Rabelais' quarter hour
October 26, 2010
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="265" caption="François ("Frank") Rabelais."][/caption]
I recently finished reading a wonderful cooking classic, “The Physiology of Taste: Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy”. It’s by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, one of the famous historical gastronomes, and the originator of the phrase “you are what you eat” as far as I can tell.
There are many things I like about this book, and here are 2:
One is that it concerns cooking, and has lots of little bits of lore (did you know that the French dinde, “turkey”, comes from coq d’inde, “Indian chicken”?), interesting historical notes and stories, and advice.
Another is its style, which Brillat-Savarin has in common with other French writers I enjoy reading. He’s not afraid to just write down his thoughts, as if he were writing a diary.
There is something very natural and pleasant about this way of writing as a way of teaching, because it (a) encourages and shows curiosity, (b) suggests other avenues of exploration, © makes for interesting reading, and (d) most of all, treats the reader as an adult.
The implied expectation seems to be that you, the reader, are a thinking adult and can decide what you’ll pay attention to and what you won’t, what’s important for your purposes and what isn’t. (Informed readers will know that my almae matres think differently, with mixed results.)
One day I might write a much longer entry about this book. For now, there is one specific thing I wanted to talk about, which is Rabelais’ quarter hour (le quart d’heure de Rabelais).
According to Brillat-Savarin, this is a phrase to refer to the period of time during which the host pays the check, and the other guests sit around (un)comfortably waiting.
The story goes that French Renaissance humanist François Rabelais once didn’t have enough cash to pay the bill himself, so he rolled up some ashes in three bundles paper, marked them as “poison,” and wrote on them “for the King,” “for the King’s brother”, and “for the King’s son”. This was enough to get him carted away to Paris for interrogation, which left someone else with the bill… and got him a free trip back to Paris. I guess this all may have taken place in… fifteen minutes?
Anyway, I look forward to causing a scene the next time I go out to dinner, to avoid paying the check. Thanks Frank.