Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Nero Wolf: I kept my resolution

I resolved to read at least one Nero Wolfe book in 2010, and I've kept that one: I read The Second Confession. Obviously, my goal is more insight into the role of food in detective fiction. Author Rex Stout thoroughly described two meals in this book.

The first meal is brought up to the room at a fine country house outside New York where Nero Wolfe and his sidekick Archie Goodwin are detecting. Archie, the narrator, explains:
When we were called to dinner at seven o'clock I was conscripted for courier duty, to tell Mrs. Sperling that under the circumstances Mr. Wolfe and I would prefer either to have a sandwich upstairs or go without, and it was a pleasure to see how relieved she was. But even in the middle of that crisis she didn't let her household suffer shame, and instead of a sandwich we got jellied consomme, olives and cucumber rings, hot roast beef, three vegetables, lettuce and tomato salad, cold pudding with nuts in it, and plenty of coffee. It was nothing to put in your scrap book, but was more than adequate, and except for the jellied consomme, which he hates, and the salad dressing, which he made a face at, Wolfe handled his share without comment." (p. 67-68)
I admire the many ways this food serves to delineate the household (classy), the hostess (conventional), and Nero Wolfe as a diner (picky). Now, sixty years from the book's publication, this food also represents a kind of old-fashioned luxury -- from the professionally run kitchen of a 21st century rich person, one would expect a very different meal.

Most comments about Nero Wolfe's gourmet and gourmand tendencies focus on his Swiss chef Fritz, who doesn't appear often in this book. Towards the end, though, Fritz comes up with a steak dinner for a person whose good will Wolfe is seeking. Archie helps Fritz serve what he feels is a most appetizing offering:
It was really a handsome platter. The steak was thick and brown with charcoal braid, the grilled slices of sweet potato and sauteed mushrooms were just right, the watercress was high at one end out of danger, and the overall smell made me wish I had asked Fritz to make a carbon. (p. 205)
I plan to seek out the Nero Wolfe books that have food-oriented plots and murders in them. This one had a very retro plot that turns on proof of someone's being a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party. Wow! More retro than jellied consomme, watercress, and private chefs.


Jeanie said...

I really need to revisit Nero Wolfe now that I cook! Thanks for the reminder!

Anonymous said...

"Too Many Cooks" would be another great choice for a food-related plot. The story takes place at what is now presumed to be The Greenbrier in West Virginia. Three dozen members of the Wolfe fan club went there in 2007 and arranged for the hotel's chef to re-create two of the menus from the book. It was a hoot for him and some delicious food for us!

Mae Travels said...

I am reading "Too Many Cooks" right now, and will post about it when I'm done. A recreation of the menus sounds great.