Monday, January 18, 2016

"Stay and have a spot of tea with us" -- More English Detective Gourmandise

"I really think you are one of the nicest people I know. You don't talk rubbish about art, and you don't want your hand held, and your mind always turns on eating and drinking." -- Spoken by Miss Marjorie Phelps to Lord Peter Wimsey in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Pocket Book Edition, p. 79
Peter Wimsey definitely loved food. He used it as metaphor -- "Now my child, What's all this?" he says to a distraught wife, "You're as cold as a pêche Melba. That won't do." (p. 144)

I can't imagine why he chose this comparison! Cold as a peach? Cold as raspberry sauce? I guess he's referring to the ice cream in the dish.

Wimsey's love of food is the subject of discussion in The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook, by Elizabeth Bond Ryan and William J. Eakins. They offer recipes for several of the menus originating in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Also, Jeanine Larmoth's Murder on the Menu (which I wrote about here) devotes an entire chapter to "Lord Peter Wimsey: The Moment Wimsicale," and also mentions some of the food highlights from The Unpleasantness.... My choice of this novel, randomly chosen from our mystery shelves, is thus fairly lucky. I have read very few of Sayers's books, and none recently.

During Wimsey's often hurried detecting in The Unpleasantness ..., he constantly stops for meals, accepts a "spot of tea," or refers to meals eaten at some other time. Many dishes are French, or at least they seem to be listed in French on the menus of the restaurants where he eats them. Examples:
  • Saddle of mutton at the Bellona club of which he's served the best cut.
  • Sole Colbert, Apple Charlotte and "light savory to follow."
  • Lobster mayonnaise, meringues and sweet champagne, remembered from a date: "her choice -- oh, lord!" Lobster and champagne evidently don't live up to Wimsey's upper-class standards.
  • Moules marinières.
  • Grilled kippers "at a friend's studio in the early hours" -- though evidently Wimsey doesn't often eat kippers, according to The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook.
  • A perdrix aux choux (partridge with cabbage).
  • Breakfast on "a chaste silver tray, containing a Queen Anne coffee-pot and milk-jug, a plate of buttered toast, a delicate china coffee-cup and a small pile of correspondence."
  • Curious little stuffed buns and petits-fours at a studio reception -- recipes for these are included in Ryan and Eakins' cookbook.
  • Dinner ordered for a lady at a fine restaurant: Huitres Musgrave, soup of Tortue Vraie, Filet de Sole, Faisan Rôti with Pommes Byron, a salad ("And, waiter -- be sure the salad is dry and perfectly crisp), and a Soufflé Glace to finish up with. Recipes for this entire menu appear in Ryan and Eakins, though the authors suggest using tinned turtle soup (that would be Tortue Vraie) rather than starting with an entire sea turtle. Now, 35 years on from the book's publication in 1981, the poor turtles are all protected and it would be irresponsible indeed to eat any type of turtle soup!
    (Unpleasantness, pp. 33, 48, 56, 72, 83, 89, 100)
The very noble Wimsey takes high-end food as an entitlement, and has high expectations of what he's served by his very proper valet Bunter (who was his orderly in the war), by his club, and at restaurants. He also has "very definite and highly developed tastes in wine, beer, and spirits" but has no taste for champagne, though when he does drink it, "it is a Pol Roger or Veuve Cliquot." (Wimsey Cookbook, p. 117)

A veteran of World War I, Wimsey is the son of a Duke, born to a family with quite a lot of wealth, taste, and even a coat-of-arms. His youth seems striking to me in this novel. I doubt if he's over 30 years old. Wimsey finds it amusing to solve a murder case, and in fact takes everything with a good deal of humor. Habits of the 1920s seem more pronounced in this work than in contemporary mysteries by Agatha Christie: for example, several of the characters in The Unpleasantness... are averse to using a telephone, considering it a new-fangled upstart.

I close with a very amusing quotation, in response to a lady's remark "Some things are so beastly." Wimsey replies:
"Oh, yes -- quite a lot of things. Birth is beastly -- and death -- and digestion, if it comes to that. Sometimes when I think of what's happening inside me to a beautiful supréme de sole, with the caviare in boats, and the croûtons and the jolly little twists of potato, and all the gadgets -- I could cry, but there it is, don't you know." (Unpleasantness, p. 171)


Pam said...

It sounds like a great read, Mae! It's new to me and I enjoyed reading about the book. Interesting with the peach metaphor, he has quite a way with words. I love food passages in literature, esp. like your "Breakfast on 'a chaste silver tray...'." Not sure of my punctuation there though! :-)

Jeanie said...

OK, I'm a broken record and I'll probably say it again but I am having great fun with this series of posts. Now I need to go into the basement and dig out the Wimsey's, too. Is peach Melba served cold? Interesting!