by Paul Witcover
The Eight and The Fire are thrillers that get the heart pounding. But more unusually, they also get the mouth watering. This is no accident. When Katherine Neville dips into her writer’s toolkit, food and drink are important resources. They set the scene, establish the mood, bring us into the room with the characters, so that we taste and smell what is going on. What a character eats and drinks . . . or doesn’t; how the food is prepared, what wine or other exotic beverage complements the meal—all these things reveal aspects of character, setting, and atmosphere. Sometimes they even serve to advance the plot.
“Regardless of how scintillating a plot may be,” says Neville, “I cannot even imagine characters running around in action scenes without ever eating anything. And not just eating. In my books, we have to experience what they are eating and know what it tastes like and how it affects them.”
Food and drink are integral to action. In The Eight, when Nim brings Cat to his country estate, he creates a mid-winter meal for her that begins with a rare Amontillado sherry. “People have been bricked into walls, still breathing, for sherries inferior to this one,” says Nim, alluding to Poe’s famous short story “The Cask of Amontillado.” This meal moves on to dilled rye bread and trout mousse, veal smothered in kumquat sauce, fresh spinach with pine nuts, sautéed fresh oyster mushrooms, broiled beefsteak tomatoes stuffed with applesauce, red and green lettuces with dandelion greens and toasted hazelnuts . . . and ends with coffee and Tuaca.
Readers may well suspect that the rye bread isn’t the only thing being buttered up in this scene!
The next morning, before their tour of Nim’s aviary, he whips up for Cat an impromptu breakfast of eggs poached in wine, Canadian bacon and fried potatoes—and then invites her to join the Game.
In another scene, in New York’s Diamond District, Cat sips mugs of awful tea with chess virtuosos Mordecai and Lily Rad, as it’s revealed that Saul the family chauffeur was murdered and his body has vanished; then, dinner at Harry Rad’s (which he cooks himself) consists of a smorgasbord of appetizers, followed by a pot roast, potato pancakes with applesauce, a noodle casserole, vegetables, and apple strudel—followed by an after-dinner explosion by Harry when he learns that Lily and Cat were at the chess tournament where Grandmaster Fiske was killed, and that Cat is now headed for Algeria.
With Solarin, in a tent on the beach along the Algerian coast, just after Cat has learned that it was Solarin who actually killed Saul, the famous Russian chess grandmaster tries to calm her fears by ordering a warm amaretto and a mint tea. The next day, Cat lunches with her OPEC client, Kamel, in Algiers: a delectable local recipe for pastilla au pigeon scented with cinnamon and toasted almonds, followed by rahad lakhoum for dessert flavored with rosewater and pistachio.
Nor does Neville neglect the heady meals of the past in her historic chapters.
At David’s studio in revolutionary Paris, for example, Mireille and Valentine meet Talleyrand at lunch. And later, in Corsica, Mireille enjoys a meal of local foods with the Buonaparte family: corn cakes with goat cheese, local squid and octopus, chestnut bread, wild cherry preserves, wild rabbit in sauce, and potatoes, followed by local apple brandy—and there she learns about the ancient Phoenicians and the role they played in the mystery of the Montglane Service.
If anything, The Fire is even more food-centric than its predecessor. This is hardly surprising, since young Alexandra Solarin is an apprentice master chef, originally tutored by her uncle Nim, whose training in mastering fire has taught her how to “see things differently,” starting with the fire she stokes, in scene one, there at her mother’s abandoned house in Colorado.
Alexandra whips up an “instant campfire” boeuf bourguignonne for eight, using frozen beef cubes, flash-dried shallots, celery, carrots, and mushrooms, dried herbs, splashes of cognac, lemon, Worcestershire and lots of red wine. While it’s bubbling on the hearth, she’s stewing in her own juices.
In Washington D.C., where much of the modern part of The Fire is set, the meals just keep coming.
Alexandra’s boss, the exotic Basque restaurateur, Rodo Boujaron, prepares a multiple-course meal including roasted chickens, herb-stuffed lamb turned on a spit, shepherd’s bread cooked in oiled clay pots, and a cornucopia of basted small veggies: baby artichokes, purple and white eggplants, green and yellow squash, and baby tomatoes.
Ladislaus Nim, Alexandra’s uncle and mentor, surprises her at midnight in her apartment overlooking the Potomac River in DC, by preparing for her a corn and crabmeat chowder–with curry, lemon juice, coconut, and jalapeña–a delicious hodge-podge which he has flung together using miscellaneous findings from her disorganized cupboard; then, the next morning, it’s buttermilk pancakes with blueberries and hot maple syrup, and melange: hot coffee and steaming milk poured together.
In Wyoming, Vartan and Key share a crispy whole duck stuffed with foie gras, while Xie has prime rib, followed by desserts of lemon soufflé and pear brandy . . . a bottle of which Vartan brings along and drinks in the steamy bathroom scene with Xie.
Where does Neville get her inspiration for these fabulous meals? One intriguing source is a book by one of her favorite authors–a writer who, himself, makes a surprise, walk-on “guest appearance” toward the end of The Fire. This classic book sits right on her desk in a place of honor: a leather-bound first edition of the last book that Alexandre Dumas ever wrote, published posthumously, the book which Dumas himself hoped would one day be regarded as his masterpiece. No, it’s not The Three Musketeers. Or The Count of Monte Cristo.
It’s a cookbook.
Actually, the 1, 200-page Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine is all that and more. Dumas, born in 1802, was not only one of the most popular writers in France: he was a world-class gourmand and a cook of considerable skill whose familiarity with food ranged from Parisian haute cuisine to the colorful and flavorful recipes of his grandmother, a West Indian slave. Nearing the end of his life, Dumas labored mightily to collect his encyclopedic knowledge and wide practical experience of food and cooking into this single volume. The result is a sprawling, sui generis collection of recipes and personal anecdotes—a history of food and its preparation that is often as fanciful and imaginative as anything in his novels. It has become one of the world’s gastronomical classics, a monument to one man’s love of cooking, eating, drinking . . . and writing.
Neville claims that–as great an inspiration as Alexandre Dumas has been for her in his capacity as a writer (and as a character!)–she thinks that he might have been even more wonderful as a dinner companion, working and tale-telling, elbow-to-elbow in the kitchen. One wonders what Dumas would have enjoyed most about The Eight or The Fire: the food or the stories? Probably he would have devoured both.
Here, listed by no particular sequence or preference, Katherine shares an eclectic smattering from her vast inventory of books about food and drink that she hopes will provide inspiration for gourmands, gourmets, readers, and fellow writers alike:
Athenaeus, Diepnosophists (“Banquet of the Learned”): The first “table talk”—by a third-century Egyptian, tells much about food, diet, and how people passed time at meals.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food: The Oxford don writes of the “eight great revolutions in the world history of food.”
Anne Willan, Great Cooks and Their Recipes: From Taillevent to Escoffier: Features great sections on Careme, Brillat-Savarin, and American culinary wizards Amelia Simmons and Fannie Farmer.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Trilogy: The Raw and the Cooked, From Honey to Ashes, The Origin of Table Manners: The famous French anthropologist and structuralist traces a single myth from the tip of South America to the Arctic Circle in a tour de force of inspired analysis that delves deeply into food and ritual.
Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions: Famous work on the relationships of food, fire, and sacrifice in ancient times.
Michael Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking: Symons explores the civilizing role of cooks in history.
Phyllis Pray Bober, Art, Culture and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy: A fascinating culinary tour from pre-history to the 15th century.
Brian Fagan, Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World: A fish-centered study of exploration by a noted anthropologist.
Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World: The wonderful author of The Basque History of the World does it again: the New York Public Library called this One of the Best 25 Books of the Year. It casts a net into the same waters as Fish on Friday—but pulls back an even richer haul.
Barbara G. Carson, Ambitious Appetites: Dining, Behavior, and Patterns of Consumption in Federal Washington: An intriguing, little-known account of the early snobbery of dining ritual in proto-D.C.
Ian Kelly, Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme, the First Celebrity Chef: Careme worked for everybody who was anybody, and invented more dishes and methods of food preparation than any single individual. He also documented it in a number of books, the bestsellers of their day. Author Ian Kelly is also an actor who has written and performed a spectacular one-man play on the life of the famous chef who trained in Talleyrand’s kitchen and who died prematurely of black lung, caused by carbon inhalation.
Damon Lee Fowler et al., Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance: One of the more recent of a great array of wonderful material available through the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, whose Web site, http://www.monticello.org, has received awards for depth and accessibility. Enormous information is available here on TJ (as the scholars call him)–topics ranging from his vineyards, wine and beer, vegetable gardens, daughters’ recipe books, as well as slave foods and dishes brought from Africa. Jefferson, an early American gourmet, trained his chef James Hemings at one of the great kitchens of Europe, the house of Conde. Though TJ himself considered meat a mere “condiment” and ate principally vegetables. For both cooking and the story of slave lives and diets, Leni Sorensen and Lucia Stanton are expert scholars in residence.
Jonathan Roberts, Cabbages and Kings: The Origins of Fruit and Vegetables: Thoroughly researched history of fruit and vegetables, with recipes.
Gillian Riley, Renaissance Recipes: A Cambridge Scholar on the first “Mediterranean Diet,” recipes of which were passed down and cherished even in Martha Washington’s family.
Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger, The Classical Cookbook: Mediterranean cuisine with recreated recipes from 8th century BC to 5th century AD.