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date: 18 January 2020


The Oxford Companion to Food
Jaine TomJaine Tom


means the art of eating, from the Greek, gaster ‘the stomach’, and nomos ‘the law’. It figures once in athenaeus, that general receiving-office of all things concerning food and fine dining in the ancient world, when he suggests it as a title for the poem by archestratus which was actually called Hedypatheia or ‘The Life of Luxury’. The word next appears in 1801, once more the title of a poem, this time by Joseph Berchoux, a Parisian lawyer who scored a massive hit with his poetic canter through culinary history and lucubrations about the good life.

Ideas surrounding taste, good taste, discrimination, and the possibilities of something more to food than mere physical subsistence had gained traction throughout the 18th century but there was a certain lack of vocabulary to explore these matters. Berchoux’s poem recognized that eating was more than just scoffing; that a meal had links beyond the kitchen to the culture and to the landscape. His single word to embrace this larger concept was therefore timely.

It was soon taken up in France and in Britain, although not, surprisingly, by grimod de la reynière in his Almanach des Gourmands which was published from 1803. The most important early use of the word, however, was by brillat-savarin in his Physiologie du goût: ou, méditations sur la gastronomie transcendante (1826). This book made very great claims for gastronomy as ‘the reasoned comprehension of everything connected with the nourishment of man’, while more pedestrian souls might think it was just cooking, eating, and drinking with lashings of good taste.

There is little doubt that for Brillat-Savarin, taste was more than a momentary sensation, it was a profound experience capable of unleashing the imagination (equal therefore to taste in the aesthetic sphere). The contemporary thinker and utopian, Charles Fourier, was also willing to take gastronomy (meaning knowledge and appreciation of food) and ally it to cookery, food preservation, and agriculture to make an even bigger conceptual grouping which he called ‘gastrosophy’. This is a word now being revived, in France at least, by the hedonist philosopher Michel Onfray and general gastronomic agitator Kilien Stengel.

This more extensive view of gastronomy has the advantage of severing its links to pompous, often overweight, and bow-tied gentlemen who might call themselves gastronomes or gourmets. They had their place in the scheme of things: they demanded rigour in performance and imposed discrimination. But they tended to myopic concern with their digestion. A more populist term, foodie, has been embraced by their descendants.

A more limited interpretation of gastronomy (and one that would be approved by the bow-tied gentlemen above) is that it is the creation and execution of the art of cookery (and its consumption) according to agreed and explicit rules and precepts. It is in this sense that UNESCO pronounced the ‘French gastronomic meal’ part of the world’s ‘intangible heritage’ in 2010. Readers of this Companion might think there’s more to gastronomy than a meal in Paris.

Tom Jaine