Sunday, January 10, 2010

Real Nero Wolfe

Too Many Cooks, published 1938, is the foodiest of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective stories, as far as I can determine. It's an early one: the first Nero Wolfe mystery was published in 1934. Wolfe was an experienced private detective who lived in New York. References in the book suggest that his prime of life, before he became obese, sedentary, and crochety, was some time around World War I.

The basics of the story: in April, 1937, a group of 15 international master cooks, "Les Quinze Maitres," are holding a meeting at a resort hotel in West Virginia for a weekend of cooking and discussion. Each one brings one guest. Nero Wolfe and Wolfe's assistant Archie Goodwin, the book's narrator, are both chosen guests. Nero Wolfe's role as invitee is to present a scholarly paper of interest to the chefs. His private agenda is to acquire a secret recipe for saucisse minuit.

Needless to say, Wolf's role turns out to be identifying the murderer of one of the chefs, who dies during a tasting contest with a carving knife in his back. I'll refrain from discussing the murder, and stick to the food part, with only one comment: the racism of Archie Goodwin, and the anti-racist views of his employer were very interesting and maybe, in Wolfe's case, ahead of their time.

The planned title of Wolfe's scholarly paper is Contributions Américaines à la Haute Cuisine. Throughout the book Wolfe's preoccupation with this paper advances the idea that there's a solid and very serious American cuisine beyond family cooking. Another idea ahead of its time, I think.

The first response by one of the chefs, upon hearing the title of the upcoming lecture, sets the stage for the food themes of the book. Hearing the subject of Wolfe's paper, American Contributions to Haute Cuisine, the famous European chef responds:
"Bah! ... There are none. ... I am told there is good family cooking in America; I haven't sampled it. I have heard of the New England boiled dinner and corn pone and clam chowder and milk gravy. ... Those things are to la haute cuisine what sentimental love songs are to Beethoven and Wagner."

"Indeed." Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. "Have you eaten terrapin stewed with butter and chicken broth and sherry?"


"Have you eaten a planked porterhouse steak, two inches thick, surrendering hot red juice under the knife, garnished with American parsley and slices of fresh limes, encompassed with mashed potatoes... Or the Creole Tripe of New Orleans? Or Missouri Boone County ham, baked with vinegar, molasses Worcestershire, sweet cider and herbs... Or Tennessee Opossum? ... Or Philadelphia Snapper Soup?" (page 7)

Wolfe is passionate about American food and about defending it from its European detractors. Later, during the chefs' meeting, so is the chef who presents an American banquet to his fellows. Much about the circumstances of the banquet is fascinating. In particular, the actual hands-on cooks are all black men in the resort kitchen, directed by the restaurant chef who belongs to the Quinze Maitres, but totally competent and respected.

Another interesting thing in my view is how American cuisine has changed since the book was written. Many of the examples of American food, including the menu for the banquet and material in Wolfe's lecture are essentially obsolete. His discussion of the way American farmers raise remarkably superior meat -- by feeding peanuts to pigs and blueberries to poultry -- completely surprised me.

Here is the banquet menu (copied from page 157):

Les Quinze Maitres
Kanawha Spa, West Virginia,
Thursday, April 8th, 1937

American Dinner
Oysters Baked in the Shell
Terrapin Maryland..........Beaten Biscuits
Pan Broiled Young Turkey
Rice Croquettes with Quince Jelly
Lima Beans in Cream..........Sally Lunn
Avocado Todhunter
Pineapple Sherbet.........Sponge Cake
Wisconsin Dairy Cheese........Black Coffee

The points the author made through Wolfe's opinions, his fictional paper, and this American menu really interested me. I've heard that the same dismissal of the idea of an American Haute Cuisine was still current among chefs and serious food scholars as late as the 1970s. Maybe even since then. I'm sure tons has been written about this book as Rex Stout has quite a following, fan clubs, and for all I know, journals dedicated to him. However, I haven't read anything except the book itself.

1 comment:

Lynn said...

This looks like a great one! I've read some Nero Wolfe books but didn't realize some had a food theme. Now I'm gonna look for this one :) Have you read the culinary mysteries by Diane Mott Davidson? She was the first author I'd heard of that wrote in that genre. Now I know there are lots of others. They are fun reading, and I often try the recipes. One I've read recently was State of the Onion (by ?Hyzy? something like that). She's written two or three, set in the White House kitchen. Have you read any of those?