Loire 9 - Dinner with Rabelais (April 2017)

For many years, if asked to name the ideal dinner companion from history, I would scratch my chin, look to the ceiling, and say “François Rabelais, I suppose.”

A pretentious answer and effort to flaunt my interest in humorous literature. It was also a little dishonest.

I never really knew much about the 16th century French writer; I skimmed some of his stuff on Project Gutenberg and read Wikipedia, but that was about it. I think I was enamoured with the idea of François Rabelais and with being labelled Rabelaisian rather than being any kind of student of his work.


Known for an unusual mix of fantastical stories, crude jokes, and biting social commentary, he poured out volumes of satire at a time when such activity could see your blood poured out on a dungeon floor.  

I like that, but again I was a bit of a fraud.

“Hey, guess who was born in Chinon ? - your hero Rabelais,” my wife said the night before our walking tour of the Loire took us to this town. “But I guess you knew that?”

“Uhh, yeah, right,” I said, picking up the iPad and tapping Google Chrome. 

That night, I read bios, online travel guides, and, with greater resolve than before, those quirky books on Project Gutenberg.  

Most of his stories follow two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel, a father and son duo who celebrate excess in many forms.  Eating, drinking, urinating, and other activities that no doubt amused some unpolished audiences of the 16th century.   

But you don’t have to read too long to recognize a more sophisticated agenda, one aimed at skewering the church, the state, and other authority in stories like that of the corrupt clergy, “the Holy Bottle,” dim-witted leaders, and “the land of Pettifogging.”  

I loved it.   

I can’t say it was an easy read nor did I catch every allusion.  But the imagery and language seemed different from anything I had ever read.  I worked with the English translation, but because much of this was generated during the 16th century, it probably reflects well the creativity and playfulness that I had always presumed of Rabelais.  The drinking and urinating stuff was pretty funny too.

Though scholars still debate the precise location of his birth, Rabelais clearly regarded himself as a Chinon native son, and his stories have many Chinon references, often poking at his birthplace in a lively way.  Though Chinon, with its fortress, its museums, and its firm association with Joan of Arc, has other things to celebrate, it lets you know in its promotional literature that it also gave us the venerated, but fun-loving Renaissance writer. 

The next day we walked into Chinon, found our hotel, and, despite the rain, made a pilgrimage to the waterfront and the statue of the local literary hero.  Inspired by an early, though not contemporaneous, portrait, the statue presented him robed and seated as someone of dignity, but the face was that of a grizzled, later life rascal.

“Hey, he kind of looks like you,” my spouse-photographer said. “I’ll try to show that with the angle and the light.”

“Oh, thanks.”

That night, about three blocks down the Quai Jeanne d’Arc at the Lion D’Or café, we had lots to talk about. 

The fortress, the walk through the vineyards that day, and the next stop on our route.

But I bubbled with enthusiasm about Rabelais - his life and writing not his appearance so much.  I confessed the obvious and what my dinner companion suspected  – that I had learned most of it the night before and had just read the Gargantua and Pantagruel books for the first time.  Though I monopolized the air time beyond the edicts of considerate conversation, Michele indulged me and agreed that Rabelais was quite the character and that we probably could use more of his kind today when authority begs comical critique.

Even though "le quart d'heure de Rabelais” refers to "not having  money when the waiter brings the bill", I still found myself saying to my wife “You know, I really do think I would like to spend an evening with Francois Rabelais.” 

“I think you just did,” she said.

Wine and Winning Tickets

I may be one lottery ticket away from obesity and alcoholism.

Eating at home in Ottawa means leafy, low-fat foods and mineral water – until Friday-night pizza and wine.  The end of the week break from routine encourages relaxation and rewards the good dietary behavior of the preceding days.

It works most of time. 

But on vacation when relaxation becomes a preoccupation, the good behavior part falls to the side and the whole strategy faces a test – one that brought repeated failure when we walked the Loire Valley this spring.  

Our trek ran about 120 kilometres through forests, across fields, and down country roads.

The fresh air and illusion of exercise made it easy to justify indulgence at both ends of the day.  It started with grazing on piles of pastries and pain au chocolat.  Later we hit the cheese plates and chacuterie in cafés ending with multi-course dinners dripping in sauces that demanded the acidic offset of wine and more wine and some beer.

For a few days, this didn’t seem like much of a problem.  Our vacation package included meals and that  made the travel company responsible for what was put in front us and what went into us.

But after a week, we noticed that wine, usually by the bottle, was an automatic addition to dinner – and sometimes along with a “dee-gest-eef,” “an a-pair-a-teef,” and “a what-the-eef.”  We felt stuffed and dozy more often than our ideal. 

“How do the French stay so slim ?”

“They eat small portions and smoke a lot.”

We tried the smaller portion thing and inhaled secondhand smoke for half a day, then slipped back into holding our noses, opening our mouths, and looking for more French food.

“Maybe, we should carry around one of those long baguettes like they do,” I said. “Just in case we need a snack.”

I asked why they didn’t serve wine on the commuter trains and whether melted compté might go good with granola.  At this point, I realized that a problem loomed and wondered how hard it would be to return to a normal diet back home.

As I thought this, we ordered another bottle of wine and talked about the process that leads to problem drinking and eating, when these bad habits take hold, and whether circumstance and money were all that separated us from the drinking and diet abyss. 

The trip came to an end before we ventured an answer to that question – it might have been “Maybe,” “I guess we should start watching it,” or “Who cares?”

Back in Ottawa and our normal setting, we found it easier than feared to get back on the leafy greens and mineral water wagon. I guess you can safely indulge and court excess without permanent dietary damage after all. 

Still, I don’t think I will buy lottery tickets for a while.