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Beach Read Recommendation

I ran across a rather interesting cookery classic recently. I had been reading vintage detective series books and was a few volumes into the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout, one of the masters from the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 30s and 40s.

Too Many Cooks, published in 1938, was the fifth Nero Wolfe novel (Stout wrote dozens, the last in 1975). It is set in a resort in West Virginia (fictional but likely based on the Greenbrier) where a group of 10 renowned chefs from around the world have gathered.

The group, Les Quinze Maitres (The 15 Masters), gets together every five years in order to talk shop, catch up, show off to each other and, if need be, elect new members. Well, in the best tradition of murder mysteries, there are lots of jealousies and vendettas among the chefs, focusing especially on one named Phillip Lazio, who is eventually discovered with a knife sticking in his back.

The whodunit is solved by Stout's series detective, Nero Wolfe, who was attending the gathering as a special guest. Wolfe is a fascinating creation, an obese, cantenkerous, supremely literate and brilliantly deductive private detective who is fond of gourmet food, books, orchids and beer, not necessarily in that order, and hates leaving his luxurious New York brownstone on 35th Street.

So the fact that he has travelled all the way to West Virginia is noteworthy (this was a time when travel was mostly by train), but he has done so to deliver a speech in which he defends American cuisine as worthy of respect alongside the French and Italian. That was a rather eccentric opinion at the time but Wolfe (and, I assume Stout) was making a serious argument about American cookery's bone fides as haute cuisine.

Wolfe/Stout cites several examples of worthy American dishes and the book includes a number of full recipes of these as well as Continental dishes prepared for the gathering. They include such period oddities as Creole Tripe, Chicken in Curdled Egg Sauce and my favorite, Tennessee Opossum (first ingredient listed: "an opossum").

There is also a recipe for Saucisse Minuit, a sausage Wolfe spends a good portion of the book desperately trying to get the recipe for. It's a classic Spanish sausage made with pork, goose and pheasant, using pig intestines as the casing. Any adventurous charcutier among my readers is welcome to try making it. I'm sure it's delicious.

The other notable recipe listed is one that figured in a contest at the event, a concoction called Sauce Printemps that has eight separate spicing ingredients. In the contest, the chefs taste eight separate servings of the Sauce Printemps, each of which lacks a different single ingredient from the recipe, and are challenged to name the missing ingredient in each. The one getting the most right wins bragging rights. That challenge ends up figuring in the solution to the murder as well.

So if you like a good murder mystery, with recipes and a culinary angle, it might be worth a try as a beach read. It is available on both Kindle and iTunes. WARNING: the book is from the 1930s and reflects some contemporary unsavory attitudes about race relations, though Wolfe rises above it in a way that was undoubtedly unusual at the time.

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