«Sometimes I wonder how it’s possible that Wolfe and I get along. Usually, our differences become even more evident at the table. He tastes, I stuff myself. Wolfe enjoys stimulating his taste buds, while I’m more interested in satisfying my stomach.» (from The League of Frightened Men, 1940)
No portrait could better explain Nero Wolfe than these words spoken by his assistant, Archie Goodwin. Or rather, me: the narrative voice in all of the novels by Rex Stout. Because really, the difference in attitudes between eating and tasting that characterises our opposite worlds, is the same difference that distinguishes fine dining lovers from those who just eat to survive.
My relationship with the clever and rather rotund detective could be called both love and hate. I drink milk, he drinks beer and French wine. I easily fall victim to feminine appeal (I can get ecstatic just from glimpsing an ankle), while he’s a misogynist. I’ll travel anywhere for a case, while Wolfe will only move from his leather chair in the study to a kitchen stool – or at the very most, to his beloved greenhouse on the top floor. Apparently, we have nothing in common; and yet, together – as the brain and the brawn – we are a crime-solving duo almost as renowned as Watson and Sherlock. Basically, I consider him to be a necessary evil, and hence, I would never consider moving out of my room in the brownstone building we all occupy together on New York’s West 35th.
I’ve often wondered why many characters in mystery novels have an excessive passion for cooking or at least for good food – then again, it’s useless to enter into the haze of psychoanalysis. It’s undeniable, though, that cooking has a lot to do with passion, blood, and a touch of cruelty. Just consider how the gestures of food are expressed verbally: chopping, slicing, skinning, peeling, and mincing – aggressive, if not actually violent words. And what about kitchen utensils? We could just stop at the knife as the most appropriate representative. And one of the most beloved murder techniques used by mystery writers is, after all, poisoned food – and to kill someone in this way, you not only have to be cold-blooded, but know what you’re doing in the kitchen as well.
Nero Wolfe is shrewd, lazy, acute, authoritative, childish, long-winded, selfish, bulimic, cynical, snobbish and sometimes unbearable. To put it briefly, I adore him. I have to admit, however, that there’s another reason I’ll never leave: the cooking of our home chef, Fritz Brenner, who also gets credit for having improved my palate. He and Wolf, together, create the greatest chef in the world: they talk, discuss and plot. One is the head, the other is the hands. One puts in the imagination, the other, the technique. They are as complementary in the kitchen as Wolfe and I are when we’re on a case. Wolfe would give up an arm for Fritz’s egg mouse of Twait Shad (a fish from the Clupeidae family, which happens to be one of Wolfe’s favourite foods) with fine herbs. I’ve seen him eat a 4kg goose in a single night and I’ve also seen him offer 30,000 pounds to the Italian chef Bèrin in exchange for handing over his recipe for the legendary “minuit” sausages (in the book Too Many Cooks)!
But don’t for a minute imagine that Wolfe’s spends his whole days thinking about food, because that’s not the case. He also spends a lot of time in his greenhouse on the last floor. Another person who lives in the house with us, is Theodore Horstmann, an expert in orchid cultivation, which is Wolfe’s other passion – after food and himself. “In life, everything, except for cultivating orchids, should have a purpose,” is a phrase of Wolfe’s that renders his point of view very clear.
When it comes to drinking, Wolfe won’t refuse other beverages, but what he most loves is beer. In fact, one of the most common things you’ll hear him say during an investigation is, «Where’s my beer?». Fritz keeps about ten bottles of different brands in the house, but the ritual is always the same. Wolfe opens the bottle himself using an 18 carat gold bottle opener, which was a gift from a particularly satisfied client.
I have to admit, Wolfe is one of the greatest gourmands I’ve ever met, and while he’s tasted cuisine from all over the world, he has a special weakness for American food. In fact, he was invited to speak at a conference entitled, The American contribution to haute cuisine” and was extremely offended when Bèrin scoffed, «Bah, there hasn’t been a single one!» (fromToo Many Cooks). It’s an argument that still appears to be up for discussion, even all these years later.