Eating In

Cooking the books

Few writers do justice to food, but the exceptions are glorious, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Literature is starved of nourishment. Der Mann ist was er isst; so novelists ought to use meals to delineate personality. In most fiction, however, characters eat too rarely for realism, and when a meal does intrude, we usually hear too little about it.

Exceptions are proof. The ritual barbecues Homer describes place the feasters in what lit-crit types would call “a culture of masculinity”. The eating-competition in the Edda, which ends with one contestant devouring the napery and crockery, proclaims the eaters’ heroism. We need to know no more of Chaucer’s monk than that “a fat swan loved he best”.

No novelist has done justice to the table

Archdeacon Grantly’s capacious breakfast-board confirms that his priorities are unspiritual. Somerset Maugham could sketch a man’s foibles by the way he grilled a steak. When we scent the madeleine we know what sort of protagonist confronts us.

And yet, apart from Balzac, whose gourmandism was so intense that his descriptions of food tended to eclipse characterisation and crowd out plot, no novelist has done justice to the table. My favourite reading, detective fiction, is especially disappointing.

Its heroes have little time to eat, especially if they are in the throes of a case, or, like Holmes, prefer drugs, shag or work. “7.30, the day after tomorrow,” he says when Mrs Hudson asks when to serve dinner.

Even Lord Peter Wimsey, who solves a case by exposing the deficiencies of his antagonist’s palate, attaches little importance to the food that accompanies his wine. “A slice of the breast and a glass of the best” is his precept.

The exceptions, however, are very great exceptions. There is Pepe Carvalho, the rather gross and unappetising creation of the gastronomic guru and novelist Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. He cooks for inspiration or nervous relief and the lubricity and heaviness of his dishes are calculated to exhibit bad taste, complementing the brutality of the crimes that attract him.

He likes fat-filmed fabadas of big white beans with bulbous ham hocks and sausages, beef fillets slathered in truffle sauce, spider-crab with snails, cold fried fish-and-pimento sandwiches, rice-flour mounds scattered with a frightening array of wildlife, and pasta dishes with fantastic names. “Spaghetti à la spicy dyke” (a la maricona arrabiata) makes pasta with capers and oregano sound unappealing.

To eat like Carvalho, layer sliced aubergines with cheesy béchamel swimming with lumps of jamón serrano and prawns (with the heads and shells finely chopped), and unpeeled, crushed garlic. It’s his favourite dish.

Carvalho’s Italian counterpart, named in his honour, is Salvo Montalbano. More of a genuine foodie, he resents the intrusion of conversation into anything as solemn as a meal. Viscerally Sicilian and drawn always to the sea, he craves seafood: illegal baby octopods, spaghetti with clams or squid or sardines and fennel. When his housekeeper leaves beef olives in the oven he disdains them.

Yet the dish he eats most often is pasta ’ncasciata — baked with salami in béchamel under a cheese crust. And the gastronomic glory of the stories is the housekeeper’s arancini, for which Montalbano is willing to cover up a crime: mix slow-cooked minced pork, veal, onion and fine herbs with béchamel studded with salami and peas and lubricated with the meat juices. Press into balls of cold risotto, bound with egg. Roll in flour, egg white and breadcrumbs. Fry “to the colour of old gold”.

Nero Wolfe is fiction’s best-fed detective, his tastes matching the cosmopolitanism of New York

Nero Wolfe is fiction’s best-fed detective, his tastes matching the cosmopolitanism of New York. His menus had bizarre notes, calculated to emphasise fastidious eccentricity, along with his canary-coloured pyjamas, orchids and resolute trogloditism: eggs baked in black butter, fried anchovy tartines, quails véronique, and chickens’ livers followed by rice cakes and honey. He needed 40 minutes to make an omelette. Even I can do it in ten.

So I should rather recommend the example of an unpretentious detective. Maigret’s palate was as honest as his soul. He sought traditional food: solid and bulky, like his frame. He solved one crime by realising brandade is an unusual weekday dish.

Fricandeau features frequently. But choucroute was his favourite. It’s easy to make satisfactorily from bottled sauerkraut and hocks and sausages of good quality.

I recall André Chavagnon, who ate it at least weekly, weeping over the dish as he recalled a young cook, who “used to swab my kitchen. I taught him everything he knows”. It was Oxford in the late 1970s and the errant cook was Raymond Blanc.

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