I am a little obsessed with food. Okay, a lot obsessed. While I don’t live to eat, I really enjoy trying new recipes, experimenting and generally messing about in the kitchen (I don’t enjoy the cleaning up so much, but that’s a different story). Naturally this carries over onto my writing. What everyone eats is of great concern to me.
The Case of the Insufferable Slave was no exception! Although food takes second place to the endless amounts of coffee and bourbon consumed during the story, there is an omelette of significance, with an interesting story of its own.
Flint’s a decided bachelor. His apartment was all business. The cookbook is one of the few things that didn’t come to him via the unfortunate accountants. When I first started writing, I had Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in mind. It’s an institution in itself, absolutely fascinating — my Aunt has a copy handed down generation to generation that I was lucky enough to get to flick through. It features such helpful tips as how much you should pay your valets compared to your butler, and provides example menus, and recipes including one for a sponge that tells you to send your servant girl out to a cool corner of your garden to beat the eggs for 30 minutes until they reach the desired consistency.
Fascinating — but would it fly with Flint?
Absolutely not. That’s actually how I figured out that the story needed an American setting. Nowhere else had the right dynamic. And with that followed the need for an American book. A little google work led me to Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Everything I read about it online sounded like it matched my ideal, so I eventually ended up buying it for my kindle. I can’t recommend it unfortunately — at least not the kindle version! When I’m cooking, I want a physical book, something that I can flick through quickly to double check what I need to know. But the book is a solid introduction to french cookery, and if lacking Mrs Beeton’s helpful advice, gives an interesting picture of 1960s household appliances.
Most importantly at all, it had a recipe for omelettes.
Now, I thought I knew how to make omelettes. I learnt from this Jamie Oliver video actually. But reading through Julia Child’s book, I was intrigued. The approach she describes is definitely different. You hold the saucepan at a 45 degree angle over the flame, and thump your fist on the handle of the saucepan, so that the cooking egg gathers into the hollow, forming that improbable oval shape. Naturally, I had to test it out. It was a revelation! I’d wondered how on earth the omuraisu restaurants here turned out their perfectly shaped omelettes, and here was the answer! I was lucky on my first attempt with a beautifully turned out omelette in every way, but somehow, I was never able to replicate it again. I tried. Dear god, did I try. I am only just able to look at eggs again, but it will be some time before omelettes are on the menu!
Did all that practice and subsequent consumption of omelettes of course have an impact on the omelette in the story? Or was it, as my hazy memory suggests, a case of life imitating art? Unfortunately, I can’t share the omelette recipe as it appears in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The section on omelettes is 26 kindle pages, far exceeding the fair-use limits on quotations, and contains diagrams to boot. I can tell you, however, that it was no accident that this is the only cook book Flint owns.
Flint would like to think that he’s put his family behind him, but his equation of French cuisine with sophistication and class comes directly from his mother. She worked tirelessly in her kitchen, seeing to it that a seemingly endless succession of children were fed, clothed, cleaned and turned out to go to school in a way that did credit to their parents. This took more sacrifices than anyone imagined. The only frivolity she allowed herself was a postcard from Paris, pinned over the sink so that she could look at it as she washed endless amounts of dishes, or tackled the never-ending laundry. She taught herself French by listening to the wireless, though she was always too self-conscious to try it out in public.
Flint’s not an inspired cook or a gifted one, but he’s decent at following a recipe and knows how to subsitute one ingredient for another — another legacy of his mother. The book’s an ambition, as much as a guide. He enjoys working out a recipe in much the same way he does a case or a crossword puzzle — though now that Day is in the picture, cooking has taken on a definite communual air. Day’s complete absence of any sort of skills that would enable him to take care of himself has Flint quietly terrified, and he is doing his best to see to it that Day can survive independently should worse come to worst. If this means spending rather a lot of time with Day in the confined space of the kitchen, well, he’s willing to make that sacrifice.
If it means consuming a lot of lack-lustre omelettes as Day perfects his technique? Well, Flint’s suffered worse for less.