuous that to indulge in one of their meals is to betray the urgency that lies beneath their contented exterior. This could be one reason why Frederic does not linger over the wonderful meal in their Milan hotel room. He imagines he hears Andrew Marvell's "winged chariot" on the street below when a "motor car honked" (FTA 154). Catherine's death hurries near, and Frederic's ability not only to remember that he ate while she was dying, but to recall exactly what he consumed and why he ordered it, undergirds this novel's gastronomical subtext. Leaving the hospital for supper at a nearby cafe, Frederic reminds himself that he had choucroute for lunch and orders ham and eggs for dinner. The plate of food was "in a round dish--the ham underneath and the eggs on top. It was hot and at the first mouthful I had to take a drink of beer to cool my mouth" In fact, he was so hungry, he "asked the waiter for another order" He "was not thinking at all" now (328-329). (2) Frederic knows he was not "made to think." He "was made to eat." He has realized this life-affirming purpose just as he has learned that being in love is "a religious feeling" and can offer spiritual nourishment (263). The genesiac sense, though ostensibly sating only a sexual appetite, also promises, through its connection to Genesis and creation, the notion of vitality. Even though Frederic's plate of ham and eggs cannot shield him from the barbarity of the world, his continued hunger assures him that he can endure his suffering.


Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. The Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926.

Hemingway, Ernest. "Big Two-Hearted River, Part I." In The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition. New York: Scribner's, 1987. 163-169.

--. Dateline: Toronto, The Complete Toronto Star Dispatches, 1920-1924. Ed. William White. New York: Scribner's, 1985.

--. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner's, 2003.

--. Letter to Isidore Schneider. 18 May 1927. Isidore Schneider Papers. Box 1. Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Columbia University. New York, NY.

Kostioukovitch, Elena. Why Italians Love to Talk About Food. Trans. Anne Milano Appel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.


University of Georgia


(1.) This information comes from Ernest Hemingway's 18 May 1927 letter to Isidore Schneider.

(2.) Compare Frederic's realization with that of Nick Adams in "Big Two-Hearted River" when he leaves behind "the need for thinking" and also uses the preparation and consumption of food as a healing ritual (CSS 164, 167-168). Frederic too tries "not to think" (329).
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Author:Camastra, Nicole J.
Publication:The Hemingway Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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