Monday, February 18, 2013

Too Many Cooks, or What would Nero Wolfe have thought about pfoodies?

Too Many Cooks may be the most lavishly praised of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, “The masterpiece among three or four by Stout that deserve the name,” according to Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor’s A Catalogue of Crime, and winning applause from, among others, Agatha Christie.

I’m less than a chapter into the book, and I’m already floored that Stout could make food a subject about which men can talk seriously without seeming in the least precious, frivolous, or cozy. At the same time, Wolfe, as continental a detective as ever starred in a mystery story, defends American cuisine against the condescension of a European chef. Come to think of it, though, I’m not sure how often the word chef occurs in the chapter; Stout prefers cook.

This is all a bit of a revelation. Not only do we live in an age that worships celebrity chefs — decidedly not cooks — but the city where I live, Philadelphia, has experienced a much ballyhooed restaurant renaissance in recent years, at least one aspect of which would have earned a vociferous Pfui! from Wolfe.

Philadelphia, you see, has restaurant concepts as much as it has restaurants, with names that include Fork, Supper, Jones, and Spice, the last of which has, in a handbill posted in its front window, actually referred to itself as a “concept.” Even the occasional restaurant named for its owner or chef converts the name into a brand. Thus Marc Vetri’s acclaimed Italian restaurant is called not Vetri’s or Ristorante Vetri, as it might have been in Nero Wolfe’s time, but Vetri.

I can imagine Nero Wolfe's disgust at such foolishness. He would have had no truck with restaurant concepts. He'd have glared if you demeaned a great meal by calling it a dining experience. And you can bet that the word foodie would have made Wolfe spit up his saucisse minuit. How about you, readers? Would you rather dine at a restaurant concept, or is a good, old-fashioned restaurant enough for you?
*
(Read more about Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin, and more at the Wolfe Pack Web siteRead this article for an apt invocation of P.G. Wodehouse in connection with Rex Stout, though it gives short shrift to Stout's affinity with the wisecracking hard-boiled tradition.)
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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37 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

No true Pittsburgher does "concept" anything. I go to restaurants to eat, not to be seen.

February 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd like to think you're right, but with the occasional stories one reads about Pittsbirgh's revival as a cultural destination, I wouldn't be surprised if the city has a concept or two.

February 18, 2013  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I live in Los Angeles where dining is an "event" so, of course, we Angelenos only dine at concept restaurants. And, again of course, only those participating in the Green Initiative program and who are committed to sustainability and socially responsible practices. The food may sometimes be so-so but, boy, do we feel virtuous.

Interesting robo-word = stSTARV

February 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One could not get a better v-word than that.

The thing about these restaurants is that the food can be quite good. It's not a case of sizzle replacing steak, but rather of an entire generation growing up unable to conceive that one without the other or that there is any difference between the two. If someone in Los Angeles disgusted with all the talk about sustainability were to open a restaurant called Unsustainable. I might cheer, but I'd also recognize it as at least as much a concept as it is a restaurant.

But the main thing is, you should read Rex Stout. I've read five or ten of the Nero Wolfe books, but nothing has been as good as the opening pages of Too Many Cooks. I can see what that people mean when they say Rex Stout combined the American hardboiled tradition with the British eccentric-detective tradition. The combination work beautifully here.

February 18, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I happen to be reading As Always, Julia which consists of the correspondence between Julia Childs and Avis DeVoto, wife of the historian Bernard Devoto. I like to eat, but I'm not a foodie, so of course, this is at the behest of my book group. There is a lot of talk about food in it, but thankfully not in the precious sense that it often seems to be discussed today. More in the nature of practical advice. They both seem to have a good deal of common sense, so I have no idea what they would make of food culture today. As much as they are about food, they also talk at length about other pressing issues of the day,like rising McCarthyism, for instance.

My mom was a big Nero Wolfe fan, and though I haven't actually read them, I have absorbed a lot about them by osmosis. I recently brought some of her books home, so I'm hoping I'll get to a couple of them soon.

I think food becomes an 'event' when you're not actually supposed to eat much of it.

February 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Food and McCarthyism would have been very much up Rex Stout's alley. He was an early member of the ACLU, was on J. Edgar Hoover's watch list, and wrote a Nero Wolfe in which FBI surveillance of ordinary Americans plays a role. All is know are the bare facts of his life, but he has to have been one the most interesting characters among crime writers.

While Nero Wolfe might have approved a wider awareness among Americans of good food, including the spectacle of raspy workingmen and women ordering lattes of an afternoon, I suspect he would snort upon hearing the word "barista." And, while he enjoyed fine wine, as one would expect a connoisseur of fine things to do, he also very much enjoyed beerm the first beverage he is seen drinking in Too Many Cooks.

February 18, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I think if I were independently wealthy and cosmically bored then concept eating could provide a lift for my jaded soul. But those days are some years off in the future I suspect.

February 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're off to a good start with your disdain for gimmicky coffee, so take heart.

February 19, 2013  
Blogger Simona said...

I read a couple of stories starring Nero Wolfe and really liked them, orchids and food included. I'll definitely jump on the one you suggest (after I am done reading Scerbanenco's Private Venus).

By the way, do you know about this? http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Nero_Wolfe_Cookbook.html?id=YfsDAAAACAAJ
I don't yet own a copy but had a chance to browse one a little while ago.
I prefer to make experiments in my kitchen than going to a restaurant and the reasons are many.

February 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Simona, you might be interested in this, from Wikipedia:

Salsicce 'Mezzanotte' (Radiotelevisione Italiana)

Too Many Cooks
was adapted for a series of Nero Wolfe films produced by the Italian television network RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana). Directed by Giuliana Berlinguer from a teleplay by Belisario L. Randone, Nero Wolfe: Salsicce 'Mezzanotte' first aired February 23, 1971.

February 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And you know how much I like Private Venus! Are you reading it Italian or in English? I have read that Scerbanenco may have been more prolific than Simenon, but only two of his novels have been translated into English.

February 19, 2013  
Blogger caite said...

Personally, I like diners.

February 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wish diners were more plentiful, especially with the hours I keep.

I wonder if Rex Stout ever took Nero and Archie to a diner. If he did, Nero would be likelier annoyed by a waitress' bluff friendliness than he would be offended by the food.

February 19, 2013  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

I'm sticking to concept restaurants from here on out in an effort to consume less horse meat...

Seriously, who wouldn't prefer an honest chop in an honest chop house? But then again, even the humble chop house has become somewhat of a concept. Still, many of said concept joints keep local suppliers going, small mom and pop, bespoke cheese makers, organic beef farmers and goose stuffers etc. and that can only be good.

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I could easily imagine concept restaurants called, ironically or otherwise, The Chop House or Horse Meat.

I write this in a coffee shop called plenty whose walls display a handbill from the area farm that is one of the coffee shop's suppliers, so I know what you;re talking about.

February 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

We have a concept restaurant in the neighboring town: Roadkill Restaurant. It is only open for lunch. I think the limited roadkill menu is depleted early in the day, so there is nothing left to serve in the evening. After all, most roadkill is discovered in the morning following their failures to cross the roads during the night. The restaurant's owner, BTW, is a die-hard Alabama football fan. That fact, however, may or may not be relevant to concept dining destinations. (P.S. We are far ahead of Montana, that state that has only recently legalized roadkill cuisine.)

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can imagine a scandal set off by a whistleblower and an ensuing investigation, complete with fines by the federal government, when it transpires that meat being sold at the restaurant turns out to have been from free-range, organic-grain-fed animals, and falsely and deceptively marketed as road kill.

February 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

The "restaurant" and its name are real. The extended riff on nocturnal hit-and-run victims is merely garnish. But, of course, you know that . . . don't you?

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, I think I had read about the restaurant. It's been around for a few years, hasn't it?

February 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I cannot imagine anyone beyond a 20 mile radius reading about the hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Elberta, Alabama. However, stranger things have happened.

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I could not imagine a restaurant with a name like that not making headlines. Just because it's in the South does not mean its proprietors are not as media-savvy as those slick operators from the big city.

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It appears that there are several restaurants by the same name throughout the country. Good God, could they possibly be part of a chain?

February 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Trust me. This joint down here ain't no franchise or chain operation. Imagine Forrest Gump at 45 years of age and the size of a defensive tackle. That is the owner-operator. As far as he is concerned, Bear Bryant is part of the Holy Trinity, though I would not hazard a guess about which of the Trinity he has replaced. BTW, the joint's daily menu includes very good fried chicken and other goodies on a never-changing buffet for $8 (drink included).

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A quick search turned up Roadkill Cafes in Arizona and Pennsylvania. For some reason I think the one in Arizona may be the one I'd read about.

I'm glad to learn that the outlets are not a chain. I pictured pimply young people of forced perkiness asking customers: "Will you like some opossum today?"

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In re the Trinity, I once say a display in a South Philadelphia restaurant that included a photo each of JFK, Frank Sinatra, and the Pope.

February 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Two unrepentant rakehells and one grace-filled celibate. Wow, what a trio! (BTW, 1 that I admire, 2 that I do not respect.)

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If you admire just one of them, you'd best keep your thoughts to yourself in South Philadelphia--unless that one is Sinatra.

February 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Well, I will keep those thoughts unspoken. However, the respected fellow has nothing to do with either Hobokin (sp?) or Nantucket. Oops! I've said too much.

Now, back to the origins of this thread. I am a huge fan of Rex Stout's obese orchid-lover. I hope those books never go out of print, but I think they are doomed. The TV series was also wonderful. I wish it had gone on longer.

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure the books are doomed. They seem to be reprinted often and to be always on bookstore shelves.

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Solea said...

This sounds like a fun read...perhaps I'll pair it with "Someone is killing the Great Chefs of Europe". I've heard the book is much better than the 70s movie.

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Nero Wolfe novels are almost always great fun, though Wolfe's love of fine food, wine, and beer is just one feature. Though recipes hae been prepared based on the books, for example, one would never mistake the books for chef-centered amateur-sleuth tales.

I never knew Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe was a book. (The movie has the slightly different title Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?) By coincidence, I received the latest English translation of Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano in the mail today, so I could be reading a good bit about food in the next few days.

February 20, 2013  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

An episode of the British comedy-drama, "Doc Martin," had a subplot of people coming down with some flu-like illness. Turns out a woman was feeding roadkill to family and friends, including her husband's favorites, badger burgers...

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose California might offer road kill from free-range animals that wandered into the roadway.

February 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I remember when growing up in western Pennsylvania that a story was circulating about roadkill: Deer killed on the highways were taken to the state hospitals where they were converted to venison meals. Had you heard that one?

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had not heard that one. I'd say it might be an urban legend, except it sounds as if it might have been confined to rural areas.

February 20, 2013  
Blogger Simona said...

I am reading it in Italian. It makes me a bit nostalgic, as it describes parts of Milan I know well. For ex., his sister lives close to where I lived when I first moved to Milan.

I never saw the Italian version of Nero Wolfe, but I remember the actor who played him, Tino Buazzelli.

February 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I know Milan much less well, of course. One thing I remember is being the first visitor to Santa Maria delle Grazie one morning and watching all the security doors slide up and to the side, like the opening sequence of the Get Smart television show.

February 21, 2013  

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