Rediscovering Rabelais

The world of food constantly and consistently offers opportunities for discovering convoluted linkages between the darnedest things.

Melegueta Pepper
Melegueta Pepper (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Take, for example, my initial goal of writing about melegueta pepper, a spice originating in Africa. A nice addition to some of the material on Africa appearing on this blog, I thought.

Francois Rabelais
François Rabelais

I started with a foray into the background of melegueta pepper …  and end up with belly laughs Chez François, Rabelais that is.  Sixteenth-century Benedictine monk and priest, theologian, medical doctor, satirist, budding scatologist, and possibly the all-time champion thumber-of-noses at power and privilege, that was  François Rabelais. Rediscovering him again after all these years reminded me of finding a forgotten twenty-dollar bill in an old coat pocket while cleaning out the hall closet.

Sudden riches to brighten a gloomy day.

But, before we get into the heart of the matter,  let’s pause and peruse a few encyclopedic digressions into the genealogy of this  spice:  Melegueta pepper (Guinea pepper, alligator pepper, Grains of Paradise, etc.) perfumed and livened up food in Europe during the Middle Ages and beyond.

Rabelais Grains of Paradise
Aframomum melegueta

Grown primarily at that time in what is now Ghana (and still grown there), melegueta pepper claims cardamom as a botanical cousin. Depicting it taste-wise is like a blind man describing an elephant.[1] Think slow burn and Fire-Stick, that old movie-theater cinnamon-fueled candy with the broodingly hot aftertaste. In fact, the slow burn extends to fingers and lips that touch this tiny, innocent-looking  berry, the wrinkled fruit of a shrub called Aframomum melegueta.

Rabelais Gargantua DoreA book on translating prose popped up when, out of curiosity, I began looking for mentions of melegueta pepper in literature, The Art of Translating Prose (1994), by Burton Raffel. Raffel discussed the difficulties of translating the work of sixteenth-century French writer Rabelais (“a cross between James Joyce and Laurence Sterne”), especially his bawdy food-drenched Gargantua and Pantgruel (actually composed of five books).

Before we leave the first paragraph, at long last, let me explain that although amomon is clearly the French term [used by Rabelais], dating back to the thirteenth century, for the spice generally known as ‘cardamom,’ with the authority of Le Petit Robert I have slightly (and I trust to its gain) expanded my translation of amomon to include another exotic spice, melegueta pepper. … I hope there are no chefs outraged by the linkage [between cardamom and melegueta pepper]. [p. 109]

Beyond that well-chewed first paragraph mentioned by Raffel, Rabelais treats his readers to a timeless kaleidoscope of sensations, smells, tastes, jokes, and allusions. Recalling the topsy-turviness (and stinkiness) of life during the sixteenth century, Gargantua and Pantgruel both shocks and surprises the modern reader (especially in Raffel’s somewhat modernized version). Comedians David Letterman and Jay Leno could take scatological material from Rabelais’s book and make merry hash of it all, every night, for weeks.

Satire is satire, and Gargantua and Pantagruel oozes with it.[2]

Suffice it to say that,  in the fourth book, chapter 60, “How the Belly Worshipers Sacrificed to Their God on Fish and Fasting Days,” Rabelais gets in major digs against privilege and position by listing the immense amounts of food available to the rich and pious:

“What,” he [Pantagruel] said,” will these rascals sacrifice to their belly-potent god, on fish and fasting days?”

“I tell you,” said the pilot [of the ship]. “For the first course, they serve him:

pressed caviar
fresh butter
thick pea soup
sweet white herring
assorted other herring
salted tuna
cabbage in oil
bean and onion salad …”

and follows with a list of dozens and dozens of types of seafood. Ending with a reference to the privy, which I will not detail, the chapter bitingly excoriates the moneyed and privileged classes. [3]

But why did Rabelais feel the need for so much derision? What was happening in his world, in his times? Think of the impact of the Renaissance and Reformation, the Age of Conquest and Exploration.

Permission pending
Wood-Fired Fouées (Photo credit: Stuart Bradley, Le Chant d'Oiseau)

And we haven’t even touched on the question of fouaces (also called fouées), either — bread somewhat similar in nature to pita (not always), now a tourist attraction in the Touraine area of France and made famous by Rabelais’s story of a war between the bakers of Lerne and the shepherds of Seuilly.

From melegueta pepper to fouaces … what a Rabelaisian world it is!

[1] Amanda Hesser, food writer for The New York Times, described the taste of these tiny orbs thus:

“They cracked like coriander, releasing a billowing aroma, and then a slowly intensifying heat, like pepper. The taste changed by the second. The heat lingered. But the spice was pleasantly tempered, ripe with flavors reminiscent of jasmine, hazelnut, butter and citrus, and with the kind of oiliness you get from nuts. They were entirely different from black peppercorns.” (NYT, May 3, 2000)

[2]  Rabelais used satire, parody, and humor to examine the tremendous religious, social, and intellectual upheavals occurring during his lifetime, 1494 – 1553.

[3]His lists of foods and other things in Book Four provide a unique look at sixteenth-century life.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen